I wanted to have a bit of fun today with a short article entitled “describe beer like a brewer”. I’ve been doing a fair few technical articles recently so, wanted to mix it up a bit.
I’m went to CBCE, which is a craft beer trade show in Shanghai last week. I met old friends plus finally caught up with some people who I’d only spoken to online before. Beer was drunk…
It got me thinking about how people describe beer, and to the writing of this article. When judging beer competitions, people in the trade refer to the BJCP (Beer Judge Certification Program) guidelines. In these guidelines the main criteria to look out for are:
Appearance – What does the beer look like? Is it clear or cloudy? Is there a thick white head? Does the head disappear quickly?
Aroma – How does the beer smell? Is it sweet, spicy, floral, dank, citrusy, piney, herbal, have chocolate notes or even bread or toast characteristics?
Mouthfeel – Does the beer taste thick or light? Is the beer smooth and creamy or has a carbonation bite? Is it cloying plus coats your tongue?
Overall Impression – What did you think of the beer? What you expected? Were there any elements which made the beer notable? Was there anything you didn’t like?
Now we’ve taken a general overview; let’s dig deeper into some of these elements.
Describe Beer Like A Brewer – Color and Appearance
In brewing we have color scales. See below for a guide to beer colors. There are different color scales used in beer. I mostly refer to SRM (standard reference method), the one introduced to me, when I first became as assistant brewer 25 years ago.
The BJCP guidelines should referenced when brewing a beer to style for competition. It has to be within certain the SRM parameters set…
For instance, if you’re brewing a German pilsner, it should be within 2 and 5 SRM. Furthermore, the foam should be white with the head lasting plus lacing in the glass.
Click here for the Brewers Association beer guidelines. I like the layout of this one better and you can download the pdf for easy reference.
Lacing is the residue from the beer foam which sticks to the inside of the glass as you drink your beer. If the beer has a good head, you’ll see layer of residue from every sip you take, as you work your way down the glass.
In the picture below, you can see the lines from each sip. The slower you drink a beer with good foam the more lacing you’ll see.
For darker beers like stout (think guiness), the head will be off-white, closer to light brown. This comes from the darker malts used when brewing the beer.
With carbonation; bubbles form at the sides and bottom of the glass, usually due to microscopic cracks serving as starting points for carbon dioxide molecules to gather. At some point the carbon dioxide will reach critical mass, the bubbles will detach and rise toward the head of the beer.
Beer Appearance Terms
When it comes to a beer’s appearance, what vocabulary can we use?
Straw colored, honey, copper, brown, dark red, apricot, black, orange, golden, deep gold, ruby red, chestnut and amber.
Colors are self-explanatory, these are just a guide. You can use any descriptor you like, if the beer reminds you of something else it’s fine to use the example…be it color, smell or taste.
Beer Clarity Terms – Describe Beer Like A Brewer
Beer styles, such as pilsner are meant to be clear. Although it’s up to the brewery’s discretion. To clear a beer, a brewer will filter, fine or centrifuge the beer before it’s packaged. Then there are beers such as NEIPA (New England IPA), which are supposed to be hazy,
We have many terms used in brewing to describe a beer’s clarity including…
Brilliant – The beer is really clear
Hazy – A beer which you can’t see through…mostly used with hazy IPA’s these days.
Turbid – Another word for haze.
Cloudy – The beer is not clear but you can see through the glass.
Opaque – The beer is pretty clear; some might say, the beer “has a cast”.
Clear – If you don’t look too closely the beer is clear, but if you do look very closely the beer might have a slight cast.
Crystal – Similar to brilliant
Bright – Same as clear, it’s good but don’t look to closely might have a tiny, tiny cast.
Dull – The beer is for the most part clear but there’s something stopping it being clear. It lacks a shine.
Describing a Beers Head
Most beers should have some form of head when poured. There are some beers like sours which might not have a head. Like with clarity, there are common terms used for describing a beer’s head/foam.
There’s actually a north/south divide in the UK when it comes to beer head. The north prefers a head on their beer and use a ‘sparkler” when pouring a beer to get said head. Whilst the south likes beer without a head.
Here are some terms you can use when describing a beers head/foam.
Persistent – The head stay as you drink down the glass somewhat
Rocky – Usually means a thick head
Large – Some people like a lot of head/foam on their beer. See the north/south divide mentioned above.
Fluffy – Again the head is thick, with an almost shaving cream like quality
Dissipating – The head of the beer leaves quite quickly
White – As described earlier, lighter beers can have a brilliant white head
Off-White – Beer are generally darker due to the special malts used and the head becomes off-white, usually brown or TAN (another descriptor) in color.
Frothy – The head is quite thicky but not quite fluffy, usually from beers with bigger bubbles.
Please note: Some beers don’t have a head. Like we said above; sour beers usually have little to no head when poured. Also, the head can disappear when a glass is dirty, or you’ve recently eaten food and there’s grease on your lips plus, if you’re wearing lipstick.
Describe Beer Like A Brewer – Aroma
There are many ways to describe aroma. They fall into good and bad descriptors. Most brewers can tell a beer is bad without tasting it, just from the aroma.
The aroma of a beer is important to a brewer. As drinkers “drink” with their eyes first (appearance), then the smell (aroma) and lastly taste. If the aroma isn’t appealing, it can affect person’s perception of the overall beer.
Beer is produced from four main ingredients; malt, hops, yeast and water. The first three can give distinctive aromas to a beer. Most people smell the hops first, especially true of IPA and hoppy beers.
When you’re describing the aroma of a beer, try to be as descriptive a possible. Here are some common references for describing a beer’s aroma.
Malty – One of the main ingredients of beer, if you’ve ever had a malt flavored drink you’ll know. In the UK, where I’m from, we have a hot drink called Ovaltine.
Other characteristics coming from the types of malt used are…
Sweet, grainy, graham cracker, biscuit, caramel, toast, expresso, roast and coffee.
Hop Aromas – Describe Beer Like A Brewer
When it comes to hops, they are some general terms commonly used to describe aroma. These include hay, straw, tobacco, pine and fresh cut grass (can sometimes indicate an off-aroma too).
Other common terms are burnt (not good), alcohol and leather (generally not good).
More Specific Hop Aroma Descriptors
Some hops give dark fruit aromas to a beer. These aromas can range from raisins, currant, dates, figs, plums, blackberries and blueberries.
In some IPA’s, light fruit aromas are desired with notes ranging from pineapple, apricot, nectarine, peach, mango to prickly pear. Then there are others light fruits aromas like banana, which can be smelt in Hefeweizens, a German wheat beer.
Citrus notes are desirable in many beers, especially some forms of IPA. There’s a range of hops which give citrus notes, including Ahtanum, Chinook, Amarillo, Comet and Cascade.
These hops give aromas such as lemon, lime, lemon zest, sweet orange peel, bitter orange peel, tangerine and grapefruit. One hop Comet, is known for its grapefruit zest aroma when used correctly.
My first brewing gig was making a German style pilsner using Liberty (as US hops) for aroma. Not seen in brewing circles often these days, but Liberty hops give a spiciness with some floral notes on the nose.
Other “spicy” descriptors you can use, include phenolics, often used when describing Belgian beers. Where you get pepper or clove notes. Other spicy note descriptors are white pepper, anise, licorice, nutty, earthy, fresh bread, musty and even smoked bacon.
There’s also a “horsey” or “horse blanket” aroma; which comes from the use of Brettanomyces yeast. It has some earthy undertones with a hint of horse sweat and actually desired in some beer.
Some other spicy notes are bad in beer such as:
Butterscotch/butter or Popcorn – This can come from diacetyl and is bad for a beer
Musty – This comes from using old or contaminated raw materials or improper sanitation when brewing.
Bad Aromas/Tastes – Describe Beer Like A Brewer
I want to look further into bad aromas now. I’m going a little off-topic; but feel this is an important subject. I like to think of myself as a beer educator, as well as a brewer/brewing consultant.
I wanted to include this section as I believe, nobody should drink bad beer!
This section will educate you on, what to look out for with bad beers. If you’re unlucky enough to drink a beer with an off-aroma or taste, it’s good to know why…
If you’re beer smells like rotten vegetables, it comes from mercaptan indicating a problem during fermentation or an anaerobic infection.
Skunky or Sulphury
Sulphury or skunky notes indicate your beer is light struck and a bad sign. It’s a reaction between light, riboflavin in the beer and hop alpha acids. Have you ever noticed noticed most beers are packaged in brown bottles? Brown bottles guard against your beer becoming light-struck compared to green and clear bottles.
Eggy, Geothermal Vent or Proper Sulphury
If the beer becomes stressed during fermentation it can lead to an eggy off aroma in the final beer. It can also be due to yeast autolysis or a bacterial infection also.
Goatish, Vegetable oil, Waxy or Goat Cheese
Comes from the metabolism of yeast during the fermentation. Its production is pH dependent, the lower the pH, the increase in perception of this aroma.
Baby Sick, Putrid or Cheesy
This is an easy one to spot, and…well gross. When I worked for AB InBev, we were trained on sensory analysis, where this off-flavor always made me gag. It comes from a bacterial infection at some point during the brewing process.
Fresh Wheat, Grainy or Harsh
As I said earlier, these notes can be fine in some style of beers at low levels. If the aroma is too strong it’s due to isobutyraldehyde in malt, but other aldehydes can supply the grainy character as well.
It comes from the brewing process; if malt is too finely crushed, from mashing for too long or from sparging issues too.
Fruity, Bananas, Pear, Peardrops or Nail Polish
We said earlier in Hefeweizens, banana notes/aroma is a desired aroma but, in other beers it’s not welcome. These aromas are esters produced during fermentation due to over production of Isoamyl Acetate. Which presents as nail polish at higher levels.
This off-flavor is caused by contact with metal materials whilst brewing, leaking metallic ions and/or lipid oxidation. In rarer circumstances metallic off-flavors can come from brewing water high in metallic ions.
Yeah, sour beers are a thing; I love me a good sour beer. However, sourness is not desirable in most styles. Sour can be described as tart, sour milk, citrusy or acidic. OK story time…
I was once hired to scale up recipes for a client with a brewpub, who’d commissioned a new production brewery. They used to use citric acid in the brewpub to alter mash pH, they wanted to do the same in the production facility…not the best idea.
In the big brewery, the citric acid gave lemon notes to the pilsner made, far from ideal and so we switched to using lactic acid instead. Scaling up a recipe is an art, and if you need help please get in touch.
Sour notes can come from raw materials or bad brewing practices (like the citric acid), such as fruit, fermentation issues, and/or bacterial contamination or inoculation. Yeast can contribute natural acid when the beer is fermenting as well.
Catty or “Cat Piss”
I’m serious, beer can sometimes smell like “cat piss”, actually happens in wine too. It’s generally caused from contamination of the raw materials. In some instances, hops can produce this aroma as well.
“Cheesy” is a result of oxidation of the alpha acids in hops and can be confused with caprylic (goatish/vegetable oil). Alpha acids can also be grassy too. Otherwise, cheesy might indicate a bacterial infection.
OK, we all know milkshake IPA’s are a thing, and can be pretty sweet. However, in some beer styles it’s an off-flavor. For example, you never want a pilsner to be sweet. We’re talking jammy, candy, sickly sweet, oversweet and cloying for sweet descriptors.
Sweet can come from poor fermentation being a sign of poor yeast health. Common causes include high alcohol, poor yeast nutrient accessibility, uncontrolled fermentation temperature or lack of aeration of the wort.
Corn, Creamed Corn, Oysters or Tomato Sauce
I’ve spoken about DMS (Dimethyl Sulphide) before, with most people perceiving it as corn. It’s a sulphur based organic compound produced when grain germinates during the malting process.
The precursor to DMS is SMM (S-methylmethionine). It’s seen in levels 8 times higher in pilsner than ale malt. It’s driven off during the boil, and why brewers boil lagers longer than ales. DMS can come from wild yeast or bacterial contamination during fermentation too.
Green Apple, Latex Paint or Jolly Ranchers – Describe Beer Like A Brewer
An off-flavor/aroma produced by yeast during the fermentation process and a precursor to ethanol. Furthermore, it may be caused by oxidation too (see also cardboard). When O2 exists in packaged beer at too high a level (dissolved oxygen), it can change ethanol’s back into acetaldehyde.
Paper, Cardboard, Wet Cardboard or Old Book
Oxidation is a direct result of aging but, can be sped up by bad brewing practices. These bad practices range from oxygen ingress later during the brewing process, storage temperatures to bad beer ingredients.
The warmer a beer is stored or more oxygen in the packaged beer, the quicker oxidation will happen and the worse the beer tastes.
Band Aid, Clove-like. Smoky or Medicinal
This is going back to phenolics we spoke about earlier. So, a quick refresh, phenolic off-flavors can be caused by:
- Wild and specialty yeasts – can be desired in some beer styles
- Chlorophyll in brewing water
- Chlorine sanitizers – if not rinsed out properly
- Improper sparging techniques
Musty, Earthy, Mushroom or Beet Like
Again, desirable in some beers but not in many styles and another one we covered before. Usually caused by mold or fungus contamination of raw materials but, can also indicate bad cleaning practices in a brewery. Breweries do actually use mushrooms in some beers, where it can add some interesting earthy notes.
Off-Flavors / Taste Conclusions
When it comes to bad beer, there are many points in the brewing process it can go wrong. However, if a brewery follows good practices, has proper procedures & processes in place as well as being sanitary, it should be all be good.
However, mistakes occur or unforeseen circumstances lead to a beer going bad…it happens. However, now you’ve the tools with the above information on what to look out for and why bad beer happens.
Describe Beer Like A Brewer – Tasting Continued
When it comes to beer, bitterness is a big one. Beer styles vary wildly in how bitter they should be. We measure a beers bitterness using IBU’s (international bitterness units).
Again, we can use BJCP guidelines as a reference to how bitter a beer should be. Like color; when brewing a beer to style we’ve set parameters for the bitterness.
Bitterness for the most part comes from the hops added to the boil when making beer. The more hops you use, the more bitter it’ll be. There are around 147 different hop varieties, and we measure how much bitterness they give a beer by their alpha acid content.
As a brewer when designing a recipe, it’s about balance between the different elements. Malt for sweetness, color, body plus some aroma. Yeast can impart their own unique aroma/flavors aroma too, plus, hops for aroma and bitterness.
Describe Beer Like A Brewer – Mouthfeel
Mouthfeel is all about the texture of a beer. It’s the tactile sensations in your mouth when you physically drink a beer. There are three main attributes we look at when it comes to mouthfeel which are:
This is often the first sensation you feel when drinking a beer. It can feel like a tingle on your tongue. The more carbonated a beer is, the bigger the tingle. If a beer has high carbonation, we say it has a carbonation “bite”.
In the UK, they have real ale, where the beer isn’t carbonated. Real ale only has the natural CO2 produced during the fermentation. These beers usually have a carbonation level between 1 and 1.5 volumes. On the other end of the scale, you have Belgian Tripels with 2.5 and 3 volumes of CO2.
If you want to learn more about beer style and carbonation please read and download our guide by clicking here. There are also “nitro” beers, with the most famous being Guiness. Nitrogen produces smaller bubbles than CO2 leading to a creamy mouthfeel.
This refers to the perceived weight and flow resistance of a beer as its being drank. You can use words like density and viscosity when talking about fullness. If you’ve ever had an Imperial Stout, a high abv dark beer. They’re usually viscous and coat your tongue when drank. It’s all tied into the “body” of the beer.
Fullness mostly comes from the “unfermentable” sugars in the beer. High abv beers usually have more residual sugars left over than regular beers like pilsner. They’ve a high final gravity giving mouthfeel to the beer.
Other beers which aren’t so strong can also have more mouthfeel as well. This is usually a result of the malts used in the grain bill as well as overall mash profile used by the brewer. If a beer lacks mouthfeel, we say it is “thin”.
Then last but not least we have…
Aftertaste / After Feel
This is integral to the beer tasting experience, describing the lasting sensations in the mouth when drinking a beer. Words we use to describe aftertaste are:
There are many processes when brewing beer which influence the aftertaste. A brewer can manipulate the aftertaste with their choice of raw materials and techniques used.
For example, water chemistry can be modified to enhance mouthfeel, like adding salts like sodium chloride to the brewing water.
Describe Beer Like A Brewer – Overall Impressions
If you want to describe beer like a brewer, don’t be afraid to speak up. As I said before, if some taste, color or aroma reminds you of something else, simply say so. Be as descriptive as possible.
This guide gives you some common descriptors to use, laying out what to look out for. Beer should be for everyone, inclusive, for all who want to drink.
If you’re new to craft beer that’s fine, welcome! It’s a wonderful world full of flavors aroma and creativity. There’s something for everyone.
It can be a great voyage of discovery, as you learn about beer styles like pastry stouts and find new breweries. It’s an evolving industry, with breweries popping up all over the globe.
Right now, one of the hottest places for brewing is The Philippines. Several breweries are scheduled to open this year (2021) there. Some great brewers are already making beer there.
Like, Michael Jordon, previous owner of Boxing Cat Brewery and one of the Godfathers of the Chinese craft brewing scene. Who is now working with Engkanto Brewery.
So, thanks for reading my article. I hope our article made beer more approachable for you, remember it’s supposed to be fun so, drink and enjoy…prost!
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Hey my name is Neil and I’m a brewer and brewing consultant who helps people on their brewing projects. This can range from recipe formulation to sourcing brewing equipment. If you’ve any feedback and/or comments to this article I’d love to hear from you.
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