Got Beer? Beer Tasting 101

beerSide101The science behind beer

The world of craft beer can seem more than a little exclusive to those of you who swear by your lite beer. Maybe for you, drinking beer is just an exercise in getting alcohol into your system and you have no idea what moon language your homebrewing friend keeps spouting off. Luckily, I’m all about bridging the gap between the elite craft beer aficionado and the everyday Joe Six-Pack, a task sort of akin to trying to teach vegetarianism to cannibals, but let it never be said that I didn’t challenge myself.

Let’s start with the basic four ingredients: water, barley, hops and yeast.

Now let’s talk about barley. Barley is to beer what grapes are to wine, no matter what a misguided beer ad might claim. It provides the sugar for the yeast to eat, creating alcohol. It also has the added bonus of being extremely sweet, and can be roasted to the color of your choice. It can carry off a variety of flavors depending on the degree of roasting, the malting, the method of malting, the temperature of mashing or the type of heat used during mashing. To translate that from moon-speak: Malted barley can carry a wide array of flavors from something crisp and light, like pilsner malt, to a caramel sweetness, or a dark, roasted coffee or cocoa flavor in something like chocolate malt or black patent. Since most beer styles are a mix of at least two or three different kinds of malted barley, the flavors can literally be all over the map allowing each beer to be as distinctly different as a fingerprint. I could probably write an entire article on barley alone, and we’re not even close to the real doozy: hops.

Hops are the bittering agent, which is actually a lot more important than you might think. On the surface, bitter beer might sound terrible, but think of it this way: Beer is essentially sugar water that’s been slightly fermented, so without hops, it would be like drinking a glass of sugar water. That might sound wonderful if you’re five years old, but childhood obesity aside, most people don’t want to drink something that tastes like watered-down molasses. Here come hops to save the day, the wonderful little flower cones that provide an acidic counterpoint to the sickly sweet malted barley. It’s the yin to the yang, the creator of balance. It’s also something that lite beer drinkers don’t want to taste.

If you’re not used to it, or you’re just very stubborn, hops are bitter, grassy and alienating. I spent many an hour trying to introduce sweet craft beers to someone who kept complaining that they all tasted like grass. After banging my head against the wall, and wondering how in the hell Smithwicks could be too hoppy for them, I calmed down and tried to think about how to introduce someone to hops more safely.

Hops have about four different flavor types: citrus, floral, pine and herbal. These give craft beer their flavor and aroma, and when paired with the right malted barley, a wonderful bouquet of flavors comes together. However, to those used to sweet, lite beers, it can be a bit of a culture shock.

So let’s look at it this way: When you taste a bitter or grassy beer, take a second and think about the kinds of flavors you’ve got going on. If you can figure out which ones you like and don’t like, it can help guide you toward a beer that maybe you will like. There are so many hop varieties out there and endless possible combinations that there’s bound to be an IPA that even you might like. For instance, Heavy Seas Loose Cannon is distinct for its very citrusy profile, almost to the point of a light summer ale with citrus peel in it. Ithaca’s Flower Power has a definite floral taste that is literally unlike any other IPA out there. If you still can’t find a hop variety you like, you can always lean more toward the amber, red and brown ales, or even porters and stouts, which typically have very little in the way of hops, instead focusing on the sweet maltiness of the brew, or the caramel and cocoa flavors.

Finally, we come to yeast. This is where I’m tempted to sit every single beer drinker down in one room and slap them repeatedly with the following information. I constantly hear people saying they don’t like ales, or they don’t like lagers, and don’t even realize that they’re buying exactly what they claim to hate. Ales and lagers are types of beer. The difference between them, technically, is the kind of yeast they use to ferment. Ale yeast ferments more quickly at higher temperatures, Lagers ferment more slowly at lower temperatures. While the type of yeast does contribute to the flavor profile overall, a novice beer drinker isn’t going to be able to tell the difference. The major flavors come from the style of beer, like pilsner, IPA, pale ale, porter, stout, kolsh, red and many more. You hate one style of ale or lager, not the entire range.

So keep an open mind. Craft beer is so widely varied that there literally has to be at least one kind of craft beer that you will like. Let me know when you find it. I’m compiling a list.

One response to “Got Beer? Beer Tasting 101”

  1. Emily Olson says:

    I always knew what I liked, but never knew why I liked it. I learned so much from this column!

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