Monthly Archives: November 2010

Guest Beer: Lagunitas Czech Pils

Here’s descriptors for another guest beer we’ve tasted on our panel. Again, panelists do not know what these samples are until after the descriptive profiling session is complete.

Lagunitas Czech Pilsner. I tried to get a little information about this beer from their website, but all I found was a strange diatribe which reminded of the essays that Stone Brewing puts on their bottles. So I’ll just copy BeerAdvocate.com’s description of a Czech Pilsner:

The birth of Pilsner beer can be traced back to its namesake, the ancient city of Plzen (or Pilsen) which is situated in the western half of the Czech Republic in what was once Czechoslovakia and previously part of the of Bohemian Kingdom. Pilsner beer was first brewed back in the 1840’s when the citizens, brewers and maltsters of Plzen formed a brewer’s guild and called it the People’s Brewery of Pilsen.

The Czech Pilsner, or sometimes known as the Bohemian Pilsner, is light straw to golden color and crystal clear. Hops are very prevalent usually with a spicy bitterness and or a spicy floral flavor and aroma, notably one of the defining characteristics of the Saaz hop. Smooth and crisp with a clean malty palate, many are grassy. Some of the originals will show some archaic yeast characteristics similar to very mild buttery or fusel (rose like alcohol) flavors and aromas.

Average alcohol by volume (abv) range: 4.5-5.5%

Our panel’s terms for this beer:

Oxidized
Skunky
Spicy
Clove
Grainy
Cereal
Lager sulfur
Ethyl butyrate
Clean finish
Light body
Earthy
Low hop aroma
Astringent

Aside from the oxidized and slightly skunky notes, this beer wasn’t terrible. It seemed to lack some of the spicy hop characters common in Czech Pilsners, but it did have that grainy/cereal-type flavors common in European-styled lagers. It’s BeerAdvocate grade is a B, but when it’s in good shape I might give it a bit higher grade.

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Glycosides: The Hidden Flavors

One of the aspects of beer flavor that has interested me the most are what are called “glycosides”. The reason they are so interesting to me is because it seems they add a whole new level of complexity to hop flavors beyond the traditionally accepted sources such as hydrocarbons, oxygenated compounds, and sulfur-containing compounds. Glycosides are compounds which contain two parts: a sugar component which is in its cyclic (ring) form, and another component attached to the sugar at the number 1 (or “glycosidic” carbon). Some of these companion molecules can also be sugars, so sucrose, being a 2-sugar molecule (disaccharide) made of one glucose unit and one fructose unit attached through the appropriate carbon, is an example of one of these types of glycosides. The glycosides which appear to influence beer flavor are found in hops and have aromatic compounds bonded to the carbohydrates. In their combined state, the glycosides have no flavor; no sweetness and no aroma. However, once this glycosidic bond is broken the aromatic compound is free to volatilize into the headspace of the beer and ultimately into your nose.

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A word about beer quality

One of the discussions I tend to get into a lot involves how “quality” is perceived with regards to beer. Invariably, these discussions start with comments about how terrible Budweiser is or with comparisons of certain macro-beers with fornicating in an aquatic environment (old joke is old). Most of the time the people who say this are self-professed “beer geeks”; people who like craft beer, microbrews, homebrews, and flavorful beer in general. Probing them further reveals that their bias against these beers is founded on the lack of flavor in these beers relative to the beers they like. What probably won’t be revealed is the possibility that they don’t like these beers because it’s cool to not like them; as if their “beer cred” will be diminished if they admit they like American lagers. One thing we need to be aware of is the tendency to inject our own preferences into our concept of the term “quality”. It should be an entirely separate concept: we should be able to identify a high quality beer, even if it is one we do not like (although it is certainly acceptable to dislike things that make a beer low-quality).

A simple and accepted definition of a “quality product” that we can use here is: “a product which is made from high quality raw materials, does not contain noticeable flavor defects, maintains a consistent flavor profile, and does not deviate from accepted specifications”. From this definition it becomes apparent that beers like Budweiser, Miller Genuine Draft, and Coors Light are actually very high quality beers, and they have to be, for the same reason that beer-geeks deride them: they have no flavor. Having such low color, bitterness, and overall flavor levels means that production specifications need to be much narrower than they can be in craft beers. A craft beer with a target bitterness specification of 40BU’s can probably be fine with a variation of +/- 10% (+/- 4 BU’s ; 36 – 44), which is a pretty easy specification to maintain. However, a pale lager (about 10BU’s) could not handle a +/- 4BU variation in production without being noticeably different. A +/-10% specification window on a 10BU beer is much harder to hit. Fortunately for the big brewers, their production volume and brand portfolio allows for some blending options when things get off the rails.

Similarly, if both of these beers have about 40ppb diacetyl, then which beer’s flavor will be more impacted? The craft ale will have many more flavors helping to mask the buttery flavor than the lager does. If both beers are 30% too dark in color, which one could be able to be packaged as-is, and which one will need to be blended because it’s obviously out of spec? The craft ale can hide out-of spec color much easier than the pale lager.

These are just a few examples of how craft beer is much more forgiving during production than American lagers. The color and the flavor of the lagers are so light and mild that there is very little room for error. Each batch has to be nearly perfect, or else the defects will stick out like a sore thumb.

On top of that, A/B brews their beer in a dozen different locations across the US (and more elsewhere) and they must go to extraordinary lengths to make sure a beer from Fairfield tastes the same as one from St. Louis. So next time you here someone bemoan the quality of Budweiser or its ilk, make it known to them that they are likely commenting on their preference rather than the quality of the beer itself.

I’d love to start a discussion with any of your thoughts about beer quality, so if you have anything you think ought to be mentioned, please feel free to leave it below.

An apology?

Not really, but I would like to point out that there are a few reasons that this blog won’t have daily updates:

-I have a job
-I have a family life
-I do not have infinite topics to choose from

Between the increasingly hectic work environment that I will be in over the next 6-12 months, and the increasingly lengthy “task/chore/project/honeydo” list at home, I’m hoping I’ll still be able to make about 2 medium-long posts per week, and a few smaller ones from time to time as well.

Check back every once in awhile, follow the tweets, subscribe to the RSS feed or the email notifier, and you should be able to keep up with the posts.

Thanks for your patience.

Beers I like.

Some people think that this is a dream job or that it would be awesome to understand beer flavor – and don’t get me wrong, it is pretty cool – but I think I’ve been a bit jaded by this education and it makes it harder for me to find good beer.

Overall, I have to break down the beers I seek out into two camps: drinkable, and flavorful (and defect-free).

Here’s the beers I like to drink, my thoughts on them, and if my panel has tasted them I’ve included their descriptors (note: some descriptors may be resulting from age or abuse of that package and may not be normal characteristics of the beer)

Beers I Like, pt I: Drinkable

Heineken – so long as this beer is fresh (not stale or oxidized) and from a can or keg (not skunky from the green bottle), it’s a drinkable session beer with plenty of estery aromas, particularly isoamyl acetate. It’s hard to find this one without any age-related flavors, however.

Redhook, Rope Swing Summer Pilsner – a great pilsner from traditionally ale-oriented brewery. Good continental lager character, mild European noble hop aromas. Too bad it’s only offered in the summertime. Sulfur, grainy, cucumber, melon, bitter.

Pyramid, Curveball Kolsch – It’s been about a year since I’ve had this one, so hopefully it hasn’t deteriorated. Light and crisp flavor, somewhat estery, minor DMS. Very easy to put away.


Beers I Like, pt II: Flavorful

Bear Republic, Hop Rod Rye – One of my favorite “flavor beers”. A potent combination of malt and hop flavors, significant bitterness, moderate alcohol, very well balanced. Haven’t been disappointed by this one very much at all. Raisin, caramel, burnt, chocolate, lingering bitterness, piney, thin, oxidized.

Rogue, Hazelnut Brown and Chocolate Stout 50/50 mix – Lovely complexity in this ad-hoc mixture of two fine dark beers. Learned about this one in college. Probably a good dessert beer, maybe even for a float (blasphemy?). Fortunately, the heavy dark malt flavors mask many of the defects I normally see in Rogue products. Chocolate, smoky, coffee, cotton candy, maple syrup, sweet.

Stone, Arrogant Bastard – Another big beer with moderately high alcohol and bitterness. Lots of flavor to chew on in this beer. I’ve also noticed that I don’t normally see this beer with any age defects. It must move well in the marketplace.

Terminal Gravity, IPA – Hard to get this one without stale flavors (at least where I’m buying beer), but when it’s fresh it’s awesome. Very woody, oak-like flavors with this one. Oxidized, citrus/orange, rotten fruit, high bitterness, clean finish, sour.

New Belgium, 1554 – One of the few beers from NBB that I can regularly enjoy (they love their Victory malt; I don’t). Heavy dark malt flavor, low hop bitterness. Cardboard, oxidized, clove, smoky, coffee, vanilla, astringent, thin, alcoholic, fruity, isoamyl acetate.

Bridgeport, IPA – One of the first “hoppy” beers I’d come to enjoy. Great citrus, floral, pine and lychee hop aromas. Years on now, however, and this beer is losing its luster a bit. Just getting too familiar with it, I guess. Still enjoyed, though. Floral, tutti-frutti, light body, cloudy, herbal, grainy, sulfur.

Deschutes, Hop Trip IPA – This is one of their Bond Street series of IPAs. The orthonasal aroma on this “fresh hop” IPA is a wild assembly of perfumes and flowers and fruits. The overall flavor is balanced well with plenty of malt character for an IPA. Fresh hop oil, perfume, floral, rose, linalool, ripe cantaloupe, fruit cocktail, caramel malt, raisin, moderate bitterness (note: my descriptors, not panel’s).

So this gives a brief overview of the types of beers I like. It all depends on my mood: if I need refreshment at some point in the day, or if I’m working on a project on the weekend, I like a drinkable beer; if I’m out at the bar with friends, or relaxing after work I may want to reach for a flavorful beer that I can savor.

Interestingly, when I’m eating I don’t care so much about which beer I’m drinking. For me, a “meal beer” is one that is fairly generic; I’m not really in it to pay attention to the beer, I just want something that will compliment, but not spoil, my meal. It shouldn’t have distracting defects, but it doesn’t have to have anything special. Beer that I feel are in this category are ones like Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, Redhook ESB or Copperhook, or maybe some of the Sam Adams lineup.

Having said all this, I still probably only drink about 1-2 recreational beers per week.

Taste vs. Flavor: A retronasal excursion

So, when we talk about what a food or drink “tastes like”, it’s pretty common to get confused about the terminology.  You may hear someone say that something tastes “fruity” or “rancid” or whatever.  What they are actually discussing is how the food smells.  As we discussed already, “taste” applies only to the basic tastes. Everything else, apart from the various tactile sensations, is aroma. Combine the taste, the aroma, and the mouthfeel and you’re now talking about the overall flavor of the substance.

Here’s an exercise for you to try to drive home this point:

Eat or drink something while your nose is plugged.  What I like to use is a piece of gum or a mint candy or something. It might be tricky to swallow like this, but it’s possible.  So while your nose is plugged, what are you sensing?  Sweetness, sourness, saltiness, bitterness, temperature, texture, etc.  It’s all just taste and mouthfeel, right?  No aroma.    Now, unplug your nose and breath out through it.  NOW we’re in flavor country, eh? This aroma that you smell while food or drink is in your mouth is called “retronasal aroma” (backwards nose). It is distinct from “orthonasal aroma” (straight nose) which is sensed when you put your face over the food and smell normally through the front of the nose.

So apparently, the majority of food and beverage flavor is perceived by your nose.  What’s happening is, as the substance is in your mouth, it’s warming up.  This warming action allows the volatile aroma compounds to leave the food and enter the air in your mouth and sinus.  Also, the surface area of the food is increasing as you chew it and spread it around your mouth, which also allows more volatilization of flavors.  Other things might be happening as well, like bursting carbonation bubbles carrying even more flavors out of the beverage.  All these things are causing aromas to become “airborne” which allows them to be carried into your sinus (via the back of the mouth/throat). This retronasal method leads to distinct differences in the aroma of your food compared to the orthonasal method, since with the orthonasal method the warming and the agitation of the sample are considerably less. It’s not uncommon for the flavor profile of a food or beverage smelled retronasally to be quite unique from the same product smelled orthonasally, as certain compounds may not be volatile enough in the glass to be detected; they may need to be warmed and agitated to be detected at above-threshold levels. This demonstrates the importance of smelling AND tasting the product before you try to describe it.

Here is a diagram showing a cross-section of the human head, where you can see how the back of the throat is connected to the back of the sinus cavity.  This is where the retronasal aromas access the olfactory bulb at the top of the sinus (essentially the bottom of the brain) which houses the various receptors responsible for detecting aromas.

Cross section of mouth and sinus, showing how retronasal aromas access olfactory bulb.

So now that we understand how taste, aroma, and flavor are all related, we can use the correct terminology when we discuss our sensations and assess our beers with proper diligence.

Diacetyl – “Who put butter in my beer?”

Diacetyl (dye-assa-TEEL, or dye-ASS-itle) is probably one of the most well-known flavors related to brewing.  It’s buttery aroma is easily recognized at levels above threshold but, as much as is known and recognized about this compound, I’m constantly amazed and disappointed by how much “butter-beer” is still being produced. This post will briefly explore the various ways that diacetyl arises in beer.

Background

Diacetyl (2,3-butanedione) is one of a class of compounds called “vicinal diketones” (VDK). In chemistry-speak, “vicinal” essentially means “adjacent”, and “diketone” means that there are two ketone functional groups (a ketone is an oxygen double-bonded to a carbon in the middle of a carbon chain). If you look at the molecular structure in the link above, you’ll see that it is a 4-carbon chain (hence the “butane” root in the name), and the two ketones are on the vicinal positions of the #2 and #3 carbons (ergo, 2,3-butanedione: two ketones on #2/3 carbons of a 4-carbon chain). The other main VDK in beer is 2,3-pentanedione (pentane – can you guess what this one looks like?), but it is usually found in beer at levels below that of diacetyl.

Diacetyl, as mentioned already, has a buttery or butterscotch-like aroma. Open a bag of microwave buttered popcorn and you’re hit in the face with diacetyl. At very high levels it can even start to affect the mouthfeel of the beer, causing a slick or oily mouthfeel.  The detection threshold of diacetyl in beer is typically between 10 and 40ppb, although I have determined the personal thresholds for 11 of my panelists and they range from 7-190ppb, with an average of about 60ppb. Personally, my threshold is about 20ppb and beers with higher levels are so offensive to me that any beer with detectable diacetyl usually goes down the drain. Many times you may be served a beer which appears to have no hint of diacetyl, but as you work your way down to the bottom of the glass you begin to detect it. This is because the beer is warming up, which allows more diacetyl to volatilize into the headspace of the glass (and your nose). Too many times have I started in on a good and cold beer only to dump the second half because the “Big D” had begun to show its stinky face.

Common levels for diacetyl in beer range from 30ppb to over 1ppm [1]. Until recently, I would have had a hard time believing that there was packaged beer out there with 1ppm diacetyl. That is, until my panel tasted a beer from a local micro-brewery which was so high in diacetyl that we just had to run it through our gas chromatograph to find out how much was actually in there: almost 900ppb. Nearly all of our beers that we make here at The Company are below 30ppb or so, with most falling easily below 20ppb. I would hazard a guess that the big American Lagers/Pilsners are about 10ppb or less, but I don’t know for sure.

There are a few different sources of diacetyl in beer, only two of which are widely discussed.  The first is during fermentation, where it’s created by the brewer’s yeast.   The other well-known source is from bacterial infection.  The third source is probably the least known:  beer aging.  Below, we’ll examine each of these sources.

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