Breaking it Down

Just like how the connoisseurs of fine spirits and wine sommeliers have their own unique ways of describing the tastes and sensations experienced during the consumption of their respective drinks, the brewers and experts who exist within the world of beer use a number of bases on which to describe the taste of beer.

Irrespective of the specific type, all beer can be analysed upon the following four main flavour or taste attributes:

  • How Crisp & Refreshing it is
  • The Specific Types & Intensity of Fruit or Other Flavours
  • The Level of Bitterness Found in the Beer
  • Its Thickness or Mouthfeel

Other attributes, including its level of carbonation, variety of aromas, noticeable colour, and specific and unique flavours, are often sometimes mentioned as sub-descriptors that help to separate the taste of a particular beer apart.

This site helps to explain some of the additional taste qualities that are commonly attributed to beer.

Crisp & Refreshing Taste in Beer

Whilst almost all beers are seen as crisp and refreshing in their own right, different types and styles are typically more effective at creating this feeling than others.

The beers most proficient in leaving us feeling refreshed will almost always present as low to moderate in their thickness or mouthfeel, often containing limited to only mild levels of fruit flavours and bitterness, neither of which lingers.

It is also not uncommon for some styles of crisp and refreshing beer, many lagers in particular, to possess practically no hop or fruit flavours but a distinct maltiness instead, which manifests itself in a somewhat bready, biscuity, and sometimes subtly sweet taste that is often followed by a quick, crisp, and slightly bitter finish.

The Crisp & Refreshing Taste in Beer Explained

In any case, it is generally understood that lagers are more crisp in their finish and typically more refreshing than ales due to their often lighter character, less intense bitterness, and generally more subdued flavours that don’t leave our senses feeling overwhelmed.

One exception in the ale category are sour ales, which contain a wonderfully refreshing amount of tart acidity or sourness that acts as an excellent palate cleanser.

When looking to describe how crisp and refreshing a beer is, it is often best to look at and explain how heavy the beer feels when sitting in your mouth and how strong both the bitterness and fruit flavours are, as those that are light in all three of these aspects are almost always the most crisp and refreshing.

Fruitiness in Beer

It is common when tasting beer, in particular many styles of ale, to be confronted by the aromas and taste of fruits, herbs, or spices, with some common examples often including:

  • Citric Fruits
  • Tropical Fruits
  • Herbal & Spice Flavours
  • Grassy Flavours
  • Earthy Notes

Whilst it is sometimes the case that these materials are used during the production of the beer considered, it is far more likely that these fruity, herbal, or spicy sensations are born as the result of hops, although it can also come from particular strains of yeast or even from the malts used.

As mentioned previously, hops and yeast both provide additional flavour or bitterness to a beer, among other things, that helps, in part, to reduce the often bready or roasty sweetness imparted by the malt.

Depending upon the strain of both the hops and yeast used by the brewer, and when along the brewing cycle the hops are implemented, the bitterness and taste of the resulting beer will be significantly affected.

Fruitiness in Beer Explained

As a general rule, if hops are added early during the brewing process then the final beer can be expected to be high in bitterness and fruity, herbal, or spicy flavours.

The opposite is true when hops are included later or near the end of the brewing cycle, as this tends to add a far more delicate bitterness and subtle taste and aroma of fruits, herbs, or spices.

With yeast, particular strains, especially when left unfiltered from the final beer, can produce unique and interesting flavours, exemplified in the flavours of coriander and banana found in many German wheat beers.

It should be noted, however, that brewers have historically used various spices, fruits, and herbs, such as orange peels or coriander, as the main ingredient to add additional flavour to their beers and many brewers today still follow this practice.

Because these types of flavours in beer can come from various sources, it is often best when describing the taste of fruits, spices, or herbs in beer, to name the prominent fruits, herbs, or spices tasted and their level of intensity as this is a simple way of explaining these flavour sensations in any beer considered, irrespective of whether or not these ingredients were actually used during production.

Bitterness in Beer

As mentioned previously, much of the bitterness that we taste in beer is as a direct result of the amount and type of hops used by the brewer during production.

In describing the level of bitterness found in beer, there are a number of different approaches beer experts, brewers, and scientists have taken, not least of which is their use of the international bittering units (IBU) scale.

Put simply, the IBU scale is a scientific method of measuring the chemical compounds found in a beer that causes bitterness, rating their levels on a numerical scale.

Bitterness in Beer Explained

Whilst many brewers today actively use this scale on their packaging when describing the intensity of bitterness found in their beers, the IBU scale is not a perfect system of accurately describing the actual taste of the bitterness in beer perceived by the consumer.

This is because although the IBU scale measures the amount of bitterness causing chemical properties found in a beer, other flavours, such as a strong malt profile, can overshadow the bitter flavours caused by hops, meaning beers with a high IBU score can actually taste quite sweet or smooth if they possess a lot of roasted malts, for instance.

In addition to this, bitter flavours can often come as a result of the malt profile, such as in the case in beers that have a distinct bitter coffee taste.

It is often best, therefore, to describe the bitterness of a beer through what it actually tastes like on some kind of relativity scale, rather than relying on the IBU scale, as the perceived bitterness of a beer, with all flavour aspects considered, represents the most accurate method of describing how bitter a beer really tastes.

Body & Mouthfeel in Beer

Although most people will expect to find beer to be light, easy-drinking, and crisp and refreshing, it is not uncommon to find richly flavoured and full-bodied beers that feel as thick as a chocolate milkshake or heavier.

Most heavy style beers are commonly found under the family of ales, in particular stouts or porters, although some lager styles, such as doppelbock or schwarzbier, are also examples of full-bodied beers.

The factors of production that most affect the body of a resulting beer, which is the weight and texture of the liquid as it enters and sits in your mouth, are the types of grain used in the malt, yeast strain utilised, and the amount of inherent carbonation.

Body & Mouthfeel in Beer Explained

As an example of how the grain type can affect the body of a particular beer, consider flaked oats, which provides perhaps the most significant amount of body and texture to beer.

This grain type produces beers of exceptionally high texture and body, exemplified in beers such as oatmeal stouts that are notoriously thick.

Outside of grain, yeast exists as the perhaps the next most important contributing factor to a beer’s body as, depending upon the strain used, more unfermentable sugars will be left behind post fermentation, resulting in far heavier and sweeter beers.

The final greatest contributing factor towards a beers body, its level of carbonation, can be simply explained as the fizziness or intensity of the bubbles inside the drink.

Those possessing higher levels of carbonation will always feel lighter in texture and weight than those low in carbonation, with lower amounts often resulting in distinctly creamier styles of beer.

When looking to describe the body of a beer, always refer to how heavy the beer feels in your mouth and its overall texture, which can vary from light-bodied or slightly textured to heavy-bodied or intensely textured.

Alcohol in Beer

Though not typically mentioned as a massive contributor or otherwise of flavour in beer, alcohol does impact upon how we perceive a particular beer’s body and, in some cases, its bitterness.

Whilst the body is most directly impacted through a beer’s malt bill, level of carbonation, and yeast strain, very high levels of alcohol can result in a beer feeling much fuller in taste and body.

In addition to affecting the body of beer, it is common for alcohol to also impact upon how bitter the drink tastes, which is true amongst all alcoholic beverages, as those with very high levels will have a noticeable bitterness to them common amongst high ABV drinks.

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