Thursday, November 5, 2009

Basic Flavors in Beer

Ok, so we have a basic understanding of how the tongue works (for tasting purposes—get your mind out of the gutter). This will help understand what flavors you detect based, somewhat, on the region of the tongue are stimulated. Beer is complex, yet is made from only a few ingredients; malted grain, hops, water and yeast. Yet these ingredients are obtained from a wide range of options. For instance, there are dozens of varieties of hops, each with their own flavor, aroma and bitterness. And these can be blended and/or added at different times during brewing. Let’s take a closer look at these ingredients.

Malted Grain

Notice this is not limited to barley. While barley is the dominant grain used in beer it is important to note that other grains (rye, wheat, oats, rice…) can be used. We won’t get into those other grains quite yet and just focus on barley for now.

Barley contains the starches needed that, when malted, produces sugars on which the yeast will feed later to produce ethanol. There are two types of barley; 2-row and 6-row. Both are used in the beer industry with 2-row for all-malt beers (no additional grains) and 6-row used for blends (like the macro-brews that use adjunct grains). Basically, the 2-row kernels are plumper and offer a maltier flavor, while the 6-rowers produce a grainier taste and contain more protein and enzymes, which can produce shelf instability and chill haze for all-malt beers. The extra enzymes in macros can help break down adjuncts like rice and corn that may be added later.

The grain (barley) is allowed to germinate to the point of producing small sprouts at which time the process is stopped through kilning. The kilning process itself can be modified to produce different malted grains; from lightly toasted to heavily roasted. This malt affects aroma, appearance and flavors.

Flavors (barley):

Bready, biscuit, sweet, caramel, coffee, chocolate, toffee, toast, molasses, cocoa, and burnt bread are most common.


There are many varieties of hops. Basic division is between aroma and flavor. A good aroma can accentuate the flavors of the beer as well as additional appeal. The hops vine is a relative of marijuana and produces flowers in which the lupulin resides. Lupulin is a waxy substance that contains two acids; alpha and beta, the former being more used in beer for bittering. The lupulin also contains aromatic oils. Depending on the hops used (and quantity) will affect the aroma of the beer, the taste and the mouth-feel, which is where bitterness comes into play.

Bitterness is that bite you get on (mostly) the side of your tongue. It often gives the beer a “dry” feeling to it. The measurement of alpha acids determines the bitterness of the beer. But bitterness isn’t the only quality. Here is a very small list of flavors from different hops:

• Saaz (Czech)—spicy, fresh
• German—herbal, minty
• English—Spicy, fruity
• American—all over the map; resiny, piney, grapefruity

Some Double India Pale Ales, or Imperial Pale Ales, have a distinctive resiny/oily feel to them. They are chalk full of hops. To get the most out of the oils of the lupulin, hops are added late in the brewing process. Boiling drives off many of the oils so adding hops late in the boil saves the oil (and a rhyme).

The contributions of hops are plentiful and complex. But I’ve tried to condense it to a manageable summary for the modest beer drinker.


That small, unseen, and powerful organism; yeast. Beer needs yeast. Once the grain is malted it is subjected to yeast, which eats the starch and sugars and produces ethanol (alcohol) and carbonation. But yeast does more. It adds flavor and texture. To experience the impact of yeast, the best way is to grab a bottle of a Belgian Tripel or some sour beer (like a Flanders Ale). In the Tripel the yeast will be rich, spicy, and “tingly”; with the Flanders you’ll get a lot of sourness. Different yeast strains will produce different tastes and effects.

Lager Yeast—certain strains of yeast only ferment under cooler temperatures. Beers that use these are called lagers. For the most part, there’s not a whole lot of wiggle room for lagers. All American macro beers (Bud, Miller, Coors, PBR, Hamms….) are lagers. Yet, not all lagers tast like these. The Saaz hops (above) is commonly used in Pilseners (a lager from Czech Rep.) and gives the beer a refreshing, light, biscuit taste.

Ale Yeast—other strains of yeast ferment at higher temperatures and these beers are called Ales. More variety here and flavors range from buttery to apple.

What yeast can provide in the taste:
Buttery, sweetness, roses (floral), spicy, coriander, lemon, zest, sour, and grassy. This is a very limited list, but it gives the idea of how yeast affects the beer in more ways than just producing alcohol.


Yes, water affects the beer, after all it is the dominate ingredient. Hard and soft water are the two basic types, although this is a range. Water is the universal solvent and it dissolves minerals along the way to the brewery (from the lake, river, stream, whatever). Depending on the region and filtering processes used by the brewer (if any) will determine the hard-/soft-ness of the water. The flavors offered are:

• Chalkiness from carbonate
• Sodium and chloride provide roundness
• Plaster and tanginess from sulfate
• Metallic, bloody, iron, bitterness

Again, not the complete list, but it shows how water can affect the taste of beer. It can also affect the other ingredients in the beer. The brewer must know the chemical components of each ingredient and they interact. This leaves room for imperfections and defects, which will be the next episode here.

Any questions or comments, please leave them.