Last week we explored the aromas of beer. In truth, the flavour of any beer is largely attributable to its aroma as our taste buds can only perceive sweetness, saltiness, acidity and bitterness, along with texture. In the case of beer, carbonation is also an important taste influencer. If you want to enhance your beer tasting experience, it’s a great idea to identify the components of a beer’s palate.
How to Taste
Before assessing the individual components of a beer, let’s begin with how to taste it. Tasting beer is much like tasting wine. Have a sip and avoid the temptation to swallow immediately. Let the beer sit on your palate and swish it around a little bit. At the same time, exhale a little. This process, which takes a little time to perfect, encourages some of the beer to evaporate. The vapours rise in your mouth, stimulating your olfactory senses, which provide more information about the beer’s aromas. Note down any additional aromas you sense. Next, it’s time to identify some of the structural elements of the beer.
A Great Body
We describe beer as having body or weight. Overall, this refers to how heavy it feels on your palate. Think of light-bodied beers as being close in texture to water and full-bodied beers akin to milk or cream. The main influence on the impression of weight or body is alcohol level, but there are other factors. The more alcohol in the beer, the more full-bodied the beer is. Serving temperature also plays a role. The colder you serve your beer, the less impression of weight it will have. So, if you find dark ales too heavy, trying serving them a little more chilled.
Carbonation also plays a role here. A highly carbonated beer will taste lighter and fresher compared to one without a lot of carbonation, even if the alcohol levels of the two beers are the same. When describing a beer, be sure to identify it as being light-bodied, medium-bodied or full-bodied. The latter is reserved for rich, malty ales such as Stouts, Barley Wine (it’s a beer style) or Scottish ales, amongst others.
The Texture of Taste
The texture of a beer is referred to as mouthfeel by professional beer judges. Some beers have a crisp mouthfeel, while others are better described as creamy. Beers that are artificially carbonated tend to have big, coarse bubbles, while naturally carbonated beers tend to have finer bubbles, contributing to a softer, creamier mouthfeel. By in large, lagers have more identifiable carbonation compared to many ales and are more likely to be described as crisp as opposed to creamy.
Sweet On Beer
Most beers aren’t sweet, as brewers ferment all the available natural sugars (maltose, glucose and fructose) found in the wort. The wort is the liquid created by steeping cracked malted barley (and sometimes other grains) with hot liquid. The process converts starches found in the malted barley into fermentable sugars. Some brewers add additional sugar to the wort to increase the final beer’s alcohol level. While most beers don’t have much, if any, residual sugar, they do have varying levels of perceived sweetness from the malt. Typically, the richer the malt content, the stronger impression of sweetness the final beer has.
It’s OK to Be Bitter
Many beers have a bitter finish to them as a result of the addition of hops — the flowering cone of the hop vine. Lagers, as a general rule, have less hop bitterness, although exceptions exist such as classic European-style Pilsners. The amount of bitterness is a result of the type of hop used and the point during the brewing process the hops are added. To achieve higher levels of hop bitterness, brewers tend to add the hops at early stages. Most brewers try to achieve a balance of malt sweetness with hop bitterness, but certain styles favour a more pronounceable bitter finish. Classic examples include West Coast style Pale Ales and India Pale Ales.
Some breweries even go so far as to indicate the amount of hop bitterness in the beers on their back label, indicated as International Bitterness Units. Most lagers, wheat ales and other styles that do not focus on bitterness will have an IBU rating of 20 or less. Pale Ales tend to have a bitterness rating of 50 or more, with some India Pale Ales and West Coast style Pale Ales approaching — and occasionally surpassing — 100.
The final piece of the palate of a beer is its carbonation level. Carbonation (the result of dissolved Carbon Dioxide) is a by-product of fermentation. A number of factors determine the level of carbonation of your beer. As a general rule of thumb, beer produced using cool fermentation temperatures (typically lagers are made this way) retain more carbonation as opposed to beers fermented at warmer temperatures (ales). The higher level of carbonation of lagers contributes to their crisp and refreshing flavour profile. While many ales don’t have a high level of carbonation, some is desired as it keeps the ale from tasting lifeless and sweet.
Next time you enjoy a beer, note how it feels on the palate. Identifying some of its various components such as body, mouthfeel, sweetness, bitterness and carbonation will greatly enhance your appreciation of beer. A great idea is to try a few different beer styles as a tasting exercise to note similarities and differences of these various building blocks that make up the taste of a beer.