Stop and smell the beer

By Donald S. Gosselin

There are over one hundred recognized individual styles of beer, many more than wine. While I'm sure that most beverage retailers can recite tannin, acidity and fruit as the distinguishing characteristics of wine, how many can tick off similar characteristics of beer? Now that's a tough question.

We will spend the next several issues of Yankee Brew Review shedding some light into these very subjects.

While beers are divided into two general categories, lagers and ales, further classification can get a bit tricky. As most wines feature varying degrees of fruitiness, so do many varieties of beer. Let's start with a hard and simple rule, fruity aromas are found almost exclusively in ales. Ales are fermented at room temperature, which lends itself to production of fruity aromas, or esters. Lagers, on the other hand, are fermented at much cooler temperatures, which prevents these interesting aromas from forming.

Long before the microbrewing renaissance, Coors debuted Killian's Red as an Irish ale. Sharp beerophiles immediately noticed the absence of any fruitiness to this beer. Coors now correctly markets the beer as Killians Irish Red Lager. Similarly, if you find a fruity beer that is labeled a "lager", you might want to question the brewery, or the distributor. They are either fibbing, or making poor quality beer. Fruitiness is considered a major fault in lager brewing.

Regular readers of my column will note references to fruit aromas of pear, strawberry, citrus and banana in microbrew reviews. The next time you open a fresh Geary's Pale Ale, or a Smuttynose Shoals IPA, look for a distinctive citrus fruit aroma. Tremont's Old Scratch Barleywine is filled with aromas of cherry and dried apricots. The ample fruit of Shipyard's Bluefin Stout is unmistakable. In fact, some beers are so fruity that they can even have a tiny degree of fruit flavor. The ales produced by the Oldenberg Brewery of Fort Mitchell, Kentucky, for instance, all have a similar hint of strawberry aroma and flavor. Chimay Trappist beers from Belgium all have a touch of banana in their aroma and flavor.

When sampling beer, fruitiness often gives way to two other distinct aromas -- hops and malt. The aroma of hops can be found in both ales and lagers. Samuel Adam's Boston Lager has a pungent aroma of the noble Hallertauer Mittlefruh hop, among the world's most prized. Casco Bay's Katahdin Red Ale also features a nice spicy hop aroma, as does Harpoon's IPA. Pilsner Urquell, a Czech lager of world renown, features a huge bouquet of the pungent Saaz hop in fresh examples. Tremont's India Pale Ale another classic, has a fragrant and memorable bouquet of choice British hops.

Malt, the third component of beer aroma, can evoke cookie or candy like aroma. Some examples, like Shipyard's Prelude Ale, and Ould Newbury's Yankee Ale have a toasty note, from liberal use of crystal, or caramel malts. Samuel Adam's Double Bock's has a massive malt aroma -- to the exclusion of hops. Catamount Porter has a pleasant toffee-like malt nose. On the edge of the spectrum, Guinness Stout can give off an acrid burnt note from its generous use of roasted barley.

Ever open a bottle of Samuel Smith's Pale Ale and detect "buttered popcorn"? Chardonnay fans will recognize this aroma as diacetyl, a natural by-product of fermentation. If not overdone, butteriness can add a pleasant note to a complex beer. Diacetyl is never found to that degree in lagers, but may be detected in lesser amounts in Continental examples, including Pilsner Urquell.

There are a few things that definitely do not belong in a beer's aroma. Any cardboard or "wet paper" smell indicates oxidation, and usually means that the beer has been mishandled by the brewery during packaging. Do your customers, the brewery (and yourself) a favor and pull the beer. Ditto for sherry aromas, often found in kegged British imports that are old, have been subjected to intense heat, or just didn't travel well. DMS (I won't bother spelling out the chemical name) can be described as a cooked corn, cabbage or vegetable smell in beer. It's usually a sign of infection, mishandling or poor brewing practices. Similarly, musty or moldy smells in beer are obvious signs of trouble. Skunkiness, usually found in imported "green bottle" beer, is the result of a chemical reaction that is caused by florescent lighting. Prolonged exposure to this type of light can change hop compounds into mercaptan, the stuff that angry skunks spray on your dog. Mercaptan is potent stuff, just a tiny bit is immediately detectable in beer. Rotating inventory and keeping the green bottles away from display case lighting can help prevent skunkiness from occurring.

© 1996 Donald S. Gosselin