The many aspects of beer flavor

We all know beer is delicious. What most people don’t think much about is WHY it’s delicious, or why some folks will rant and rave about a brew that you think is mediocre. It’s fine to simply like or not like a beer, but if one puts a bit of effort into figuring out how the beer really tastes, they might discover other brews that have similar characteristics.

The standard beer rating standards feature five categories – appearance, scent, taste, mouthfeel, and “overall”, or how the first four come together to create a finished product. These are fine standards, and give a good impression of a brew, but I’ll add a few more, geared mostly to taste – sweetness, bitterness, balance between the two, carbonation, and alcohol.

Appearance is simple, and in my opinion, the least important aspect of a beer. Sure, we’re visual creatures and a good looking brew is appealing, but some beer geeks go nuts about clarity. While there is some validity to the idea that clarity can indicate quality, I’ve had plenty of good cloudy beers and really don’t give much weight to how a beer looks.

Scent can be surprisingly important. While there doesn’t seem to be a consensus about just how much a beer’s smell affects its taste, it definitely has a significant impact. The impression isn’t just about how it smells if you take a big sniff of the head, it’s about how it interacts with your nasal passages as you’re tasting it.

Do you have childhood memories of holding your nose while eating particularly nasty food your parents foisted upon you? That’s because you knew how much scent affects taste!

Taste is, of course, the most critical aspect of beer. Most top beers are a balance of sweetness from the malted barley and bitterness from hops, while some excellent beers skew to one end or the other.

If sweetness is your preference, delicious sweet beers include Octoberfests, some Belgian fruit beers like Lindemans Framboise, some white ales and hefeweizens, and milk stouts.

At the other end of the beer spectrum is bitterness, with IPAs being the “standard-beerer”. Some drinkers love really bitter IPAs, and the craft beer world went though a crazy “how bitter can you make it?” phase that thankfully is dying off. Most IPAs, and their more moderate cousins English bitters and pale ales, still leaned towards the bitter side of the spectrum, but tend to better balance sweetness with their bitter tendencies.

Of course, balance really is key. Top-notch brews will use bitterness to balance the sweetness of the beer. Heck, that’s why the virtually flavorless Miller claims of “triple hops” are legit. They DO use three hops, but the hops are just there to balance the sweetness, not to actually make the beer bitter.

A lot of people overlook carbonation and “mouthfeel,” which is exactly what you’d guess it is. Mouthfeel is affected by carbonation, of course, and describes how the beer feels in your mouth. Those Bud/Miller/Coors brews have a sharp, crisp mouthfeel, while a heavy Belgian trippel or a Russian imperial stout will have a much fuller, more silky coating and a nice rye ale will add a certain slickness to the mouth.

Finally, as one gets into higher ABV beers (8%+), one can often taste the alcohol. Occasionally, this is intentional, but most balanced high-ABV brews will lack that boozy bite. Sharp, alcoholic flavors are usually considered undesirable and are indicative of a poorly-constructed ale.

So as you’re enjoying your Independence Day brews, take a moment to really TASTE it. Sniff it, roll it around on your tongue, try to discern the flavors. Then throw some more burgers or barbecue on the grill and bask in the knowledge that you are now more aware of your beer and why you like it. Knowledge is power!

Originally published on July 4, 2013