Beer Characteristics & How to Taste Beer
Think fancy tasting techniques are just for fine wines and spirits? Think again! With the rise of artisanal craft beer that uses a mix of different hops, malt backgrounds and yeasts to create unique brews and flavours, you can also pick out these characteristics if you know what to look for! In this blog, we detail how three of the main ingredients in beer — hops, malt and yeast — affect the flavours of a beer and the different notes they can impart in the glass.
You may think that hops are only used in bitter IPAs, but they are a key ingredient for all beer styles! As far as beer is concerned, hops are the cone-shaped flowers of the hops plant, Humulus lupulus. Hops contain acids and oils that impart bitterness, flavour and stability to the finished beer. They can be added at many stages of the brewing process — commonly added into the boil, but dried hops (can be added into the fermenter (known as dry-hopped beer) as well as fresh hops.
Hop-forward beers, such as West Coast IPAs, can have a pronounced bitterness that not everyone likes. But in many other beers, hops have a supporting role rather than a starring role, and simply help with the structure of a beer so things like the yeast strain or malt backbone can be the centre of attention.
On a beer can, usually near the ABV percentage, is a unit called IBU, short for International Bittering Units. This is a way you can check how much hops have been used in a beer — a lower IBU will indicate that hops stick to the background, while a high IBU, often found in IPAs, indicate that hops are front and centre.
Different hops can impart different kinds of flavours into a beer as well. Cascade hops, with origins in Oregon, can brighten up a beer and impart a fruity, citrus aroma with spicy notes. Citra hops are well known for their tropical fruit and citrus flavours. And Nelson Sauvin, with origins in New Zealand, packs a punch with gooseberry, grapefruit and citrus notes, great bittering notes and intense fruitiness. There are hundreds of different kinds of hops, each with their own unique characteristics.
Barley is the most commonly used starch in the making of beer, but wheat and other grains can also be used. But before these grains are used, they must be malted! This is a process that prepares these starches for quicker conversion into sugar. The grain is allowed to partially germinate before being soaked and dried. Grains are kilned to stop the malting process, or dried and/or darkened using a heat source. Any grain used in beer can also be aggressively roasted, which will have an impact on the beer flavours — this is usually what differentiates a pale ale from a stout. It’s pretty simple — the longer a grain is roasted, the darker the resulting beer. Only a certain proportion of the grain will be roasted; the total “malt bill” for a beer will be made up of mostly “base malt” which provides most of the fermentable sugars, as well as a small percentage of other grains which all contribute to the flavour profile.
You may think that malt flavours will be less noticeable in lighter beers, but that’s not the case! When enjoying a Kolsch or Lager, you may notice a touch of graininess in the flavour, and a wheat-based malt will create a completely different beer flavour than one made from barley.
Fun fact — Alberta barley is some of the best in the world, and is sought after by brewers and distillers worldwide!
Yeast is a wild, living thing which reacts differently depending on its surroundings. If you took the exact beer recipe, with the same yeast and other ingredients, and made one batch in Edmonton and the other in Calgary, they would taste completely different! Many craft breweries have a “house yeast” that they use for all of their beers — if you do a side-by-side tasting flight of their beer lineup, you may notice a similarity in flavour even if they’re different styles of beer, and this is due to the house yeast used.
But brewers also experiment with different, specific yeast strains to impart certain characteristics into their beer. One type of yeast that is gaining popularity in the craft beer scene is “Kveik” (pronounced kuh-vyke, as in strike), a powerhouse yeast from Norway. It ferments beer super fast and can survive in a wide range of temperatures. It’s an all-purpose yeast that can be used to ferment a wide range of beer styles, and tends to impart distinctive orange and tropical fruit flavours.
Another type of yeast that is popular in sour and farmhouse style beers is Brettanomyces, known as Brett for short. A wild yeast that typically grows on fruit skins, it was originally thought of as a fault in beer and wine, but has been cultivated as an intentional addition, and carefully dosed into the brewing process to impart levels of “funk” into the flavours. Some people refer to this funk as a “horse blanket” aroma and flavour. It’s not for everyone, but people who dig the funk, really love it.
Unlike wine, which gets its flavours purely from the grape and terroir and not from additional ingredients, brewers can add different things into the mash such as fruit, coffee beans, lactose, sweet potatoes, you name it! The addition of these ingredients is usually indicated on the can or bottle, but you can often find specifics about the process on the brewery’s website.
An addition like Lactose can impart creamy, milk-like texture to the mouthfeel of a beer, and is often used to create silky sours or Milkshake IPAs. Fruit beers or fruited sours usually have whole fruit or pureed fruit added into the mash. Coffee and nut flavours can often just be imparted from the roast levels of the malt, but can also be created by adding actual nuts or coffee beans to the brew. Some creative brewers have even put things like tortilla chips into beer!
How to Taste a Beer
Now that you know what to look for, here’s how to do a proper tasting of beer, and be able to describe what you’re tasting!
Colour: Use a descriptive colour, i.e. pale gold or dark brown - don’t use the words “light” or “dark”.
Aroma: If you’re using the correct glassware, this should aid in the smelling of your beer by allowing the aromas to be released effectively. Use quick ‘bunny’ sniffs, or a long sniff before pulling away.
Flavour: Taste the beer! Take a sip and let it roll around your mouth and tongue so your palate can pick up the different flavours. Notice how it feels on the inside of your cheeks. Think about sweetness, bitterness and the stand out flavours, which will relate to aromas. And before you swallow, don't forget to notice the body, carbonation, warmth and creaminess the beer may have. When you swallow the beer, this is your chance to notice its aftertaste and finish.
Mouthfeel: Is it light, medium or full-bodied? You can think of this in terms of milk — is it like skim, 2%, whole milk, cream? Carbonation level, smoothness and crispness will also contribute to the mouthfeel.
Alcohol: Low (below 4% ABV), Medium (4-7% ABV), High (7%+)
And, most importantly — do you like it, and why/why not?
Of course, the only way to get better at tasting beer is — you guessed it — taste more beer! The more you taste, the more you can pick out which flavour characteristics or additions you like and don’t like, which will make you extra savvy when picking a beer at a store or restaurant.