How to start your own beer journal

There are three phases to a beer-drinker’s relationship with Untappd, the beer-tracking and rating app. The first phase is ignorance that such an app exists. Then, there is discovery: Oh, this is kind of neat—a Yelp for beer. The final stage is smug derision; Untappd is to brewery staff as Yelp is to the restaurant industry. But Untappd continues to be quite popular, and some contrarian brewers (a fourth stage?) say it can be valuable for receiving customer feedback, however anonymous and potentially ill-informed it may be.

But I say Untappd can be quite useful for drinkers, too. I share brewers’ argument that the ratings on Untappd—a simple 5-point scale—are reductive and can color drinkers’ opinions of a beer before they even try it. But as a tracking system, a personal log of beers consumed and a person’s impressions of them, I see how an app like Untappd can be invaluable.

If a person is worried about Untappd or another rating app influencing their perception of a beer, then they’d do well to start a personal beer journal. In my previous job at a beer magazine, we kept an internal database of every beer the staff had sampled. Whenever someone on staff evaluated a beer, we entered the date and our notes into the system. It was incredible: an entire library of beer knowledge at my fingertips. I found myself consulting not just my coworkers’ ratings—oh, Zach really hated that porter, too, huh?—but also going back to review my own thoughts about beers I hadn’t tasted in a while. Did I really like that pilsner? Or was it the one with the weird metallic flavor? I could go back any time and reread my in-the-moment impressions. What I wouldn’t give to still have access to those records.

Anyone can replicate that database with a computer or pen-and-paper. Keeping a beer journal will not only help you remember which beers you like and don’t like, but the very act of evaluating flavors and taking notes will make you a more perceptive drinker. Here are my tips for getting started.

Photo: Kikovic (iStock)

Make it searchable

This is one of the advantages of keeping your notes in Word or Google Docs or Evernote form, though I am a sentimentalist who also understands the appeal of pen and paper. Whichever medium you choose, make sure your notes are organized, either alphabetically or by style, so you can consult them in the future. Chronologic order, like a regular diary, might seem appealing, but it’ll make searching for a particular beer difficult.

Record the non-flavor details

Half the time when I check my beer notes, I’m searching for information other than what it tasted like. Did the beer come in a can or a bottle? Where did I buy it? How much did it cost? Did it come in 6-packs or singles or on draft? Is there a date code on the beer? Where did I drink it? Those details matter when you’re trying to paint the full picture of a beer. Maybe you’ll notice from your notes that one bottle shop tends to have the freshest beer, or you’ll notice when a beer you like comes in a new packaging.

Add photos

If you’re taking notes digitally, it can help to add photos of your beers, both the can or bottle and the beer in a glass. It’ll help you remember what labels look like, and what exact color a beer is.

Don’t just rate it

This is my biggest beef with ratings apps: They often don’t encourage drinkers to describe why they like or don’t like a beer. It’s not very useful to know that you hated the Scotch ale you tried last fall: Why didn’t you like it? If you take notes, you’ll remember that the malts were too sweet, or that it had a strange, smokey aftertaste.

Use all your senses

When describing a beer, most people only discuss flavor. But aroma is a huge component of the overall drinking experience; it influences flavor, after all. Appearance and texture matter too. Don’t forget to consider a beer’s carbonation level, temperature, and whether it feels thick or thin on your tongue.

I’d be remiss in not acknowledging that part of the reason drinkers love Untappd is because they earn virtual badges for consuming beers. If you want to replicate that experience minus the app, maybe just reward yourself each time you try 10 new beers—with another beer.

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