Tasting Beer

16th November 2020by stumpnose_10

Making craft beer is a labour of love, with brewers going to great lengths refining recipes and production processes to get their beers tasting just right.  It makes sense, therefore, that craft beer drinkers take the time to deepen their appreciation of their favourite beers by learning to identify the scents, colours and flavours of the major beer styles. The definitive guide for doing this is “Tasting Beer” by Randy Mosher – it’s a highly readable book packed with insights into the science of brewing and tasting, as well as sections on beer serving and food pairing.  The book is particularly good at introducing some useful vocabulary for describing aromas and flavours of the two main ingredients in beer : hops and malted barley, and this is summarized below.

Malt Flavour Vocabulary

Barley is the perfect grain for making beer – it contains lots of starch (which is converted to sugar by enzymes) and the husk forms a useful filter bed.  However, there is a trick to getting the enzymes to jump into action – the malting process.  This involves soaking the barley in water for 2 to 4 days to so that the enzymes are tricked into getting the grain ready for growth.  As soon as this sprouting reaches a certain point, the maltster stops the process by applying heat by way of a kiln.  It is this kilning step that adds flavour and colour to the malted barley.

The maltster is able to produce a range of colours and flavours depending on the nature of the kilning, ie how long and at what temperature is the malt heated and how much moisture is present in the grain.  This is why you can get a pale coloured lager or a black stout from the same raw ingredient.  It all depends on the types and combinations of malted barley that are used – for The Fisherman IPA, for example, we use Pale Ale malt as the base, and add some caramel malt to add some colour and a little toffee sweetness to counter the bitterness of the hops.

The chart below breaks down the most commonly encountered flavours of malt into five broad categories which are then further sub-divided.  It also gives an indication of the colours in which the flavour ranges are to be found.


Hop Flavour Vocabulary

Hops add the bitterness to beer to help counteract the sweetness of the malt and the right combination of hops and malt is what gives a good beer the right balance.  Hops also help beer stay fresher for longer and help retain its head of foam.  Finally, and most importantly if you like hoppy beers, hops can add distinctive aroma and taste profiles to beer.  There will be more blog posts to come about hops and their role in the beer making process, so for now the focus is on describing some of the amazing aromas and flavours that hops can impart to beer.

Hop chemistry is fairly complex, and not entirely well understood.  The main thing to know at this stage is that hops contain bitter resins and aromatic oils. It is the aromatic oils that are most interesting; there are hundreds of them, each with its own characteristics.  Every hop variety (there are hundreds) and growing location (there are around a dozen main areas) produces hops with a unique mix of these oils.  So, you can see that there is a vast number of flavour and aroma combinations available to the brewer.  For IPA’s and other hoppy beers, a brewer will use a certain hop variety to add the bitterness and then a range of hops to add the desired aroma and flavour profile.  In our Endless Summer American Pale Ale, for example, we use Southern Star as the bittering hop and a combination of the Mosaic, Amarillo and Citra varieties for aroma and taste.  These aroma hops are from the Yakima region of the USA which is producing a lot of exciting new varieties at the moment.

Classifying hop aromas isn’t easy as the hundreds of essential oils don’t neatly correspond to familiar food flavours to help describe them.  However, it is possible to identify several key families of aromas, which can then be subdivide into more specific terms.  Each hop variety actually contains all these flavours; it’s their proportion that determines a hop’s overall impression.  The aroma hops that we use for Endless Summer fall mainly in the citrus segment in the chart below.

Other characteristics : Appearance and Mouthfeel

As well as the aroma and tastes of the two main ingredients in beer, there are some other important characteristics of beer which need to be understood to help give a good overall description of a beer.  These are appearance and mouthfeel.

When describing the appearance of a beer we normally talk about colour, head and clarity.  That saying that we “taste with our eyes” is very true with beer.

Mouthfeel is a catch-all term to describe the other sensations in our mouth when we drink beer that are not related to taste or aroma.  The main ones are body, astringency and carbonation.  Body is the sense of weight on the tongue or sense of density that every beer has on some degree or another.  We sometimes refer to light lagers as being ‘watery’ – another way of putting it is ‘light-bodied’.  Astringency comes late in the taste of a beer, and is a mouth-puckering sensation that leaves your tongue feeling too dry – not a good thing.  Carbonation is the last important aspect of mouthfeel – a fizzy beer can be refreshing, whilst under-carbonated beer can be ‘flat’.


Putting it all together

Craft beer fans often keep a log of their tasting notes, and it can look something like the one shown below.  You don’t need to go this extent, or course – you can just keep mental notes about what aspects you like about your favourite beers.

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