What’s one of the best things about homebrewing? For most people, it’s tasting different kinds of beer! When you crack open a bottle of homebrew and raise a glass to your lips, you’re enjoying an experience that should affect all of the senses and will leave a very clear and definite impression.
Beer consists of myriad flavors, aromas and sensations. Each has its own probable cause—or causes. Learning to recognize these sensations, and understanding why each beer tastes and smells the way it does, is the one skill that will go the farthest in helping you to brew better, more consistent beer at home. It will also help you come up with new thoughts and ideas about formulating your own recipes. The single best way to gain this knowledge is through continual practice and homework, but the great thing about this type of homework is that it involves tasting many different style of beer!
All of us have varying levels of sensitivity to the different compounds that make up beer, from hops to yeast to malted barley. So it’s not at all unusual for one person to be able to detect something in the aroma or flavor of a finished beer that another person can’t. This variance in different peoples’ ability to detect certain smells or flavors is one excellent reason that critical tasting, done with a group of fellow beer aficionados, is usually more productive than tasting beer alone. The more experienced tasters can help everyone else identify different aromas or flavors in each beer, and they should also be able to explain the reasons why each beer tastes and smells the way it does.
Does this mean that the only way to hone your tasting skills is to attend formal events with experienced tasters? Not at all! While group tasting with an expert is a great way to learn, there are many simple beer samplings that you can do alone, or with a few homebrew friends. It doesn’t take much preparation: The study materials can be found as close as your nearest beer emporium, provided it’s stocked with a good selection of domestic and imported craft beers.
Commercial beers, due to the nature of the market, need to be tremendously consistent in terms of their flavor, aroma, and appearance. When Joe Sixpack picks up a bottle of Whammo Kiwi Dopplebock, he’s expecting it to be exactly like the last bottle. Without this consistency and “repeatability,” consumer loyalty is soon lost — usually along with sales — and many times the entire brand may fade into obscurity.
There are many well-made commercial beers that as their trademark or signature exhibit flavors that occur throughout homebrewing. By buying some of these widely available beers and engaging in a careful evaluation, you can experience an instructive range of tasting sensations. Then you can take the lessons you’ve learned and look for similar characteristics in your latest batch of homebrew! If you can find Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and Guinness Stout, for example, you can taste for hops, yeast and roasted barley.
One thing to remember: In critical judging, some of these identifying sensations might be considered flaws. But as beer styles vary, what might be considered a flaw in one type of beer is an essential part of the flavor profile in another. In the examples listed below, the flavors associated with them are most definitely intended to contribute to the overall taste experience, and should not be considered flaws.
Most of the commercial beers we mention are nationally distributed, and with a little legwork, samples in good condition shouldn’t be hard to find. The most important thing in the following exercises is to follow good tasting guidelines such as the ones outlined in “The Five-Sense Beer Test” (August 1999 BYO). Take notes during the session, and since you’re sampling, remember to have fun!
What hops add: bitterness, flavor and aroma.
Best beer to taste: Sierra Nevada Pale Ale.
Hops are chiefly responsible for contributing bitterness, flavor and aroma to the finished product. Just as different roses will have a different color, appearance, and fragrance, different varieties of hops will likewise contribute varying degrees of bitterness, aroma, and flavor, depending on their usage. With the countless varieties of hops available today, it would truly be a Herculean task to attempt to brew with all of them. But you can start to learn about different hop varieties simply by checking bottle labels when you’re shopping for samples to taste at home.
Some craft brewers, such as Rogue of Oregon, will explain at length most of the ingredients that go into the creation of their products, and many other craft brewers are likewise open. With hops, by smelling the raw product or by steeping hops cones or pellets of a particular variety in hot water, it’s possible to experience some of the characteristics of that variety. But the very best way to get to know a hop is by smelling and tasting it in an actual finished beer.
The one beer that is known for its hop signature, and the one generally considered the benchmark of the American pale ale style, is Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. And the signature hop for this ale is one of the most widely used hops in homebrewing: Cascade.
By inhaling the rich aroma of this ale, one of the first sensations that many people perceive is a subtle citrusy character, sometimes described as being grapefruity, lemony, or orange-like. This sensation is closely associated with the Cascade hop and its genetic relatives, such as Centennial. The bitterness and flavor of the hop certainly dominate the flavor profile, but are in balance with the finished beer. The hops are not overpowering the malt and body of the beer.
For diehard hopheads, Sierra Nevada beers are great examples of the flavors and complexity that can be achieved with high hopping rates. Pale Ale has about four or five times the hops of standard American commercial beers.
What malt adds: body and color
Best beer to taste: McAndrews Scotch Ale
Malt is the primary ingredient for providing body and color to a finished beer, and one of the beer styles that relies heavily on malt character is Scotch ale. McAndrews Scotch Ale provides a fine example: The blending of malts provides a rich, sweet character that’s balanced by the subtle use of hops to prevent the beer from becoming overly sweet or cloying.
Malt is one of the ingredients in beer that we will perceive differently depending on the temperature at which the beer is consumed. Begin by trying this beer cold, straight out of the refrigerator, and then allow it to warm up in the glass for several minutes. In most cases, malt body and sweetness seem to increase as the temperature of the beer warms.
What alcohol adds: flavor and sensation
Best beer to taste: Paulaner Salvator dopplebock
Generous use of malt usually also results in somewhat elevated levels of alcohol in the finished beer. Alcohol content has a very definite effect on the flavor profile of beer; just as strong distilled spirits can create a burning sensation in the mouth and throat, so can beers with elevated alcohol levels.
Dopplebock is a rich lager style that balances malt complexity with elevated levels of alcohol. Being a lager, any of the flavor and aroma that can be contributed by yeast in a warmer environment, such as with a barleywine, are not present. Paulaner Salvator is the original dopplebock, a rich lager with deep garnet color and residual sweetness provided by the blend of malts. While hops are used to offset the tremendous sweetness of the beer, look for a sensation of mild warming that is usually detected on the sides or back of the throat while swallowing. The rich maltiness of the beer will tend to increase as the sample is allowed to warm in the glass, as will the vapors and intensity of the presence of the alcohol, well over 7% ABV by law.
What it adds: flavor and aroma
Best beer to taste: Fuller’s London Pride ale
The effects of yeast in finished beer can be seen in several of the commercial beers that I already listed. Sierra Nevada uses a yeast strain that has probably been used to create more homebrew than any other liquid yeast, because it is very distinctive and it is widely available in liquid form. A slight fruity character that’s typical of many ale yeasts can be detected in the background of the aroma of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. It is important not to confuse this “fruitiness” with the citrusy character imparted by the Cascade hops. Most ale yeasts, at warmer fermentations, will exhibit some of this character. Fuller’s London Pride, made with Fuller’s own proprietary yeast strain, has many rich, fruity aromas. Fermentation byproducts are dependent upon the yeast strain and the conditions under which it was used.
One style of beer that relies heavily on yeast to provide its defining characteristics is Bavarian hefeweizen. Many great examples are commercially available, such as Spaten Club Weisse, Paulaner Hefeweizen, and Franziskaner. These true German hefeweizen usually have an aromatic signature that is heavy with clove, vanilla and banana characters. They’re the direct result of the unique yeast strains and the temperatures at which they are fermented. The clove aroma, for example, is called “phenelic,” while the banana aroma is called “ester.” These compounds are natural byproducts that are created by the yeast strains; there are no bananas, cloves, or vanilla used in the recipe of an authentic German hefeweizen!
While the wheat malt that comprises more than 50 percent of the malt bill of these beers does contribute some characteristic dryness and snap to the flavor, along with spectacular head retention, it is the yeast strains that make these beers truly unique. For comparison, Widmer Hefeweizen is the benchmark of the American hefeweizen style, a tremendously popular product produced in the Northwest. The wheat character in this beer is prominent, but the yeast used is a much more neutral ale yeast. It imparts nothing more than a somewhat yeasty character along with cloudiness, as opposed to the rich and complex flavors and aromas that can be found in the Bavarian examples.
What it adds: color, flavor and aroma
Best beer to taste: Guinness Stout
The yardstick in this category is the original dry stout, Guinness. Available in many different forms around the world, with multiple recipes tailored to local conditions and packaging, this product can be found on draught, in bottles, and in cans that use the cutting-edge “widget” devices (pioneered to help create a draught-style head on a canned or bottled product). Regardless of the packaging, all forms of Guinness share the defining characteristics of a dry stout, primarily the color, flavor and aroma imparted by the use of unmalted, roasted barley.
This extremely dark barley lends a distinct roasty, coffee-like aroma and flavor to the finished beer. In many periods in history, this dark grain has been used as a substitute or adjunct for coffee beans in grain-producing regions of the world. In some instances, the dry, sharp character imparted by roasted barley can be described as “iron-like.” Since the kilning and roasting process that dark grains undergo will contribute to a mild acidification or drop in pH in the beer, this will also serve to alter the flavor profile accordingly. Other dark grains—such as black barley, black malt or patent malt, and chocolate malt—will also contribute to this process with varying degrees of these flavors.
What it adds: a tang on the tongue
Best beer to taste: Guinness Stout
While you’re enjoying that Guinness, there’s one other subtle characteristic that you should notice. At the very end of the flavor profile, Guinness will exhibit a very slight sourness or “tang” that will be detected by the sour receptors on your tongue. While this is in small part due to the acidification provided by the judicious use of dark malts, Guinness also blends a small amount of intentionally soured beer with every batch prior to packaging.
The bacteria used to facilitate this souring process is lactobacillus, and it’s a common contamination encountered in homebrew. Guinness intentionally and very carefully controls and monitors the degree to which this reaction takes place, and the result is a mild sour-lactic character that enhances the overall flavor profile of the beer.
Unfortunately, precise control is beyond the means of most homebrewers, and when lactobacillus makes itself known, it is not intentional and certainly doesn’t enhance the flavor! The best approach to ensure that this bacteria will not destroy an entire batch of beer with a pungent, overpowering sourness is to maintain strict sanitation and keep unused grains away from post-boil or fermenting wort.
DMS and Acetaldehyde
What it adds: corn and apple aromas
Best beer to taste: Rolling Rock (DMS) and Budweiser (acetaldehyde).
The sulfur compound DMS is usually detected in finished beer as a sweet, corn-like aroma similar to creamed corn. While DMS can be the byproduct of a bacterial contamination, it is more often associated with shortened boils or poor boiling performance. This is because it is a very volatile compound, present in all wort, that is easily driven off in the steam from a good, solid rolling boil that lasts at least one hour.
Rolling Rock employs sound boiling and wort-handling techniques, but the brewery also has a proprietary yeast strain that results in a level of sulfur production detectable in the finished beer. This slight corn-like character is an intentional part of the flavor signature of this extremely popular East Coast lager.
Acetaldehyde is a compound present during fermentation in all beers to varying degrees. But it usually doesn’t make its presence known in the finished beer. Why? Because toward the end of the fermentation process, it’s reduced by the yeast into compounds that are not as distinctive or easily detectable. When present, acetaldehyde results in an aroma similar to green apples. It’s usually the result of an abbreviated fermentation or conditioning time, during which the beer did not sit in contact with the yeast long enough, or in situations where yeast health is diminished and the compound is not completely reduced in the conditioning process. Also, some yeast strains simply produce beers with a higher residual acetaldehyde than others.
In very slight amounts, this profile can be detected in the aroma of Budweiser, especially if the beer is allowed to warm slightly.
While having fun tasting the wide variety of samples discussed here, it’s important to remember that each of the flavors pointed out in their particular beer are the intentional result of carefully monitored and controlled brewing practices, and are a definitive part of the flavor profile of the beer.
Unfortunately, as homebrewers most of us lack the means or equipment to precisely control these factors. So most of the time, when these characteristics make themselves known in our homebrews, it’s likely an overpowering and unpleasant part of the flavor and aroma that detracts, not enhances, the final product. By being able to identify these flavors through palate practice and knowing their causes, you can take steps to keep your future homebrews tasting great.
For the truly adventurous palate practitioners, the wide variety of truly unique Belgian beers becoming available in the market today provides experiences unlike any other. Flavors and aromas from bacteria, wild yeasts, spontaneous fermentations, aging, blending and adjuncts such as candi sugar or fruit all provide complexity in the finished product. Unfortunately, many of these products are imported in very limited quantities with minimal distribution, so if you’re lucky enough to buy a few bottles, be prepared for a pretty wild beer- tasting experience.
John Oliver is a BJCP National Judge and Head Brewer for BJ’s Brewery in Brea, Calif.