How to Describe Real Beer, Part 2: How to Understand Flavor

We are back discussing how to describe real beer; last week we looked at the reasons why we describe beer in the first place (see Part 1). Today we are going to examine how to understand some of the many flavors that we can all interpret in in a wide variety of beer styles.

The first thing to understand though, is that not all beers will have the same depth of flavor as others. Beer is a very versatile and diverse beverage whose flavors stretch across the entire globe in origin.  That being said, some beers will offer deep complex flavors, and others will have very mild simple ones. Depth alone therefore will not depict for you whether or not that particular beer is good, or if it is worth your while. Rather, it is the beers overall flavor character which will allow you to decide if you like it or not.

Some beers are designed to be extremely robust, complex, and richly flavorful. Others are designed to be light, simple, crisp and easy. Each beer has its own purpose; understanding flavors will help us better understand beer, and thus allow us to enjoy the right beer at the right moment.

The first trait of any real good beer is going to be the quality of its ingredients – ingredients are of course what create the beers flavor and aroma characteristics. The way the flavor pours out of a beer at your senses will give you some indication of the type of ingredients that are being used to produce it. Lets compare the Dogfish Head 60 Minute IPA with any India Pale Ale that you commonly see on television or on billboards. We can all think of one which claims that heritage and authenticity lie deep within their beer.

The primary flavor in an IPA should be the crisp bitter bite of hops: they can be citrus-like showing grapefruit, lemon peel, or pineapple; earthy showing pine, hay field or grass; floral showing lavender, rose pedal, or hibiscus; or even spicy showing clove, pepper, or cinnamon. The 60 minute IPA clearly indicates to the drinker the quality and freshness of the ingredients used displayed by the citrus and pine flavors of the hops that are so distinct and clean in the beer; these unique flavors and aromas allow your palate to direct flavor associations to your brain. The commercial IPA on the other hand really gives us little to work with. It has a bitter bite, but gives us no indication of where it may have come from.  The bitter is more neutral than distinct, and tells your nothing about the ingredients that were used. Well, that may not be entirely true – it does tell you that the ingredients used were not chosen because of their delicious flavor characteristics.. So why were they used? Thats for another rant.

Another good example is one of the most misunderstood beer styles in the world; the stout. Most people immediately associate a stout with rich, heavy, dark and aggressive flavors. This can absolutely be true, however the world’s most popular Stout, Guinness, is truly a light, soft, creamy and soothing beer. It has very light roast and malt flavors, a delicate fresh hop bitter background, and subtle at best notes of cocoa. It is certainly not the bruiser that people make it out to be. On the other end of the spectrum though, Imperial Stouts like the Southern Tier Imperial Creme Brulee Stout have been crafted to exemplify many rich specific flavor characteristics. In this case, the Creme Brulee stout tastes and smells like a creme brulee! It is filled with immensely sweet caramel and butterscotch, it is very smooth and creamy, but severely rich and heavy in texture and flavors. You can’t hide from the flavors in the Creme Brulee Stout, but that is why this beer was made.

Regardless of what the flavor(s) is (are), they may or may not be there for a reason. That is what is really important when trying to understand the flavor of your beer. It begins with the look of the beer, which can be misleading as we just saw in the Guinness example. Look at your beer and think about what it tells you about the ingredients. The Unibroue Effemere Cassis shown at the top is a beautify pink and red; the beer has been brewed with black currants. Darker beers are typically brewed with malts which have been kilned longer giving them more roasted and caramel flavors as well as a dark color. That does not always indicate strength or heaviness however; see the tasting notes for the Unibroue Chambly Noire for a perfect example, which pours black as night, but is light, crisp and refreshing.

Now smell your beer, here you should begin to form flavor association in your brain with flavors you already know in food. A British bitter can be filled with biscuits, warm dough, and apples. A Belgian Double could have aromas of over ripe plums, dried fruit, dark chocolate, and clove. Wit beers are constantly brimming with the aromas of orange peel, coriander and vanilla. A Flemish Farmhouse ale is funky, filled with sour lemons, old grapes, blue cheese, and hay field. German Marzens are rich with hickory smoke, garlic sausage, and spice. American Barley wines have tart cherries, rhubarb, leather and earth. The flavors go on and on.

Now that your brain is beginning to form flavor associations we can go in for a taste and really examine the flavors that appear in the beer. Especially in the new World of American Craft beers, breweries are using more and more exciting ingredients to give their beers new and unique flavors.  Coffee and espresso flavors have been found in beer for hundred of years. But now emerge flavors like honeydew, banana, strawberry, peanuts, macadamia nuts, star anise, pepper, bubblegum, cereal, jasmine, basil, onion, molasses, custard, nutmeg, charcoal, chocolate, vanilla, chilies and so on, and so on. Allow your brain to wonder and find those flavors in your beer. At first the associations are difficult to make, but but reading about your beer, or discussing it with the friends around you, you will become better at picking out the flavors and relating to them.

Really, the most important aspect about understanding the flavor in beer is letting your mind loose of all assumptions of flavor constrictions. What I mean is that dry espresso can be found in places other than your coffee mug. Tobacco doesn’t only exist in cigars, pipes and plants. The world is filled with such a massive array of flavors, to be able to understand and realize them in your beer, first you must allow yourself to. It is truly a rewarding journey.

Next we will get a bit more specific talk about some things you should keep in mind while tasting beer to get the most out of it.


One Response to How to Describe Real Beer, Part 2: How to Understand Flavor

  1. […] week we will look at how to understand the flavors that can be found in beer, and look at some that you never may have thought about […]

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