How to pick, chill, pour and taste the perfect beer, according to experts

Are you yet to lose your V-Card to the world of craft beer? Or perhaps you're at the 'I think we should see other people' stage of your long-term relationship with lager, your first love?

With as many cans and bottles in the chiller as there are fish in the sea, the days of being betrothed to your brew of choice are over. With so many options out there, why continue that affair with APA or stay partnered with pilsner?

If you're not quite sure what your next move should be in the pursuit of hoppiness, Michael Donaldson is here to guide you. The veteran journalist, a pundit on everything pint-related, is also the Chair of Judges at the 2022 New World Beer and Cider Awards and writes about beer for a living - so for many, the dream job. He is well-qualified to help you see through the haze and select the best brew for you. 

Terry Vaa, the category manager for beer at Foodstuffs North Island, has also chipped in his two cents on choosing, chilling, pouring and tasting beer. Let's hop to it. 

How to choose your beer

Let's set the scene: you're standing at the supermarket's chiller confronted by a wall of bright boxes, bottles and cans emblazoned with logos in bold, somewhat masculine fonts. Where do you start?

The first step is to carefully consider the brands displayed before you, Donaldson said.

"There will be brands you've heard of for sure: Garage Project, Parrotdog, Epic, Behemoth and others that appear from nowhere," he said.

"You could start with a safe option: pick a brand you like the look of and buy a Mixed Six pack. This gives a great introduction to a brewery and will take you on a journey through a number of styles - usually a lager, pilsner, pale ale, IPA, hazy IPA and maybe something else hoppy."

Or if you're feeling a little more adventurous, single 440ml cans are a good bet - so you're not making too big of a commitment, too soon.

"Breweries save these single can releases for one-off beers, the latest hazy or something exotic or experimental. Read the back of the label for an often-entertaining romp through the unfiltered mind of a brewer," Donaldson advised.

"Treat the back of the can like their Tinder profile."

Writer, journalist and all-round beer boffin Michael Donaldson gave Newshub his top tips.
Writer, journalist and all-round beer boffin Michael Donaldson gave Newshub his top tips. Photo credit: Supplied

How to chill your brew

According to Vaa, chilling is just as important as selection. Exposure to the elements, such as light, air and warmer temperatures, can cause the freshness of beer to deteriorate over time.

Therefore, the key to boosting your brew's longevity is all in the storage, Vaa said.

"As soon as you can, store beer in your fridge," he said. 

Hop-forward beers like IPAs and pale ales will deteriorate faster than more malt-driven brews like stouts and porters, as the hops are volatile and will lose their vibrancy over time, he noted.

This doesn't mean a warm beer is no good, but it may age a little faster and alter the taste - so do your best to keep your beersies cool and away from direct sunlight.

Entries being tasted at the 2022 New World Beer and Cider Awards.
Entries being tasted at the 2022 New World Beer and Cider Awards. Photo credit: Supplied

How to achieve the perfect pour

The next step is considered by many as the most daunting part of the process - achieving the perfect pour. Many a bloke has been on the receiving end of a brutal roast at the bar for their poorly poured pint of foam. 

While technically there isn't a right or a wrong way to pour a beer, doing it well does take a little finesse and timing. If poured correctly, it can help showcase the characteristics of the brew - which helps you to enjoy it the way the brewers intended.

It's a handy skill that Vaa practised relentlessly as a volunteer steward at the judging hub for the New World Beer and Cider Awards in Auckland, where he helped pour and serve hundreds of entry samples to the independent judging panel.

And while there can be some debate over whether beer should be consumed straight from the can versus sipped from a glass, for Vaa, it's all about the pour.

"Pouring a beer into a glass can help you appreciate all those delicious aromas, in anticipation of the flavours you'll get to enjoy when you take your first sip," he said.

The shape and style of the glass are less important than the cleanliness, he noted. A clean glass is critical.

For the perfect pour, Vaa recommended tilting the clean glass at a 45-degree angle and pouring the beer in slowly, so it lands directly in the middle of the side of the glass. Once about half of the beer has been decanted, straighten the glass and pour the rest of the beer directly into the centre - allowing for that perfect amount of foam and fragrant head.

An entry being poured at the 2022 New World Beer and Cider Awards.
An entry being poured at the 2022 New World Beer and Cider Awards. Photo credit: Supplied

Now for the final step: taste

After all that hard work from aisle to armchair, it's now time to enjoy your new brew. But how do you really appreciate a good beer?

According to Donaldson, try and treat the experience like a first date and ask a few questions. What does it look like? Bright, muddled, gold or - more likely these days with the phenomenal rise of hazies - a glass of OJ? And what does it smell like? (As a side-note, please don't ever ask to smell your date - major creep vibes). 

"Our sense of smell is incredibly stimulating and linked to deep memories and emotions, and beer has amazing aromatic qualities. Hops can smell like anything from pine needles to diesel, passionfruit to cat pee, mango to marijuana," he explained.

Malt has a strong aroma too: cereal, bread, coffee, chocolate, raisins. And in some beers, yeast delivers undertones of banana, clove and even burnt rubber (this is not usually a good sign, by the way).

Next, how does it feel in your mouth?

"Since the day we are born we stick things in our gobs - it's an important part of life experience. So how does that feel: Heavy, light, wet, powdery, jangly, creamy, spikey or smooth as silk?" Donaldson added.

Finally, what about the balance? It's a buzzword for beer judges, but also plays a big role in differentiating between a great beer and an average one.

"Is the sweet nicely offset by bitterness or sourness? Does it touch all the sensations of your taste buds - sweet, sour, bitter, salt, umami? And do they work together or is something sticking out, is something a bit off-putting?"

With all that being said, of course it all comes down to whether or not you enjoy the damn thing - there's no need to take a humble beersie too seriously if you're just looking for a well-earned bevvie at the end of a bloody long day.

"With everything that is going on these days, beer isn't something you need to pick it apart and analyse to death. It's beer," Donaldson said.

"But do take a moment to enjoy it."

The New World Beer and Cider Awards

Meanwhile, the judging panels have their work cut out for them at this year's annual New World Beer and Cider Awards, with more entries than ever before. Almost 700 beers, ciders, seltzers, alcoholic ginger beers and kombuchas from 100 different breweries and distributors have been entered into the competition. 

And for the first time in its eight-year history, judging will take place across three regional events in Auckland, Wellington and Nelson, instead of a single, larger tasting.

Donaldson will head three teams of more than 30 judges via video link on the big day, with tastings running simultaneously at each location. The panels will taste each entry and score them based on technical excellence, balance, mouthfeel and most importantly, drinkability.

The top-ranking entries will make up the New World Beer and Cider Awards Top 30, a list of must-try brews that will earn a place in New World's beer chillers nationwide.

A further 70 'highly commended' brews will round out the Top 100, which will be available to peruse online, and a final taste-off with senior judges will crown the overall Supreme Winner later this year.