Taste and flavor
By becoming more aware of your senses and then developing a vocabulary to articulate those senses, you can develop a deeper understanding of beer. When you are better able to tease out different aromas and flavors, and when you are able to articulate those senses into words, you can better understand why different characteristics are present in a beer, you can understand what a customer wants, and you can know when a beer has gone bad.
“If you take the time to develop an approach and a vocabulary,” says Randy Mosher in Tasting Beer, “even casually tasted beers may reveal themselves in greater depth, meaning, and eventually, pleasure.”
This section explores the sense of taste and flavor. We talk a little bit about how our bodies feel these senses. And we talk about the different ways in which these senses are perceived. That is, the main flavors and smells in beer.
The reading material for this section was found in Tasting Beer, Great Beer Guide, and Beeradvocate “How To Taste Beer.”
How we perceive flavor
The senses can be weird things. Physical parts of the body—the taste buds on the tongue, or olfactory sensors in the nose, for example—perceive chemicals in our environment. Then the nervous system translates those senses in the brain.
Everybody is built slightly different, and everybody has had different experiences. So our senses affect us differently. One person might enjoy a particular flavor while another person despises it.
After clean sheets have been stored in the closet a while, they lose the odors of artificial detergents and burnt drier lint. Before making the bed, I press my face into the sheets and inhale deeply. To me it smells glorious, a scent that I call “fresh linen.”
Meanwhile, my girlfriend grimaces and turns away. She thinks it smells “musty.”
musty | ˈməstē | adj. having a stale, moldy, or damp smell. having a stale taste.
It’s not only the physical sensors that affect our senses. Our past experiences also play a part. For example, Mosher says that the sense of smell in particular takes “a detour through… the hypothalamus, seat of appetite, and fear; the hippocampus, regulator of memories; and the brain stem, which controls basic bodily functions like respiration.”
A beer with flavors and scents that bring up happy childhood memories of grandmother’s kitchen, for example, will likely sell well. “Even if your audience is not aware of the connection,” says Mosher.
Additionally, senses often work together. In fact, smell accounts for 90-95 percent of our sense of taste.
There are 2 sets of sensors for smell. Although they both sense molecules in the air, they are separate and processed differently by the brain.
The first set of sensors, high in the nose, analyze aromas to categorize and identify them.
The second set is further back, in the channel that connects the nose and mouth, and even in the back of the mouth. This set processes less as aroma and more as flavor. It affects perceptions of preference and familiarity.
Michael Jackson explains in Great Beer Guide, “Tasters often express flavors in terms of ‘aroma metaphors’ that refer to other drinks and food.”
It’s ok to say that a beer has aromas of bananas and butterscotch, or grapefruit and flowers. That doesn’t mean that it was brewed with those ingredients, it’s the closest connection that our brain conjures up. As your senses are honed, characteristics of beer will be an indicator of ingredients or brewing process.
All that you learned in elementary school about the taste map of your tongue? Yeah, forget about that. That model was derived by some whackos in the 1800s.
It’s about time, because I always thought I was the odd one who’s tongue was broken. Anyway…
Turns out, says Mosher, “there is some slight localization of flavor on the tongue, but most of the tongue is sensitive to all six flavors.”
Although the whole tongue is covered in bumps, those are mostly mechanical. Only some of the bumps have taste buds.
On the front two-thirds of the tongue the taste buds, for the most part can detect all flavor categories.
Along the sides at the back of the tongue, the taste buds detect all flavor categories, but are especially sensitive to fat and sour.
On the back of the tongue, the taste buds detect all flavors, but are especially sensitive to bitter and fat.
Everybody is familiar with the primary flavors:
There are some new flavors since when I learned this in elementary school:
Plus some flavors less agreed-upon and still being studied:
- Acidic (related to sour)
Sweet – Almost all beers have at least some sweetness. Usually it is balanced or even overshadowed by hops, roasted malt, or acidity.
Certain beer styles have more residual sugar and taste more sweet. e.g., Scotch ale, doppelbock, sweet stout.
Salty – Salt makes flavors richer and bigger. It’s not always in beer, but sometimes it plays a part as mineral-rich water or sometimes it’s even intentionally added.
Sour/Acid – Sour and acidity, as measured in pH, are closely related. Mosher says that the sour taste sensors detect hydrogen ions, just like pH meters do.
Normally beer is only moderately acidic. Sour Belgian beers more strongly feature sour/acidic flavors.
Acidity often indicates ripe fruit. So sour/acidic flavors are also important in fruit beers.
Bitter – Bitter is nature’s way of protecting us from eating poison. Mosher says that we have maybe up to 30 different kinds of bitter receptors, yet science believes that there’s only one bitter signal sent to the brain.
Meanwhile, many people claim to detect different flavors of bitterness. So “bitter” flavor is sort of a catchall for a variety of senses.
The bitter signal is more complex and takes longer to process. This can be evident when tasting bitter beer. “The first taste sensation is likely to be a mix of sweetness and acidity,” says Mosher, “but after a beat the bitterness kicks in and builds to a crescendo.”
Not only that, but “the bitterness takes longer to leave the palate as well, sometimes lingering for several minutes in especially assertive beers.”
Peculiarly, humans are the only species that do not automatically reject bitterness. Some people crave it, as evidenced by the indomitable popularity of IPA.
Umami – Umami was scientifically described in 1908 by Japanese chemist, Kikunae Ikeda (Wikipedia). The western world accepted its existence much more recently. Umami means “pleasant savory taste.” It is also described as “deliciousness.” It is a brothy or meaty taste present in fish, cured meats, soy sauce, mushrooms and a variety of vegetables like spinach, tomatoes, and celery.
In beer, Umami plays a role especially in aged beer, where it can be perceived as meatiness or taste like soy sauce.
Fat – The taste receptors for fat were discovered only in 2005. Beer is a fat-free product, so it’s not yet clear whether this flavor plays any role in beer other than pairing with food.
Carbonation – Carbonation usually comes from carbon dioxide (CO2) gas. Beer can be naturally carbonated from yeast, or force-carbonated from compressed CO2.
Carbon dioxide in beer forms carbonic acid, which can increase sourness.
Also, a “bite” is perceived when bubbles form on the tongue.
(Source: Oliver, Garrett. The Oxford Companion to Beer. Oxford: The Oxford University Press, 2012. p. 134. https://books.google.com. Accessed August 21, 2015.)
Metallic – A metallic flavor in beer is usually a flaw. It can be caused by metals dissolving into the wort, or from poorly stored malts. Stainless steel does not impart a metallic flavor.
(Source: Palmer, John. How To Brew: Everything You Need To Know To Brew Beer Right The First Time. Boulder, CO: Brewers Publications, 2006. Chapter 21.2. http://www.howtobrew.com. Accessed August 21, 2015.)
Mouthfeel is a sensation more than a flavor. It’s how the beer feels in the mouth and can describe a range of sensations such as:
- Viscosity (thickness/thinness)
- Cooling or burning (like mint or peppers)
Other sensations specifically associated with beer are:
- Full palate
The Certified Beer Server Syllabus specifically focuses on two:
Body – Body refers specifically to the firmness/thickness sensation of the liquid in your mouth. According to Michael Jackson, it can range “from thin to firm or syrupy.”
Beer foam comes from the unique protein structure in the beverage. The protein structure, says Randy is “very similar in structure to a thin sort of Jell-O.” This also makes for a fullness of palate.
Wheat and other grains like oats and rye have a protein structure that makes particularly great beer foam, and those beers also have a special sort of mouthfeel.
Carbonation – We already discussed how carbonation can add a sourness and a bite to beer.
Different kinds of beers have differing amounts of carbonation.
Some highly carbonated beers are:
- Belgian abbey
- American light lager
Some lightly carbonated beers are:
- British cask ale (“real ale”)
- Imperial stout
Now that we know what aromas and flavors to look for in beer, we can be on the lookout for those characteristics while we imbibe.
Components and evaluation
Appearance – As you approach the beer, take a look. What does it look like? What color is it? What shade of color? Is the liquid clear or hazy?
What does the foam look like? Is it thick or thin on top of the beer? Are the individual bubbles large or small?
Aroma – Next, smell the beer. Does it have much odor, or can you smell hardly anything? Is it sweet or pungent? Do you smell flowers or caramel?
Think of the words we learned above and try to identify whether any are present.
Taste – Finally, we can taste the beer. Is it sweet or bitter? Does it taste like grains or bread? Does it taste fruity or spicy? Does it bring any other flavors to mind?
Does your tongue pucker in certain areas and not in others?
Mouthfeel – With the beer still in your mouth, what does it feel like? Is it thin or thick? Watery or creamy? Cool or warm?
Aftertaste – After you swallow the beer, notice how long the flavors linger. Do the flavors disappear right away or do they last a while? What flavors do you taste?
Key evaluation techniques
As you try to evaluate a beer and get to know it’s attributes and character, there are some techniques that help to tease out the attributes and to build your skills.
Look – Hold your beer up to eye level so you can peer into the glass and see what it looks like. While tasting a variety of beers, hold them each up to a consistent background. A white background is best to see the true colors of the beer.
Do not hold the beer up to direct light, it will dilute its true color.
Swirl the glass lightly to observe head retention.
Smell – Holding the glass 6-8 inches (15-20 cm) away from your nose, swirl the glass, and smell with one or 2 short “distant sniffs.”
Swirl the glass, raise it close to your nose and smell with one or 2 “short sniffs.” First smell with the mouth closed. Then with the mouth open. Even take some breathes through your mouth and exhale through your nose.
Swirl the glass, raise it to your nose and smell with one “long sniff.”
Swirl the glass lightly to agitate the carbonation and release more aromas out of the beer. If you need to, you can use a “covered sniff.” Hold the palm of your hand over the top of the glass while you swirl to keep the aromas in the headspace. Then smell just as you take your hand away.
Try to limit the other odors in the room during this process.
Feel and taste – Sip the beer and let it fill all parts of the inside of your mouth and tongue.
Exhale while the beer in still in your mouth. Remember smell accounts for up to 95 percent of taste. Also, the beer will warm slightly in your mouth, which will change the flavors and aromas.
Flavor senses continue after swallowing, so keep paying attention.
Now we’re on our way to better understanding the beautiful beverage of beer.
Take your time with every beer that you drink. Even better—forego full glasses for tasting flights. Taste as many different beers as you can get your hands on and compare many different beers to each other.
Try 3 brown ales from 3 different breweries. Try 5 different beers styles from the same brewery. Try the same beer chilled and at room temperature.
If you want to learn about beer, drink beer. If you want to learn more about beer, drink more beer.
Next we’ll learn about how to identify the normal flavors of beer and their source, malt, hops, and yeast.
Flashcards for this section
Based on the reading materials mentioned and my notes above, here are my flashcards for this section.
Are taste and smell the same for everybody?
No, everybody senses differently.
The physical sensors in our body are not exactly the same for everybody. Additionally, senses are interpreted differently in the brain.
What tastes good to one person might taste horrible to someone else.
Are taste and smell independent from each other?
No. Smell accounts for 90-95% of our sense of taste.
Where in the body are the 2 sets of sensors for smell located?
- High in the nose
- In the channel that connects the nose and mouth, and in the back of the mouth
What are the tiny bumps on the tongue?
The tiny bumps on the tongue are not taste buds, they are for mechanical purposes.
Some of those tiny bumps have taste sensors on the sides.
True for false: The front of the tongue tastes only sweet and salty flavors.
False! Some parts of the tongue are slightly more sensitive to certain flavors, but most of the tongue is sensitive to all of the flavors.
What flavors are detected by the taste buds on the front 2/3 of the tongue?
The front 2/3 of the tongue is sensitive to all flavors.
What flavors are detected by the taste buds on the sides at the back of the tongue?
The sides at the back of the tongue are sensitive to all flavors, and are especially sensitive to fat and sour.
What flavors are detected by the taste buds on the back of the tongue?
The back of the tongue is sensitive to all flavors, and is especially sensitive to bitter and fat.
5 established flavors, one emerging flavor, and 2 less agreed-upon flavors
- Sour (emerging flavor Acidic is similar)
Emerging flavor: Fat
Less agreed-upon flavors:
What is umami flavor?
Umami is pleasant savory taste or deliciousness.
It tastes brothy or meaty.
What is mouthfeel?
Mouthfeel is how the beer feels while it’s in the mouth.
e.g., carbonation, viscosity, cooling or burning
What is body in the mouthfeel?
Body is how firm or thick the liquid feels in your mouth.
It can range from thin to firm or syrupy.
What is the main thing that affects the body of a beer?
A unique protein structure in beer gives it the body.
This is also what causes beer foam.
How does carbonation affect mouthfeel?
Carbonation adds a sourness and a bite to beer.
3 highly carbonated beer styles
- Belgian abbey
- American light lager
3 lightly carbonated beer styles
- British cask ale (“real ale”)
- Imperial stout
5 components to beer evaluation
3 techniques for beer evaluation
- Feel & taste
Why write the flashcards by hand?
Buy the full set here:
Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.