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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?

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