From what I can figure there are three tacks a reviewer can take:
- Descriptive - Using descriptive words (also known as adjectives to those of us who grew up watching Schoolhouse Rock) to impart your experience to others. Words like astringent, toasted, acrid, sour, boozy, creamy, spicy, floral and many others. I don't see this methodology used all that often. This is not a surprise considering many beer reviewers can't spell "adjective" much less know how to use them. I also rarely use this method.
- Comparative - This method I see more. It involves sharing sensory experiences by invoking the smells of items with which others may be more familiar. In stouts you'll see toast, coffee and chocolate. In IPAs you may get grapefruit, pine and lemon. In many Belgian styles you may see raisins, horse blanket or brandy. This method can describe an overall sensation due to the combined smells. For instance, the smell of roasted malts paired with the bitterness of the roast or some hops usually results in a beer having coffee-like accents.
- Elemental - Some of the reviewers who are very familiar with the brewing process will speak to the elements (ingredients) of the beer that they smell. They may describe which malts are present or which hops were used. Belgian yeast has a very distinct smell that most experienced beer drinkers can pick out. You'll see phenols and esters mentioned and you'll begin to wonder what they mean and how on Earth they can figure this out. It's either that they're that good or they're guessing. If I do this in a review, I'm usually guessing but I try to mention that it's just a guess.
Esters are given off primarily by yeast and typically add a fruity element to the smell. If you love hefeweizens you are familiar with that banana odor that comes with almost every one them. This is an ester given off by the German wheat ale yeast.
I also mentioned phenols. So what are they? Well, they're similar to esters in the fact that they are made present by certain yeast strains. I said "made present" because it isn't the yeast that carries the phenolic acid; it's the malt. But that phenolic acid is not released as an aromatic unless acted upon by particular enzymes found in those certain yeast strains. There are some yeast strains that are used purposely for this effect, but for most unwanted phenolic odors wild yeast is to blame. How are they sensed by our noses? Medicinal, astringent, clove and black pepper are many words used to describe the odor. Again, if you enjoy hefeweizens the you've smelled the clove-like odor. You are smelling phenols.
So take a good whiff of your beer and then...what? You don't smell much? Neither do I because I showered this morning. Oh! You don't smell much coming off the beer. That's a problem, but not uncommon. It's possible you have a cold. If not, then the smell may not be making it through the head. If the latter then try to wait for the head to abate or blow into it to release the odors. Even if there is no head then agitate the surface of the beer to get some scents off of it. If that doesn't work then you've come across one of those beers that have little aroma. Mention that and move on to tasting the beer.
Next Time: The Five Attitudes of Beer Tasting: Part Three - Taste