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Off-Flavor Alert: Beer Tastes Sharp or Spicy, or “Warming”

Most home brewers, unfortunately, are familiar with the “alcoholic” off-flavor even if they do not realize it.

High alcohol content is desirable in some beer styles, such as barleywines, but it is problematic in many lighter beers.

This is a harsh, sharp, or spicy flavor that provides a “warming” sensation when consumed.

What Causes the Off-Flavor?

The alcoholic off-flavor is caused by the presence of fusel alcohols, as opposed to the ethanol alcohol that is usually found in beer. Fusel alcohols are produced by yeast when fermentation takes place at a temperature that is too high, usually over 80 degrees Fahrenheit.

There are other less-common causes of alcoholic off-flavors as well. Excessive amounts of yeast used in the fermentation can cause this flaw, as can leaving beer on the trub (the settled out proteins and debris) in the fermentor for too long.

Can This Off-Flavor Be Fixed?

Unfortunately there is no way to un-ferment the alcohols out of the beer. When the alcoholic off-flavor is present in a beer it is there to stay.

Can This Off-Flavor Be Prevented?

The alcoholic off-flavor is quite preventable. The most important factor to consider is the fermentation temperature.

Every yeast strain has a different ideal fermentation temperature range. It is the brewer’s job to know that range and to find a method to hold fermentation at a consistent temperature on the low end of that spectrum for the duration of the fermentation.

If the beer will be fermenting for an especially long period of time it may be beneficial to transfer it into a secondary fermentor after a couple of weeks. This will get the beer off of the trub after most of the fermentation is complete, and it will promote a finished beer with higher clarity.

Have you experienced the alcoholic off-flavor in your brewing? How did it affect the beer?

Off-Flavor Alert: Beer Tastes Like Green Apples or Pumpkin

The unintended flavor of green apples or fresh pumpkin in beer is common, especially early in one’s home brewing career when patience for the fermentation process might be lacking.

Green apple is not a desirable flavor in any beer, and pumpkin is only acceptable in a few styles.

What Causes the Off-Flavor?

This off-flavor in beer is caused by a natural byproduct in the fermentation process called Acetaldehyde.

Acetaldehyde is an intermediate stage between the sugar that the yeast begins fermenting and the final product, ethanol, given off by the yeast which provides the alcohol content of the beer.

Many off-flavors are caused by poor sanitation, but most often the green apple off-flavor exists because there simply was not enough time allowed for fermentation of the beer. The beer is still “green.”

In rare cases the green apple off-flavor might be caused by either oxidation of the beer or a bacterial infection. If an infection is the culprit, the essence of green apple can be especially intense.

Can This Off-Flavor Be Fixed?

Fortunately, the green apple or pumpkin off-flavor will usually go away with more time allowed for the beer on the yeast for fermentation.

Further fermentation will convert the acetaldehyde into ethanol, removing the green apple flavor. This process can take longer if the beer is strong, with a high specific gravity at the beginning of fermentation.

It can also take longer if the yeast being used is weak or not enough is pitched at the start of fermentation.

Can This Off-Flavor Be Prevented?

The simple way to prevent the flavor of green apples or fresh pumpkin in your beer is to be patient with the fermentation. Allow plenty of time for the yeast to do its work and the results will be improved.

Along the same lines, sufficient levels of strong yeast need to be pitched to encourage a strong fermentation. Determine the expected starting specific gravity of your beer and ensure that you have enough yeast to handle it. A calculator like the one over at MrMalty can be very useful for this.

Check the manufacture date of your yeast. Liquid yeast packs lose their viability quickly after a few months. A yeast starter may be required to build up the number of yeast before fermentation.

Finally, prevent the introduction of oxygen to the beer during transfers into a secondary fermentor or bottling bucket. Flush your fermentor with carbon dioxide and ensure that your transfer lines are secure to prevent oxygen from leaking in. This will prevent off-flavors due to oxidation.

5 Things You Should Know About Sour Beer

Every few years a different style of beer becomes the new darling of home brewers and takes over the discussion of the craft beer world.

For a while it was the IPA, and there was a time that everybody was talking about and brewing Russian Imperial Stouts. There was even a period of Belgian beers.

Lately the trend has been sour beers.

Sour beer historically has been difficult to find and expensive to buy in the United States, so many craft beer lovers are unfamiliar with it.

1. What Is Sour Beer?

Sour beer is specifically brewed and fermented to have a sour taste, which can range from the slightly tart to the very sour. Some varieties even described as having qualities similar to the face-puckering candy “Warheads”.

These beers have a high acidity and improve with age over the course of several years.

2. What Are the Characteristics of Sour Beers?

The color of sour beers ranges from a pale golden color to brown. The hop flavor in these beers is usually subdued, coming in at only 20-40 IBUs. The carbonation is usually very noticeable, and the mouthfeel of the beer is light to medium.

There is a large range of alcohol contents between sour beers, but they usually fall between four and nine percent alcohol by volume. The beer styles most often associated with sour beers are the Flanders red ale and the Belgian lambic.

3. How Are Sour Beers Made?

There is a heftier price tag for sour beers because they are very difficult to make well, almost impossible to reproduce consistently, and take a long time to brew and ferment.

Sour beers are brewed like a normal beer but they are typically aged in a wood barrel, often a wine barrel. A strain of yeast called Brettanomyces is most often used to give the beer a unique flavor, and a couple of specific strains of bacteria are added to help the beer acquire the sour flavor.

Some brewers will even expose their beer to the outdoors to allow wild strains of yeast to work on the beer. The beer takes a long time to ferment and pick up the sour taste – at least six months, but more often between one and three years. The brewmaster will taste the beer periodically during that time and can make adjustments to the flavor by adding different strains of bacteria.

4. Why Are Wood Barrels Used to Make Sour Beers?

The wood barrels are important to the sour beer making process. The barrels contain bacteria from the wine that they had previously held, and this bacteria aids in the aging and souring of the beer.

The wood allows some air to permeate and diffuse into the barrel, which feeds the Brettanomyces yeast and helps it to do its work on the beer.

5. Why is There Inconsistency In Sour Beers from One Batch to the Next?

There are so many variables at play in sour beers – the beer ingredients, the bacteria that are added, and the bacteria in the barrels, among others – that it is tough to reproduce a sour beer consistently. Even within the same batch different fermenting barrels will produce different flavors.

The brewmaster can make adjustments with bacteria, but even then some barrels from every batch have to be dumped because they simply do not turn out well. This is what drives up the price of sour beers and makes them discouraging for breweries to produce.

Even with all of the difficulties in producing sour beers, and the long wait from brew date to enjoyment date, we are seeing and increasing demand for this style and an increased supply from breweries as a result.

Have you tried a sour beer? Which is your favorite?

Is Frozen Beer Still Good To Drink?

This winter we had a party at my house and we set the beer outside on the porch to keep it cold. We forgot to bring it in overnight, and when I went out the next morning I found that some of the beer had frozen.

What do you do when beer freezes? Is it still good to drink?

The truth is that after freezing beer may or may not be the same. It is up to a couple of variables:

What Changes in Beer When it Freezes?

If the beer freezes all the way through (mine did) it is likely to lose some carbonation and taste flat, but it still retains its beer characteristics as long as the seal is not broken on the cap. The alcohol is retained, though it may separate from the water, and the hop and malt flavors remain. If there were live yeast in the bottle they will not survive the freezing, as their cell walls will burst.

How is the Beer Affected After Freezing and Thawing?

The freeze-thaw cycle will actually accelerate the aging of the beer. Even if the carbonation is not lost you might see haze or flakes in the beer after it thaws (especially if it goes through multiple freeze-thaw cycles). These flakes are caused by the proteins in the beer ripping apart and settling out. They are mostly a cosmetic issue, but I have found it mentally difficult to drink beer that has floating flakes in it.

How to Defrost a Frozen Beer

There are several recommendations for how to defrost a frozen beer, but it seems the most effective method is to place the beer in a refrigerator to warm up slowly, rotating the bottle a half-turn every twelve hours or so. This helps to thaw the beer evenly and prevent the proteins from settling out, preserving your beer a little longer.

The Bottom Line on Frozen Beer

When all is said and done, the only way to tell if your beer has been ruined by freezing is to try it. Sometimes the carbonation and flavor are preserved, sometimes they are not. In my case I was pleasantly surprised to find that the beer actually tasted normal and had its normal carbonation after thawing back out.

What has your experience been with beer after it freezes?

What In The World Am I Drinking? Ed. 2: Uerige “Alt”

Last time we looked at what beer from around the world I was drinking it was from the brewery Uerige Duffeldorf-Altftadt, and it was their “Sticke” which is a stronger version of an altibier. This time I tried the same brewery’s “Alt.”

It took me a while to figure out which beer I was drinking this time. For one thing, the label is all in German. In the same spot that the label said “Sticke” on the last bottle, this one said “Dat Leckere Droppke” and I could not find a beer by that name online. With a little bit of digging my wife was able to figure out that this is actually a slogan or motto for the brewery. With a little more digging we determined that I was drinking the “Alt.”

Drinking this beer side-by-side with the “Sticke” I would not have been able to guess that they were similar styles. The Alt was very fruity – the aroma made me think of grapes and the taste did as well. Once I got over the shock of the flavor I didn’t mind it, but I did not love it as much as the Sticke.

Here is what the beer looked like:

Uerige Alt

Uerige Alt

And here is my Beer Tasting Log Book entry for this beer:

Uerige Alt - Beer Tasting Log Entry

Uerige Alt – Beer Tasting Log Entry

Have you tried Uerige “Alt”? Leave a comment below and let us know what you thought of it.

What In The World Am I Drinking? Ed. 1: Uerige “Sticke”

My wife had a brilliant idea the other day: we needed to use resealable beer bottles to package some of our Christmas gifts. It meant we needed to run down to the liquor store and find some beers that came in bottles with the little silver handles and rubber-sealed caps that seal the bottle tightly shut. It also meant I had to empty the bottles (aw shucks).

The coolest part about this process is that we picked up some beers that we otherwise would not have. The first few we got are from a brewery in Germany called Uerige Duffeldorf-Altftadt. All of the descriptions on the beers are written in German, so I had no idea of what kind of beers these were until I got home and looked them up.

Here is tonight’s beer, called Uerige Sticke, in a large photo so you can try to read it (if it looks illegible it may be the blurriness, or it may be that it’s in German):

Uerige Sticke

Uerige Sticke


Uerige Stick Top

and here is how it looked poured out:
Uerige Sticke

The style of this beer is “altbier” which translates to “old beer.” It is a style that originates from Dusseldorf in Germany, which is where the brewer of this beer is from. Altbier is a type of brown ale that is conditioned longer than usual, and a “sticke” is a stronger version of this. If you glace through the ratings by style on BeerAdvocate.com you will see that this altbier by Uerige is actually one of the higher ranked beers in this category in the world. Other beers that represent this category are Alaskan “Amber,” Widmer Bros “Alt,” and Terrapin “Tree Hugger.”

In my own estimation it is obvious why this particular beer is rated so highly. The color, flavor, smell, and mouthfeel of this beer are outstanding. Every sense that this beer affects it leaves happy.

I’ve been keeping my reflections on the tasting of beers in the Beer Tasting Log Book, so I just took a picture of my notes there to summarize my thoughts on this beer:

Have you tried Uerige Sticke? What did you think of it? Or have you ever tried a beer without knowing anything about it? How was the experience for you? Let us know in the comments section below!

How to Enjoy a Rare Beer

Tasting beers that are hard to come by requires some tough decisions. If you get multiple bottles of the beer do you set some aside to age? For how long? If you only get one or two bottles, do you share the beer with others or save it for yourself? With all the hype around the Westvleteren 12 release last winter I found myself considering these questions, so I thought I would review a few of the rare-beer situations that I have experienced.

Westvleteren XII

Last December Westvleteren 12 was released in very limited quantities in the U.S. and a few other countries. It was sold out immediately and will probably never be sold via retail again. What do you do with a beer that you will only be able to buy only once in your lifetime? I like this guy’s approach. He bought a six pack and enjoyed one immediately, saved one or two to try with some friends, and then set three aside so that he could taste the beer after it had aged one year, three years, and five years. That is patience!

Dogfish Head 120 Minute IPA

This beer is released regularly and it is probably not difficult to find in some parts of the country, but this is a tough beer to get a hold of in the midwest. When I lived in Michigan there was a single store in the area that carried Dogfish Head, and when they got one or two six packs of the 120 Minute IPA they would put it on the shelf one bottle at a time so that more people would have a shot at getting it. It is not sold at all in Minnesota (or Wisconsin. or Iowa). I have only ever seen two bottles of this beer in my life. We bought that twelve ounce bottle for $10. This winter I paid a store clerk in Florida $15 to give me one bottle out of their aging cellar, and he only did so because I was from the other side of the country and I was buying a lot of other beer from him.

The 120 Minute IPA is extreme. This beer comes in at 15-20 percent alcohol by volume and hits the maximum of the bitterness scale. The brewery actually recommends sharing a 12 ounce bottle with a friend or two due to its potency, and that’s exactly how we enjoyed the single bottle that we bought – passing it around between four or five people one evening. We were still exploring the world of more extreme beers at the time so we found this beer too shocking to fully appreciate it. I still haven’t tried the second bottle, so I have to make a decision about whether I should try it soon or let it age for a while.

Surly Darkness

In the Twin Cities area the big craft brewer is Surly, and once every year they release a powerful Russian Imperial Stout called Darkness. This beer is released in a limited quantity and is sold in 750 mL bottles for $18-20 apiece. The release of the beer every October is called Darkness Day. Beer fans line up at the brewery starting the evening before the release just to get a chance to buy the beer, and it is quite a festival.

How do you enjoy a beer like this? One of my good friends scored a six pack of Darkness a couple of years ago. He enjoyed one or two right away, has been saving another bottle or two to for tasting when it has aged, and is holding back the rest for their trade value. If you look on Craigslist for this area you will see that there is a solid market for this beer (obviously this market is for the unopened collectible bottle, since re-selling the beer itself would be illegal). Older editions of this beer sell for a good return on investment. There is also a trade market for the beer – my friend has seen offers such as two bottles of the 2012 edition for one bottle of his 2011 edition. Not a bad deal.

Have you ever gotten hold of a rare or hard-to-find beer? How did you manage its enjoyment?

3 Reasons You Might Not Like Stouts or IPA’s

If you are new to the world of craft beer you may find beer styles like stouts and IPA’s off-putting. You might read home brewing blogs and beer review sites like Beer Advocate and notice that these styles dominate the lists of top beers, and you might have a difficult time understanding it. I’ve been there and I understand how you feel. Here are three reasons that you might not love strong beer styles…yet.

1. Bitterness is An Acquired Taste
The literature says that bitterness is an acquired taste for all people, so each of us needs to work our way into it. For the first couple of years after I turned 21 I would not go anywhere near the extreme ends of the beer spectrum. When you read beer reviews and listen to home brewers talk you might think that the only quality beers in the world are stouts and IPA’s. It is true that these are the beers with flavor that really stand out, but when you are first venturing into the craft beer scene it takes a while to be able to palate these flavors.

2. Soft Drinks Have Killed Our Finer Perceptions of Taste
After twenty or more years of drinking soda, fruit juice, and other sweet beverages we are not prepared for the harsher taste and texture of beer. Beverages like soft drinks have destroyed our sense of taste – that blast of sugar overwhelms your senses with a single artificial flavor which doesn’t leave any room for finer tones to be appreciated. You don’t drink a Pepsi and note a slight smokiness or hints of espresso in the flavor. Instead, you are slammed with the essence of super-carbonated “Pepsi-ness.” Learning to appreciate layers of flavors and aromas is a large part of learning to appreciate beers, especially the stronger styles.

3. You Haven’t Tried Enough Variety
My best advice for learning to enjoy strong beer styles is to try a variety of them. Beer really is an acquired taste.  I tried forcing down many beers that I didn’t like once I turned 21, but it wasn’t until I discovered amber and brown ales that I started to enjoy sitting down with a beer.  I didn’t like any IPA’s until I found the well-balanced Bell’s Two Hearted Ale, which is a strong IPA that has a lot more flavor to it than just hops. I didn’t like darker beers until I tried Anchor Porter. Your break-through beer might just be the next one you try.
Is there a style of beer that you are still learning to appreciate?

Left Out of the Conversation

BeerAdvocate.com is a website that serves as a forum for people to describe and rate beers. As I was cruising around there earlier I found this description of a certain beer’s taste by a person on the forum:

“Sweet on the tip of the tongue with a warm middle. A little note of alcohol warmth but well hidden. The dark fruits now come out with greater intensity and phenols from the yeast’s work let it be known.”

I don’t really get a good sense of how the beer tastes based on that description. I feel left out of the conversation, like the author is trying harder to appear sophisticated than to help others understand the beer.

Look as this description of the same beer by somebody else:

“Aromas are pleasant and come through more as the ale warms: musty, boozy, earthy, sweet, caramel, honey, fruity as it warms w plum & cherry. Tastes are boozy, rich, sweet, malty, fruity with plum, raisin, currant, rum, bready yeast, mossy, musty, earthy – great complexity!”

I’m not certain that it is actually possible to pull out that many distinct flavors from the beer, but at least I get a really good idea of how the beer tastes from the second description. It is truly a description of the taste, not of the experience of drinking the beer. This makes me think two things:

1. Get familiar with many different flavors so that you can recognize and describe them when tasting beer (or anything else).

2. Keep it simple and approachable. Don’t try to appear sophisticated or appeal only to the “True” beer tasters.
Have you had experiences in the beer world that have left you feeling left out of the conversation?

The Most Common Descriptive Terms Used In Beer Tasting

Lately I have been very interested in the art of beer tasting since readings Gary Vaynerchuk’s book Crush It!, which frequently references adventures in wine tasting. Recently I did a little exercise with beer tasting in mind, and it made me realize just how many home brewing and beer drinking terms I don’t understand – when I encounter them I usually skip over them or make a guess as to what they mean.

So here’s what I did:
I went through an entire home brewing supply catalog and highlighted every word that was used to describe beer tastes. My survey included 62 different beer kits that were described in the catalog, and from these I pulled out 192 descriptors of which about 134 were unique terms. It is important keep in mind, though, that these descriptions are being used to sell the beer kits. There were no descriptions of off-flavors or off-putting tastes (although “tar” was listed as a flavor in one of the stouts!). Even so, I think that the results are interesting, and they show me just how much I have to learn about beer tasting.

Here’s what I learned:

  • There are many, many flavors that I am not familiar with. If I am going to become a more prodigious beer taster I will need to become familiar enough with flavors like coriander, plum, and buttered pastry to pick them out of the complex flavor profile of a beer.
  • There are a bunch of terms in the advertising literature that are supposed to be luring me in, but instead they are blocking me out. Over the next few weeks I will be exploring terms like “nose,” “body,” “bouquet,” “finish,” “esters,” “phenolic,” “quaffable,” “dryness,” and “hop-bursting,” specifically with how they relate to beer making and tasting. I can make a pretty good guess as to what each word means given the context, but it is still just a guess.

Most Common Terms To Describe Beer Tastes:
My little study was not scientific – I sat down with a highlighter, turned on some loud music, and went through a single company’s catalog. Many beer styles are represented, from pale ales to Belgian ales to IPA’s and stouts. This wide variety of beer styles clearly necessitates a wide variety of descriptors. Even so, below are the top 6 general words that were used to describe the beer flavors. These six comprise about 22% of the total descriptors used in the magazine. The rest of the descriptors are just used once or twice.

  1. Fruity (used 10 times)
  2. Spicy (used 8 times)
  3. Caramel (used 7 times)
  4. Citrus (used 6 times)
  5. Coffee (used 6 times, including descriptions like light-roast, dark roast, etc)
  6. Floral (used 5 times, usually referring to hop flavor)

Finally, below are each of the descriptive words that I found in the catalog.  Are there any words below that you wouldn’t know how to use when describing beer taste?

All Descriptors Found In the Catalog:

apricot coriander hop-bitter shot of hops
baking chocolate cream hoppy smooth
big finish creamy textured hops smooth mouthfeel
biscuit character crisp lemon-citrus snappy
bitter chocolate character crisp finish light sweet malt sour apple
bitter orange peel dark fruit light-bodied spices
bittersweet finish delicate floral note lighter body spicy
bittersweet roastiness dried fruit lingering bitterness spicy cloves
bittnerness drier malt spicy English hop profile
black tea dry maltiness spritzy
bread dough overtones dry  and mildly bitter finish malty spine subtle fruit notes
bread tangles dry finish medium-bodied sweet
bready earthy medium-full body sweet finish
burnt earthy hop bitterness medium-light body sweet graininess
burnt caramel english biscuits modest bitterness sweet malt body
butter toffee estery multigrain bread sweet malt profile
buttered toast fig neutral finish syrupy malt
buttered-pastry sweetness floral maltiness nutmeg tangerine
candied citrus floral nose oats tar (!)
candy-like sweetness floral notes oilier mouthfeel tart
caramel flowers peppery finish toasty
caramel toffee flowery hops phenolic toffee
caramelized sugar fruity pine tropical fruit flavors
chewy minerals full-bodied plums turbinado sugar
chocolate ginger pumpernickel bread vanilla
chocolate liqueur grain-and-bread malt raisins warm cereal
cinnamon grainy flavor rich in malt complexity warming
citrus grainy sweetness rich spiciness warming alcohol note
citrus hop profile grainy-spicy ripe pear fruit wheat malt character
clean grapefruit roast grain
clean-finishing herbal roasted chocolate
cocoa herbal hops roastiness
coffee hint of grain roasty notes
complex finish honey rum
complex malt hop flavor rye