It's about taste

By Donald S. Gosselin

What should a perfect ber taste like? A lot of that depends on what the taster enjoys. Some beer lovers prefer the powerful malt of microbrewed doublebocks and strong ales. Others enjoy the sharp hop tang found in many of our regions pale ales and IPAs. Others still enjoy the pungent sourness of a lambic, kriek or framboise.

If you're like me, you probably enjoy different styles at different times of the year. Early spring evenings, for example, call for a beer that not only is robustly flavored, but has a bit of alcohol kick to warm the blood. A robust porter, along the lines of Ould Newbury Porter, will certainly meet those requirements. For me, summer is wheat beer and pilsner season. There are few better lawn-mowing rewards than a Julius Echter Weiss or a Sam Adams Boston Lager, a wheat beer and a pilsner beer respectively.

No matter what you enjoy and when you choose to enjoy it, there are a few things that one ought to look for in a beer's flavor profile. Let's start with a general rule. As is the case with wine, balance is the key to all malt beverages. A well-crafted beer should feature a symphony between two basic ingredients -- hops and malt. No soloists need apply here. Too much of one particular ingredient can throw the entire brew into disharmony. When a beer is out of balance, it usually contains too much, or too little hop bitterness.

Have you ever had a beer that made your mouth pucker? Maybe you tasted one that made you thirsty afterwards? Or perhaps you had a beer that left your palate emphatically dry. These are classic signs of an overhopped beer, one that features a large amount of hops out of balance with the sweetness and body of malt. Before we go further, there are some classic bers styles that call for a large proportion of hops. India Pale Ales (IPAs) in particular are reknown for their generous hopping levels. However, India Pale Ales also have larger amounts of malt used in their recipes. The premise is a simple one -- once the taster perceives the hop tang, hop flavor and hop bitterness, he immediately tastes some smooth caramel or toasty malt sweetness in the finish of the beer. If those malt flavors are absent, the taster is left with that puckering bitter sensation on the palate, which, by itself, is not a great taste sensation. In short, when brewing a beer that calls for a lot of hops, a master brewer must ensure that he balances those hops with some additional malt sweetness.

On the opposite end of the spectrum are beers that are underhopped. Let's not confuse underhopped beers with the sweeter styles of Scotch ale and double bock beers. Both of these styles contain enough hops -- just barely -- to cleanse the palate of any lingering sweetness in the finish. Sure, they're big and sweet up front, but if you taste them carefully, you'll feel that sweetness swept from your palate with a drying hop bitterness. On the other hand, underhopped beers taste much like a milkshake in their cloying sweetness. World travelers may find them similar to Malta Goya, an unfermented beer soft drink that is widely popular in Latin America. Unlike Scotch ales and double bocks, underhopped beers all have a lingering, mouth-coating oversweetness that lingers on through the finish. Thankfully, not many microbrewed beers are that badly out of balance.

As is the case with aromatics, there are some unusual flavors that can be found in beer. Occasionally, an ale is so fruity that the fruit crosses over into the flavor. For example, may Belgian Trappiste beers have a small degree of banana flavor in their profiles. Most weizen beers have a slight, yet distinctive aroma and flavor of cloves. Many well made British-style ales taste of licorice, butter, wood, and minerals. While these flavors are pleasant, they should not be overdone, particularly with butteriness, or diacetyl. Buttery flavors should never be found in any lager except a handful of Czech pilsners. A hint of sulfur in some lagers is acceptable, too much is not. Lambics, perhaps the quirkiest of all beers, may not only have aromas and flavors of fruit, but also have unusually sharp flavors described as lactic, horsey, phenolic and just plain sour. While some people confuse bitterness and sourness as the same sensation, they are fairly simple to tell apart. Sourness is detected on the sides of the palate, while bitterness is detected at the end.

Some flavors do not belong in beer at all. Any papery flavor is a sign of oxidation, usually caused by mishandling at the brewery or at the distributorship. Sherry flavors also indicate oxidation, and are most often found in British imports. Soapiness and "cooked cabbage" flavors are usually signs of contamination at the brewery. Saltiness is usually caused by overuse of mineral salts to "harden" the brewery's water supply. Beers that are either sour or taste medicinal, with the exception of lambics (see above), may also be contaminated. Beers that are astringent or "grainy" need some tinkering at the brewery.

Now that you've read about these flavors and aromas, reach into the display case and pull out a cool one. If you pull out a cold one by mistake, let it warm up just a bit to unlock the flavor. Cheers.