In the first segment of this ongoing series considering what’s in a beer, we looked at the various aromas of beer. In this second installment, we’re going to examine flavors.
The sense of small has evolved as an extension of the sense of taste. It allows us to pre-taste something and determine if it is safe to consume before we allow it to enter our system. However, liquids don’t always allow their secrets to escape to the air. This is one reason why carbonation is desirable in beer. It aids in bringing the aromas to our sense of smell and therefore gives us an even greater sensory experience.
Since the sense of smell and taste are so tightly coupled, there will be a lot of overlap between parts one and two. So much so, in fact, that we’ll just follow the same list for the most part.
Just like the aroma, this stuff tastes like the skins of green apples. It is often associated with “green” or unfinished beer because fermentation was cut a bit short. This can also show up if not enough yeast was used. Some yeast strains produce more of this, some less. In the case of some American light lagers, you can really pick it out since there is little else in the flavor profile to cover it up.
Ethanol, at the concentration found in most beer, is felt more than tasted. However, some other alcohols offer a very different sensory perception. These “fusel” alcohols are alcohol groups with three or more carbon atoms in the base chain. They can be characterized as being rough and harsh. Some categorize them as a chemical solvent (acetone, paint thinner, or nail polish remover), peppery, or hot like rubbing alcohol. Beers naturally high in alcohol like a barleywine or winter warmer are referred to as “clean” if they have plenty of ethanol and relatively low amounts of the fusels. They have little taste, but their potency can be felt in the slight warming, almost numbing of the gums, back of the throat, ear canals, or even the tips of the nose and ear lobes.
Again, as with its aromatic counterpart, diacetyl gives a distinctly buttery impression. The sensory experience can be like licking a stick of butter or eating movie theater popcorn. Oddly enough this buttery sensation can also give a “slickness” in the mouthfeel. A few other flavors that are good indicators of diacetyl are butterscotch and toffee. Most people find diacetyl objectionable in all but a few styles of beer, specifically Brittish bitters and Scottish ales.
Dimethyl Sulfide (DMS)
A flavor sometimes found in German style lagers, DMS can be like sweet or creamed corn, boiled vegetables, cabbage, or, in extreme cases, oysters. Like many of the named chemicals in beer, DMS is generally considered a flaw in most styles, but acceptable in a small group. A helles would not be authentic without a notable sweet graininess.
Esters are a group of chemical compounds that trigger the impressions of various fruits. These fruits come in the form of bananas, apples, pears, strawberries, grapefruit, raspberries, and blackberries. Esters are usually associated more with ales and less with lagers. In fact, one of the main reasons lagers are fermented cold is to minimize ester production.
Oxidation can be kind or cruel to beer. It mostly depends on what else is in the beer for the oxygen to work on. Oxidized flavors are normally only sought after in big (high alcohol) beers that need to be aged out to mellow. As its name implies, Old Ales are prime candidates to showcase some of the more pleasant flavors in this category, of which sherry, nutty, or a mellow woodiness are the prized flavors. On the flip side, flavors come in the form of newspaper, wet socks, stale crackers, damp straw, and musty basements.
This group is identical to the aromas and the flavors are usually no surprise because you can smell them coming. Again there are good ones for certain types of beers and bad ones for all beers. The good ones are clove and bubble-gum in hefeweizens and pepper in some Belgian styles. And even though this is a repeat list from the aromas, I’ll list them again just to reiterate how fabulously heinous the bad side can be. And the flavors are: medicinal, Band-Aid, chloroseptic, athletic tape, plastic, and electrical fires.
Sourness can come from a number of different areas. The two major sources are from acetobacteria that can give a vinegar or yogurt flavor and Brettanomyces that gives the distinct horse blanket flavor that is desired in the classic sour Belgian styles. Brettanomyces have been the focus of experimentation as of late with highly varied rates of success. Peeling a skin off the surface of a beer in the fermentor is an interesting process.
This is an interesting off flavor that can taste like a bloody lip, a coin, or a rusty nail. These flavors should be fairly rare in commercial beer thanks to the FDA and Health Departments, as they insist on the use of food-grade handling materials that do not include many bare metals except for stainless steel and copper.
This is an odd and unexpected flavor in beer. It tastes just as the descriptor suggests, like a bar of soap, detergent, fatty, or oily. It is caused by the breakdown of fatty acids that produce soap. Just don’t try to tell the officer you were showering with beer because it was soapy …
“Minerally” might be a better term because this flavor encompasses high amounts of ions commonly found in water. The most notorious culprit is gypsum (i.e. calcium sulfate, also the main material in drywall). Brewers will add this mineral to increase both calcium, which is good for the mash, and sulfate, which helps enhance the hop flavors. But as that or other minerals increase, the taste of hard (mineral) water really becomes a detractor.
Yeast consume malt-derived sugars and produce carbon dioxide and alcohol until they run out of food or their environment changes. Yeast will usually run out of food first, but other times they will quit if the pH drops too low or the alcohol content gets too high, among other factors. Quitting work too early can leave a good amount of fermentable sugars around that end up tasting sweet. Malty differs from sweet as they are based on the less fermentable, longer chain dextrins (the starches from the barley that do not get broken down all the way to fermentable sugars during the mash). A common term to describe a beer being too sweet is to call it cloying. Maltiness can traverse the range from caramel, toast, molasses, dates, and raisins. Malt can also be kilned for longer periods of time to provide for roasty, chocolate, and ashy flavors.
Just as one would expect, there are a myriad of hop flavors. Most of the ones commercially cultivated have fairly distinct attributes and have helped drive the styles of beer in that given region. American beers based on hops from the Pacific-Northwest differentiated craft beer in the US from rest of the world. This is a welcome change by many from America being known as the land of light lagers. Hops contribute three different attributes: aroma, flavor, and bitterness. The length of time hops are boiled dictates what the hop contributes. Short durations (0-5 minutes of boiling) contribute to aromas, medium durations (10-20 minutes) contribute to flavors, and long terms (60 minutes) add to the bittering. These are the traditional hopping periods that can be controlled by adding different amounts of hops at different periods during the boil. Miller uses a little marketing magic to appeal to the quality-conscious consumer by advertising that they triple hop their beer. Many confuse this with using three times as much of some magic ingredient — obviously not the case.
Yeast left around in a beer can give a bready, toasty, or sulfur-like flavor. Yeast can also autolyse (self-destruct) and give some real messed up flavors. I think I heard it best described as the smell of an “800 pound gorilla poop from an ape whose diet consists rotting dirty baby diapers — on a hot summer day.” I must say that I can’t really describe the flavor because I’ve never gotten past the smell.