The intricacies of flavor
By Mark Tichenor and Bruce Lish
It’s possible to be a geek about anything. Computer geeks go on about processor speeds, mySQL, and World of Warcraft. Sports geeks corner you and drone on endlessly about their fantasy football (or, in our case, fantasy soccer) teams. And it’s just as possible to be a beer geek.
You’ve heard them; they’re the reason you’re leery about wine or craft beer. When self-styled aficionados rattle off comments about “nose,” “finish,” or “mouthfeel,” it makes people who, well, just enjoy a brew leery of craft beer as a whole.
Thing is, beer is so varied in flavor, color, and character that you need that descriptive terminology in order to describe the thing you’re drinking. Let’s go over some of the common terms together, shall we? That way, should we slip into the realm of beer geekdom in a future column, you’ll at least know what we’re talking about. Not that you’ll care.
When you bring a beer into close proximity with your face, the first thing you’ll notice is the visual stuff. We don’t think any of our readers really need a definition of the word color. But we’d suggest you notice head retention. After the initial foam dies down, look for a slight foamy film remaining on top of the beer. This is a signal that the beer is till effervescing, and releasing aroma, which accounts for a big chunk of a beer’s perceived flavor.
Head retention can be retarded by contaminants in the glass, especially oily substances. We all know a dirty glass can compromise your health but, far more worryingly, it can compromise your beer.
Now that the beer is directly under your proboscis, give it a covert swirl; just a little shake of the wrist. This releases the a-ro-ma. Different styles have different aromae. Some, like IPA, smell predominantly of hops, whereas a Doppelbock will carry a bready, sweet malt aroma. The scent of certain Belgian styles will be caused primarily by the yeast.
As we mentioned a couple of paragraphs ago, aroma is an important component of how your beer tastes, so take a big whiff. And for God’s sake don’t drink straight from the bottle. That’s for ‘low carb’ beer drinkers who have a vested interest in avoiding their libation’s flavor at all costs.
And flavor is the ultimate reason you’re even drinking beer in the first place, right? As you know, beer can be sweet and bready, dry and bitter, or anywhere in between. What’s important is that you realize that taste is composed of multiple parts, (the smell being one of them). The initial flavor as the beer splashes across the frontal taste buds is often completely different from the flavor you get as you swallow and the liquid hits the taste buds in the back of your mouth.
We’re not going to dissect the flavors beer is supposed to have; that’s part of the joy of discovery. But you should be warned about off-flavors that can result from poor handling, or screwing up the brewing process.
If you’re pouring beer form a bottle, especially a clear or a green one, you’re going to taste skunk. Ultraviolet rays, such as those radiated at us by the sun, react with the acids in the hops to create 3-methyl-2-butene-1-thiol (note- that presence of that chemical compound name is evidence of actual research. We promise it won’t happen again). This is actually the same chemical found in a skunk’s butt, or wherever the spray comes from.
This chemical reaction is most prevalent in beers that come in green or clear bottles. On a sunny day, it can take as little as 5 minutes for this flavor to materialize in those vessels, so handle with care.
Another extremely common flavor flaw in beer is Diacetyl, which is caused by yeast reacting to the alcohol synthesis process. It’s a buttery, slippery taste that, while working well in certain styles like Scotch ale and some English ales, sticks out in most beers like a monster truck in a kindergarten.
Brewers usually control diacetyl flavor by performing a diacetyl rest, leaving the fermented beer at fermentation temperature for 24-48 hours. Thus, if you taste this butterscotch flavor, you’ll know the brewer is rushing his beer out the door instead of waiting for the process to reach completion.
OK, that concludes this part of our beer tasting primer. Perhaps we’ll go into greater depth in the future, when we’re having an equal amount of difficulty coming up with a topic. Until then, we encourage you to taste unashamed, and don’t let the terms throw you.
We’ll make a beer geek of you yet.
Bruce is a certified beer judge and commercial brewer. Mark owns a laptop and likes beer. For more on beer, check out the beercraft blog, updated regularly, at https://beercraft.wordpress.com. Send your questions, suggestions, or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.