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How to Describe the Flavors in Amber Beer

If you want to be great at beer tasting you need to be great at distinguishing the each of the flavors present in a particular beer. Knowing what flavors to look for in a given beer style, and being familiar enough with those flavors to pull them out, is key.

Before I sit down to taste a beer I like to read through reviews of other beers in the same style category to get an idea of the flavors that might be present. Perhaps as my palate becomes more refined I will be able to pick out individual flavors more easily, but this has been a challenge for me. When I have an idea of what flavors I might be looking for in a beer it is easier to pinpoint what exactly I am tasting as I sample the beverage.

The main difficulty that I have found in beer tasting is that I am not very familiar with a lot of the flavors that are popularly used to describe beers. I don’t think I could confidently pick out the flavor of pine resin or buttered English biscuits from a complex beer, for example.

Finding the Right Words
With this in mind I sat down and looked through the descriptions of a lot of beers. This was a more time-consuming process than I expected, so I decided to focus in on one beer style.

I read through the descriptions of twenty different amber ales, mostly on BeerAdvocate.com and RateBeer.com, and picked out the four words that were most commonly used to describe each particular beer. I compiled them and made a list of the most common words used to describe the flavor of amber beers.

I had originally planned to go through fifty beers, but reading through twenty took long enough that it delayed my writing by a day. Here is what I found:

Flavor Occurences (Out of 20)
Caramel 16
Sweet 9
Citrus 6
Pine 6
Toffee 6
Malty 5
Toasted 5
Fruity 4
Hoppy 4
Bread 3
Grapefruit 3
Biscuit 2
Bitter 2
Molasses 2
Spicy 2
Dark Fruits 1
Earthy 1
Grassy 1
Honey 1
Lemon 1

An Unexpected Lean to the Hoppy Side
It didn’t surprise me that caramel is the most common flavor detected in amber ales, but I did not expect to see words like pine and citrus at the top. You most commonly see those words describing beer with a strong hop flavor. I think this is due to the popularity of hoppy amber beers like Fat Tire out there right now. I randomly chose the beers from the lists of most-reviewed ambers on the two websites, and there may have been a bias toward the hoppy ambers there.

Are there flavors typical to amber beers that are missing from the list? Most definitely. My favorite amber is Keweenaw Brewing Company’s Red Jacket Amber, which has a very smoky flavor with a lot of malt character and almost no hops. I had expected “smoky” to show up once or twice, but it did not. Even so, if you are trying to get an idea of what flavors you should be looking for in an amber this list will give you a good start.

How would you describe the flavors of your favorite amber? Are there any other flavors that are missing from the list above?

Is Your Home Brew Beer Fully Fermented?

A classic problem with home brewed beer is “under-attenuation,” which means that a beer did not fully ferment.

Under-attenuation may be caused by an issue with your yeast, but it may also be due to rushing the process. Sometimes the recommended fermentation time on a brewing recipe kit, for example, is not long enough given the fermentation conditions in your house.

First, Here’s a simple description of attenuation:

Attenuation is how much of the sugar in the wort (un-fermented beer) is fermented away by the yeast.

The yeast that you add to the wort at the end of the brewing process basically “eat” the sugars that you provide by adding malt. The yeast then give off CO2 and alcohol as by-products of “digesting” the sugars.

Under-attenuation means that the yeast was not able to “eat” enough sugar to bring the beer down to normal sugar levels (and up to the expected alcohol level). The excess sugar left over results in an overly sweet taste to the beer.

Here’s a slightly more detailed description of attenuation and how it can be determined:

1. How “heavy” is the beer to begin with?
It turns out that attenuation refers to the conversion of sugars in the beer into alcohol and carbon dioxide. When we brew beer we use malted barley, which contributes sugars to the beer. The amount of sugar in the beer can be measured by taking a measurement of the specific gravity, which tells you the “weight” of the beer at the start of fermentation (referred to as “original gravity”) compared to the “weight” of pure water.

The specific gravity can be taken using a hydrometer, which requires a larger volume of the liquid for the measurement, or a nifty but affordable little device like this one which can take the measurement with only a few drops of liquid and give an even more accurate reading than a hydrometer.

2. How “heavy” is the beer after fermentation?
When the beer is finished fermenting you can measure the specific gravity of the beer again and find out how much of the sugar was eaten (this number is referred to as the “final gravity”). This is how most home brewers determine the alcohol content of their beer, as there is a direct relationship between how much sugar is eaten by the yeast and how much alcohol is given off.

3. Is the difference in these “weights” enough?
The percentage of the sugars that were converted is the attenuation. Under-attenuation means that not enough of the sugar was converted and the beer will taste very sweet. It may require that more yeast be added to the beer to finish the job. Over-attenuation can occur, but that’s a whole different beast.

What are Typical Attenuation Levels?

The style of beer is largely going to determine the numbers you should expect, so there can be a lot of variability here.

This is painting with a very broad brush, but in general a standard ale will come in with an original gravity between 1.040 and 1.060. You might expect the final gravity to end up between 1.010 and 1.015.

Very rarely will you see a final gravity much below 1.010. This can lead to other issues anyway, so you do not want that.

A stronger beer that starts with an original gravity of 1.060 or higher may only finish between 1.020 and 1.030. This may be ok for some beer styles, but for other styles you may have to make adjustments to your yeast.

Is the Beer Fully Fermented?

The best practice in determining whether your beer is full fermented/attenuated is to take a measurement of the specific gravity each day once fermentation slows down. The specific gravity will decrease from day to day if the beer is still fermenting.

When the reading is steady for three consecutive days you can be reasonably confident that the yeast has finished doing its work.

From there you can determine whether the beer is ready to be moved along to secondary fermentation or bottled, or whether it is under-attenuated and something must be done to promote more fermentation.

Have you brewed or come across under-attenuated beers? What did it taste like to you?

What is Hop-Bursting?

Are you tired of run-of-the-mill home brewed beer, but not sure how to kick your brews up a notch without an investment in equipment?

There is a great way to change the character of your home brewed beer without a large investment in time and equipment. In fact, just a few extra dollars and a slight tweak to your schedule on brew day can produce a beer with robust flavor that will stand out from the home brews that your friends make.

The process in question is called “hop bursting.”

It turns out that hop-bursting, which is sometimes called “late hopping,” refers to adding a “burst” of hops during the last part of the boil.

Typically when you are brewing beer you bring the mixture of water and malt to a boil and then add hops for at least an hour. This is because it takes at least 60 minutes of boiling to release all of the “alpha” acids in hops that add bitterness to the beer.

It is common to also add hops at the very end of the boil, which contributes to the hop aroma of the beer. The aroma is caused by a separate oil in the hops, called “beta” acid, which evaporates out if boiled for too long.

What brewers have found is that a great deal of hop taste and aroma can be added to the beer without contributing much bitterness if you avoid adding hops at the beginning of the boil and instead add a large burst of hops in the last 20 to 30 minutes of the boil. This can dramatically increase the hops that you need to brew with, but it makes for a more robust and “smoother” flavored beer.

Boiling the hops for 20-30 minutes is not enough to release much of the bitter alpha acid, but it is long enough to evaporate off some of the aromatic beta acid. This balances out to provide a little bit of unique flavor. This is why it is important to add a large burst of the hops at this time to get the enhanced flavor of the beer.

How large a burst of hops is needed? If all of our hops are added in the last 30 minutes of the boil, as opposed to mostly at the beginning of the boil, you would need to add between two and three times as many hops to achieve an equivalent bitterness. This number does depend on the hop varieties being used in the recipe.

Note: it is very important to cool the wort quickly at the end of the boil. The longer the wort sits at a high temperature, the more bitterness will be released into the beer.

You may be wondering whether the same results can be achieved with “dry hopping” the beer by adding hops during fermentation, but in fact this process results in a much different flavor to the beer. Dry hopping generally gives a more “grassy” character to the beer, while hop bursting will provide a more “floral” character.

The generally recommended hop selection for hop bursting is hops with low- to mid-range alpha acid content that have a pleasing aroma. Two of the more popular varieties include Cascade and Centennial. Using pellet hops (as opposed to whole-leaf or cones) is ideal for hop bursting because the pellets break up quickly and allow the acids in the hops to be released and utilized efficiently in a short time, maximizing the flavor imparted to the beer.

Have you ever tried hop-bursting while brewing beer? What were your results?


Will You Try Rocky Mountain Oyster Stout?

I’m finally home from Florida, and I managed to catch the flu or something similar on one of my planes. I don’t have the energy to get up early to write actual blog posts before work right now, so I’m going to leave you with the following to consider.

As an April Fools joke last year Wynkoop Brewing Company in Denver released a video highlighting a beer they called “Rocky Mountain Oyster Stout.”

Last October, after receiving a lot of interest from people who thought the beer was real, Wynkoop decided to brew up a batch of the beer.

Now, the brewery is releasing the beer nation wide.

What do you think? Is this a beer that you are going to consider trying out?

What Is a Cream Ale? and A Beer Adventure.

Last night I went on an adventure. I am in Jacksonville for the week and Dogfish Head brewery distributes down here (but nowhere close to my home in Minnesota). I had the singular goal of finding a bottle of Dogfish Head 120 Minute IPA, which has been on my list of beers to try again for years now.

I went to several stores and felt kind of silly asking for it, because everybody told me that the beer had either immediately sold out when it was released in November or it was all sold at a special  release party that the store held for the beer. Sales clerks were looking at me like I was crazy but I figured it was worth asking since I won’t be traveling to this side of the country again any time soon.

The final store I stopped at told me that they sold all of their 120 Minute IPA at an annual release party and then suggested that I follow their social media to find out when the next release would be. When I told him how I was only visiting from Minnesota for a few days for my sister’s wedding  he took me around and showed me all of the local beers that he thought I should try, and then he told me that he would be willing to sell me a bottle of 120 Minute IPA out of their aging cellar for a little bit of a premium. I was giddy! For a beer that I have been waiting so long to find I was more than willing to pay a few extra bucks.

He went to get the 120 while I looked around and picked out a few other beers to try. One of them was local brewery Bold City’s “Roxy’s Finest Imperial Cream Ale.” I had no idea what an imperial cream ale was, so I thought I would be adventurous and give it a shot.

I’ve done some digging around on the internet but have not found a whole lot of information on cream ales. Very few sites mention them. With this particular beer there are no reviews on BeerAdvocate.com, only three reviews on RateBeer.com, and the beer doesn’t show up on the brewery’s website any longer. It appears that cream ales are cold-fermented beers that are light and crisp, with not a whole lot in terms of strong flavors. An imperial cream ale is just a very alcoholic version of a cream ale.

That wasn’t the greatest beer description you have ever read, but it’s what I was able to come up with.

In the end, I was able to walk away with a Dogfish Head 120 Minute IPA that my parents will be driving back to Minnesota for me. I also picked up a four-pack of Dogfish Head’s  90 Minute IPA, which is one of my favorite IPA’s in the world. I’m looking forward to enjoying these beers with a friend back home.

If you are ever looking for craft beer in Jacksonville go visit Grassroots Natural Market on Park Street. They are excellent!

Dogfish Head 120

My catch.

Have you ever searched far and wide to find a particular beer?

What’s Your 2013 Beer Resolution?

You should have a New Year’s resolution for many different areas of your life, right? This year for the first time I’m making a resolution about beer: I am going to try to keep a record of every single unique beer that I try this year. I think it will be cool to be able to look back in 2014 and remember every beer that I’ve experienced throughout the year.

I’ve created a tab at the top of the blog called “Beers of 2013.” Here I will update every beer that I try throughout the year (I will only put it on the list if it isn’t on there already. I will try to write a review of the beer on BeerAdvocate.com, if it is on that site, and link the beer to that page.

Last night, January 1, I started out the year with a bang by sharing a pitcher of Miller Lite with some family members. I’m not going to spend the time to review that one in BeerAdvocate. Hopefully I will be able to try some unique beers during the rest of this week, though, since I’m staying in Florida through the weekend.

What is your beer resolution for 2013?

When Should Beer Be Sent Back?

Have you ever been in a situation where a bartender brings you a beer that has gone flat or somehow spoiled? What do you do in a situation like this? Do you send the beer back? Do you demand a free beer?

The important distinction here is that I am not talking about a beer that has a flavor you just don’t like. If you get a beer that simply isn’t to your liking but is true to its style, it would seem pretty tacky to send the beer back.

If the beer is off, however, it’s a different story. Maybe it’s a beer you’ve tried before and are familiar with, and this time it came out skunky or flat or with some type of off-flavor. I feel that it would be best to quietly let the bartender know that something is wrong. She will probably try the beer and if she notices that there is something wrong, more often than not she will replace your bad beer. At the very least, they need to know so that the problem can be fixed before other customers experience it.

Maybe you could even turn this situation into a positive learning experience. I don’t know what words like “phenolic” and “oxidized” mean in regards to beer taste, so maybe I could learn by discussing an off-flavor beer with the bartender or others present.

What would you do if your beer came out with an off-flavor?