How to Talk Beer
It's easy to get lost in all the terms people throw around when they talk about flavor in beers. But it's important to remember that appreciating your beer is the ultimate goal.
To get started learning the finer points of flavor, here's a guide to the most common flavors of beers:
Acidic: Acidity generally accompanies sourness in beer, but the term implies a sharp, tangy character without necessarily having the flavor connotations of sourness.
Alcohol: Alcohol taste is generally considered an unwanted character; however, certain beers such as bourbon barrel aged beers may feature a specific boozy taste as an integral part of the flavor.
Banana: German wheat beers commonly feature a strong banana-like flavor without any actual fruit added to the beer. This is a result of the particular yeast strains used, which produce a yeasty banana character during fermentation.
Caramel: A common flavor derived from certain malts. Caramel malts tend to impart a richer, sticky sort of sweetness.
Cider: Many Belgian beers offer hints of cider or apple due to a simple, light malt base and the tart fruity flavors created by Belgian yeast. Many sour beers will have a tart apple flavor, enhanced by their inherently dry, acidic character.
Citrus: Citrus is perhaps the most common description of many American hop varieties, particularly West Coast hops. Pale Ales and IPAs will be commonly described as citrusy.
Chocolate: Chocolate is a common characteristic for stouts and porters. Suggestions of chocolate can be produced by dark malts alone, but beers with chocolate in the name generally use actual chocolate or chocolate flavoring to enhance this flavor.
Coffee: A hint of coffee flavor is common for stouts and porters. Suggestions of coffee can be produced by dark malts alone, but "coffee stouts" are a common sub-style brewed with actual coffee. This will generally be made clear by the name of the beer.
Fruit: Fruitiness in beer can be the result of a number of things — really, the only ingredient used in beer that won't sometimes impart a fruity flavor is water. a). Actual fruit used in the brewing process. This trend is particularly common with American wheat beers. b). Many hop varieties impart fruity flavors. c). Yeast can also create suggestions of fruit d). Finally, certain malts create dark fruit-like flavors. Barleywines and other high-ABV beers may have a sweet raisin / fig flavor, while darker Belgian beers, like dubbels and quads, may have plum-like flavors.
Hoppy: One of the major characteristics and key ingredients of beer. Hops, depending on the variety, can impart dozens of different flavors and aromas. Common hop characteristics include: grapefruit and citrus, floral, pine, spicy, earthy, dank, mango, passionfruit, lemon, orange, and more. Hops impart bitterness; how much and how aggressive depends on usage.
Rye: Rye malt imparts a silky, dry character to beer. If used as a large percentage of the grain bill, it may create a spicy flavor, like in rye bread. In malty, low ABV beers, I've found rye can create a sweet, almost vanilla/oak character when used in lower percentages. A versatile ingredient that blends well with the bitterness of hops and the richness of standard malts.
Spice: Just about any spice can be used in brewing. Some styles incorporate spices traditionally, such as Belgian wit beers, which frequently use coriander and orange peel in the brew. Spices are also common in winter warmers and pumpkin beers. Adding spices is perhaps one of the most common (and easiest) methods of experimentation for brewers, so there is no real limit to which spices can be used, or in what beer.
Tart: Tartness is closely associated with dry, sour and acidic flavors; sharp; like under-ripe fruit or green apples.
Wheat: Wheat beers are a style unto themselves, and thus a beer featuring wheat will generally be labelled as such. Wheat does not have much flavor of its own; it contributes more to the body of a beer, giving it a silky, smooth feel, and due to the amount of protein in wheat, it creates a thick, fluffy head. Flavor-wise, it may add a light sweetness and slight tangy-ness. However, the prominent flavors in most wheat beers come primarily from the unique yeast strains used.
Test out your new beer knowledge at the America On Tap, in Nampa on March 28th!