Thursday, September 2, 2010


I've already covered a lot of aspects of the sense of smell's role in tasting beer in two previous posts in August. In one of the posts I explain how smell is linked to taste and in the other I talk about the importance of drinking your beer from a glass in order to enhance the olfactory experience. So what's left to cover? How to actually review the smell aspect of a beer.

From what I can figure there are three tacks a reviewer can take:
  1. Descriptive - Using descriptive words (also known as adjectives to those of us who grew up watching Schoolhouse Rock) to impart your experience to others. Words like astringent, toasted, acrid, sour, boozy, creamy, spicy, floral and many others. I don't see this methodology used all that often. This is not a surprise considering many beer reviewers can't spell "adjective" much less know how to use them. I also rarely use this method.
  2. Comparative - This method I see more. It involves sharing sensory experiences by invoking the smells of items with which others may be more familiar. In stouts you'll see toast, coffee and chocolate. In IPAs you may get grapefruit, pine and lemon. In many Belgian styles you may see raisins, horse blanket or brandy. This method can describe an overall sensation due to the combined smells. For instance, the smell of roasted malts paired with the bitterness of the roast or some hops usually results in a beer having coffee-like accents.
  3. Elemental - Some of the reviewers who are very familiar with the brewing process will speak to the elements (ingredients) of the beer that they smell. They may describe which malts are present or which hops were used. Belgian yeast has a very distinct smell that most experienced beer drinkers can pick out. You'll see phenols and esters mentioned and you'll begin to wonder what they mean and how on Earth they can figure this out. It's either that they're that good or they're guessing. If I do this in a review, I'm usually guessing but I try to mention that it's just a guess.
More often than not you will see a combination of all three. Maybe something like, "The banana esters of German yeast gives the sense of bananas." There's that word "ester" again. It's not a High Peak in the Adirondacks that the author has climbed...that's spelled "Esther" what is it?

Esters are given off primarily by yeast and typically add a fruity element to the smell. If you love hefeweizens you are familiar with that banana odor that comes with almost every one them. This is an ester given off by the German wheat ale yeast.

I also mentioned phenols. So what are they? Well, they're similar to esters in the fact that they are made present by certain yeast strains. I said "made present" because it isn't the yeast that carries the phenolic acid; it's the malt. But that phenolic acid is not released as an aromatic unless acted upon by particular enzymes found in those certain yeast strains. There are some yeast strains that are used purposely for this effect, but for most unwanted phenolic odors wild yeast is to blame. How are they sensed by our noses? Medicinal, astringent, clove and black pepper are many words used to describe the odor. Again, if you enjoy hefeweizens the you've smelled the clove-like odor. You are smelling phenols.

So take a good whiff of your beer and then...what? You don't smell much? Neither do I because I showered this morning. Oh! You don't smell much coming off the beer. That's a problem, but not uncommon. It's possible you have a cold. If not, then the smell may not be making it through the head. If the latter then try to wait for the head to abate or blow into it to release the odors. Even if there is no head then agitate the surface of the beer to get some scents off of it. If that doesn't work then you've come across one of those beers that have little aroma. Mention that and move on to tasting the beer.

Next Time: The Five Attitudes of Beer Tasting: Part Three - Taste


Glass occurs naturally when silicates melt and then cool. Lightning and volcanic activity are the prime motivators in the natural process and they've been doing their job since before humans walked the planet. When and where man first made glass seems to be disputed. It may have first happened in Phoenicia around 5000 BC, Mesopotamia around 4000 BC or Egypt around 3000 BC, it all depends on what source you reference. Not only is that in dispute, so is the origin of glass drinking vessels. It is known that both the Egyptians and Mesopotamians were creating hollow glass vessels in and around the 16th century BC, but nothing precise. And then there's glass blowing, which did not occur until some time around the birth of Christ...give or take a few decades either the area that is now Syria.

So most of the earliest development of glass was centered around the Middle East until the Romans got involved and clear glass was discovered. Venice later became the glass-making center of the world and even the French got involved in the 17th century AD, improving the clarity and flatness of glass sheets and the reflective quality of mirrors. And then the Industrial Revolution occurred and the Germans got involved. In the late 19th century they figured out a way to increase the production of glass drinking vessels and make them more affordable. They started to become available to the masses...that's us! Yay!

So what does this history lesson in glass have to do with judging the appearance of your beer? Just about everything. Obviously, it would be hard to see the beer without it being in glass, but it goes further than that.

Beer styles and their popularity started to change once glass vessels entered the mainstream and the beer could actually be seen. Murky and cloudy beers fell out of favor as the brilliantly clear pilseners out of Bohemia surpassed them in popularity. As much as our noses can enhance the flavor of beer, it seems our eyes can do the same thing due to preconceptions drawn from the visual experience. If ti looks gross, it must taste gross. We're all susceptible to it. Remember the first time you poured lees into your glass? Were you eager to drain the glass dry? If you say yes then I need to call you out on that. I still have no idea who looked at a lobster and said, "yummy". Glad they did though! Boil one up and serve with a nice Belgian pale ale.

The shapes of the glasses also helped to enhance the color of the beer and the formation of the head. Certain shapes and thicknesses of glass can control the amount and angle of light hitting the liquid, thus changing the intensity of the colors. A fluted shape will produce a taller head than a chalice since the carbonation becomes concentrated into a smaller area. Pour a stout into a pint glass and it appears black, but pour the same beer into a flute or stange (which is blasphemy, but pardonable for the sake of science) and you'll see that the color is dark brown.

Enough of that, now on to talking about actually rating a beer's appearance.

There are three different components when rating a beer on appearance: color, head and carbonation. Some reviewers will even be able to note a beer's apparent body from the way it pours into the galss, but I'll just concentrate on the other three components here.

COLOR - The color of beer can range from very pale to jet black and even pink, orange, green and other non-earth tones. When discussing color feel free to explore the color vocabulary. Get out your 64-color box of crayons and compare the different shades. You can even use other items as reference points (i.e. - the color of honey, ink-like, etc.).

Or you can go scientific and utilize the Lovibond scale or judge in EBC (European Brewing Convention) or SRM (Standard Reference Method) units. Not many people have a Lovibond scale sitting around to reference so it's best to stick to the names of the colors, but here are two charts, one showing the Lovibond scale and another showing SRM, for your own reference. Click on them for a larger version.

Courtesy of Ron Wrucke

HEAD - When bubbles rise through the beer and pair up with proteins (actually polypeptides, but close enough) they create a foam that rises to the top of the beer, thus creating the head. Within this component of a beer's appearance there are five elements: thickness, color, retention, structure and lacing.
- Thickness is often expressed in terms of "fingers". Stack your fingers at the side of the glass and measure the thickness against how many of them are needed to cover up the head. Since a six-and-a-half-foot tall Scandinavian man's fingers are thicker than a four-foot-something Asian woman's, this can be extremely imprecise. This is why my proctologist is a short, Chinese woman. So many people like to stick to inches or centimeters. Heads can shrink quickly, so take an initial measurement and then do so again after the structure stabilizes, if it doesn't disappear entirely.
- Color is once again judged here. The foam is almost always lighter in color than the liquid, but there are beers whose heads match the body in hue. I even vaguely remember reading about a beer with a black head. I'll believe that when I see it. So many beers are judged as black, but are really dark, dark brown. I'm sure that's the case with the head of that beer, whose name I cannot remember.
- Retention just simply means how long does the head stick around. Keep in mind that any oils on your lips will knock a head down once you take a sip. Some lifespans are judged in seconds, some in minutes and some will even last long after all the fluid is gone. Watch for that with well-crafted German weizens and American Imperial Stouts, among others. These can be truly unique beer-drinking experiences when you're constantly working around the foam. Some people like to gulp the foam down so these beers are an extra treat.
- Structure is something that doesn't always show up in a beer's review, but some beers deserve to have this reported. German weizens can produce heads that can be described as "rocky", "chunky", "billowy", "meringue-like" or something even as simple as "dense" or "thick". Look closely at the head and note the size and density of the bubbles. Even beers with very little head have descriptors for their structure. A crown is that ring of foam sticking to the edge of the glass when the head recedes entirely. Floaters are little islands of foam floating on the surface. Sometimes you have to report that the beer has no head at all, which makes me sad.
- Lacing is the portion of the head that sticks to the side of the glass, but you usually can't notice it until you start to drink the beer, except for when you get a beer with a massive head. You can see lace left behind as the head falls in on itself. Some beers have sticky lace that can even have protuberances of foam. These can leave nice patterns on the inside of the glass like spider webs. Some have lace that slides back down into the beer and others leave none at all.

CARBONATION - Carbonation is simply the rising of bubbles of carbon-dioxide through the body of the beer. You can't always speak to this if you can't see it. This is the case in almost all stouts and porters; they're simply too dark to see the bubbles, but if there's a thick, rocky head then you can be sure that there's is ample carbonation building the foam. In a pilsener you will almost always see vibrant activity rising from the bottom of the glass. In fact, many glass makers will make some sort of etching in the bottom of the glass to help with the release of bubbles. Dogfish Head developed a glass with its logo etched there. With the right sort of beer, their shark logo can appear in the head. I've seen this once and if I can make it happen again I'll try to photograph it and post it here.

I went through a whole spiel about heads on beer, describing thickness, retention, structure and lacing and never once mentioned Guinness, that most famous of beer heads...the one with the cascade that mesmerizes millions of Irish pub goers. Why did I omit it until now? Because the head on a pint of Guinness is caused by nitrogen, not carbonation. So the beer itself doesn't really create the head, the use of nitrogen to draw the beer does. They basically cheat. However, the head created using this method is thick, long-lasting and oh so wonderfully creamy. I much prefer a beer that can do that on its own with only the carbon-dioxide created through fermentation, but no one can deny the beauty of a dollop of foam hanging off of a Guinness drinker's nose.

Next Time: The Five Attitudes of Beer Tasting: Part Two - Smell