Beer Break

Beer Break Vol. 1, No. 27
How to talk about what you taste

March 8, 2002

What we call the taste of beer is pretty simple: Malt, hops, yeast and water create a combination of aroma, taste and feel. Talking about what we taste can be a little more intimidating, but whether you are taking notes for later use or just yakking with friends being able to describe those tastes will add to the experience.


The fact is that more than 1,000 different flavor elements have been identified in beer, and additional ones are being discovered as increasingly sensitive analytical methods are developed.

You'll find plenty of tasting terms on the Beer Flavor Wheel developed by Dr. Morten Meilgaard. His system of terminology has 14 classes, 46 first-tier terms, and 76 second-tier terms. Some are pretty obvious, like apple, prefumy, almond, while others may make you stop and think, like when you come across a beer you'd describe as catty.

As daunting as it may seem to give specific names to tastes the more you use explicit descriptors the more comfortable you'll be getting that specific. Think for a moment about describing spaghetti sauce in terms other than tomato, green pepper, onion, oregano, etc. Now do the same thing with beer. Instead of fruity, you may notice apple or pear or blackcurrant (on the Beer Flavor Wheel, catty describes blackcurrant leaves, tomato plants and oxidized beer).

You don't have to be as expansive as Stephen Beaumont was in describing Triple White Sage (in last week's Beer Break): "This herbal character, underscored with a hint of mint, continues in the body of the beer, with some light alcohol and apricot notes providing the supporting flavour chorus. At the finish, a refreshing note of bitterness comes into play along with a slightly resiny character reminiscent of rosemary."

However, looking at tasting notes from experienced authors like Beaumont and Michael Jackson should help you get going. Not only will they broaden your vocabulary, but often you can try the same beers and compare your tastes to theirs. If you do, first taste a beer and make your own notes. Then read their notes and taste the beer again -- do you get the same tastes, do you better understand what Jackson means when he used the word earthy?

At the back of "Michael Jackson's Great Beer Guide" he provides a useful Lexicon of Flavors and Aromas, noting that "tasters often express flavors in terms of 'aroma metaphors' that refer to other drinks and foods." Here are just a few of the dozens of descriptors he offers:

Apples - A fresh, delicate, pleasant, sweet apple character arises from the fermentation process in some English ales, famously Martston's. A more astringent, green apple taste can arise from insufficient maturation.

Cookielike - Typical character of pale malt. Suggests a fresh beer with good malt character.

Earthy - Typical character of traditional English hops. Positive characteristic in British ales.

Grapefruit - Typical character of American hops, especially the Cascade variety.

Grass, Hay - Can be a hop characteristic. Fresh, new-mown hay is typical in some classic European lagers. It arises from a compound called dimehtyl sulfide, caused by fermentation with traditional lager yeasts.

Madeira - Caused by oxidation. In very strong, bottle-conditioned beers that have been aged many years, this will be in a pleasant balance. In another type of beer, it is likely to be unpleasant.

Nuts - Typical malt characteristic in many types of beer, especially Northern English brown ales. Arises from crystal malt.

Roses - Can arise from hops. Also from yeast development during bottle-conditioning, especially in some Belgian beers.

Sour - Appropriate in Berliner Weisse, lambic, or Flemish brown or red specialties, but not in other styles of beer.

Toast - Malt characteristic in some dark ales, porters and stouts.

Tasting notes

Brewed by Dogfish Head Brewing in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware

Michael Jackson's tasting notes:

... another of my favorites. It contains peated barley, demerara sugar, maple syrup, vanilla beans and juniper berries; has a secondary fermentation with Champagne yeast; and is matured over oak chips from Chardonnay barrels. This heady, fruity, brew starts with a rich sweetness, becoming firmer, then lightly smoky and woody.

Brewed by Widmer Bros. In Portland, Oregon

Gregg Smith's tasting notes:

Often cited as brewers of the first modern American Altbiers, the Widmer brothers ... were descended from Dusseldorf stock. Their heritage and dedication to tradition manifests itself in one of the better U.S. Altbiers. Brewed with big malt, (including a touch of roasted malt) and balanced with aggressive hops, it presents an alluring color of deep copper. Without challenge it embodies everything you'd expect from an Alt.