Monthly Archives: January 2011

Can’t find the beer you want? Trade for it.

Many of you readers are already Redditors so some of you are already aware of this system, but I certainly think it’s worth mentioning for the people who don’t know about it. is a unique on-line community which is essentially a user-driven news aggregator. Various types of links are constantly being submitted to the site, and they are voted on by the community as to their worth. The highest voted articles get to the front page for maximum visibility. The submissions can range from breaking headlines, to personal stories about tragedy or triumph, to the ubiquitous “lolcats” pictures. Fortunately, Reddit supplies the capability to subscribe to certain “subreddits” (hundreds of them) in which the various types of submissions are categorized, so you can usually filter out the stuff you don’t want to see. It’s a great community with an active and fervent user-base. Best of all, it’s free.

Anyway, they have a subreddit specifically for trading beer. If there is something that you enjoy but can’t find in your area, you can probably find someone who is able to locate it and is willing to trade you for something. Check the rules and guidelines for the various restrictions and procedures that are in place.

So go forth and create! … a user account so you can get that beer you haven’t been able to find since your trip to that other state or country. Also, while you’re there, check out r/SnackExchange (same principal), and r/homebrewing, and r/beer, where lots of discussions take place about those topics.

Order up! Two more guest beer profiles

It’s been awhile since I’ve posted something new on here, so I thought I’d make sure that this week didn’t go by without any activity. Granted, it’s still not much…

So, one of my favorite New Belgium products is their Belgian black ale known as 1554. It’s not your typical dark ale, like a porter or a stout, in that it doesn’t have so much of the roasted and chocolate-type flavors commonly associated with these styles. Rather, it has a surprising amount of the fruity estery characteristics, and for me this makes for a more drinkable beer relative to these other styles. Unfortunately, the sample I put in front of the panel was oxidized, so it had some of those sherry/port and papery/cardboard flavors, but it was still a decent example of this fine beer.

Isoamyl acetate (banana)

The second beer we’ll profile here is from Lost Coast Brewing, and it’s known as Great White. No real descriptor on the label explaining exactly what style of beer this is supposed to fit in that I could find. This beer is unfiltered, and this can unfortunately lead to autolysis, as was the case for this beer. As yeast die off (from high alcohol, age, and/or elevated temperatures) they tend to throw a variety of flavors into the beer which are commonly associated with savory, brothy and meaty flavors. Really, not good. Have you ever tried Marmite or Vegemite? These products (bread spreads popular in England and Australia) are made with autolyzed yeast product, and this flavor is what develops in unfiltered beer as it deteriorates. Interesting to note the comments which mention cleaning products. This has come up now and again with some of our guest beers, and I’m not sure where it comes from.

Lemon Pledge
Cleaning Product
Isoamyl acetate

I also want to solicit any requests anybody might have for beers they think we should taste. If we’ve already tasted them, I’ll put it in the next guest beer profile, otherwise I’ll try to seek it out and give it to my panel. Email address can be found in the “Contact” page above, or just stick it in a comment here.

Genetic diversity in olfaction is larger than previously thought

I ran across a short article over at Scientific American, and while it didn’t contain too much information that isn’t already known, it did describe some new research that says that the genetic diversity in how we perceive aromas may be larger than we previously thought (which seemed large already).

Here it is, and it shows just how difficult the job is for someone studying the human senses. How do you know that a particular panelist is responding to an odor the same way another is? Well, you don’t really.

Some practical examples of this have been seen in the threshold tests I’ve performed with the panel regarding diacetyl. Some panelist’s thresholds are down below 30ppb, while others are well over 100ppb, and there are even 1 or 2 who may be totally anosmic to it (meaning they have no ability to detect it at any concentration). Training a panel to be good diacetyl tasters can be tricky since finding a concentration of diacetyl for a flavor standard that is appropriate for the whole panel is pretty much impossible.

Another example comes from the flavor standard “indole”, which has been known to elicit a floral jasmine-like aroma for a certain portion of the population, while the rest of the population smells fecal material. That part is interesting enough, but what’s even more so is that, for me, I can smell it both ways. Like an optical illusion, I can “flip” my brain’s interpretation of this aroma back and forth at will. It’s really an interesting experience to be smelling a nice flowery flavor standard one second, then in the next second your nose is full of poop.

PS: Indole arises in fermentations which have become contaminated by coliform bacteria (those usually associated with sewage and waste-water), and tends to be most common when adjunct sugars are used which are themselves contaminated.

Looks like someone beat me to it: how to find fresh beer.

I wrote a post last week asking for requests for production information on beer labels, in an effort to accumulate a database that you can reference in your quest to buy fresh beer.

Well, one commenter has enlightened me to the fact that this has pretty much already been done.  What a load off my back!  This could have been a huge and on-going project, and I’m a bit relieved that I don’t have to assemble and maintain such a list.

I’ve had a look over it and it’s huge, and from the entries I’ve seen, pretty accurate too.  Of course, breweries change their labels and equipment all the time, so there may be some inaccuracies hiding in there somewhere, but it’s a great start.

Fresh Beer Only.

So, find your favorite breweries in this list, and make a note of where and how they put their information on the label (hopefully they put something on there; there’s a disturbingly high number of packages that have no information whatsoever on them). Then when you’re standing in front of the beer aisle at the store, don’t be afraid to shuffle the bottles around in order to find the freshest. You deserve it.

Bias: How easily we’re fooled.

In sensory science, we deal directly with extracting information from tricky and fickle systems:  humans which, as we know, are animals with brains just advanced enough to get them into trouble.  Particularly, we focus on what the subjects are experiencing from a sensorial standpoint and that, on its own, is a system which is easily confounded. This article is about the things that fool us:  the phenomena that occur around us which influence us and how we perceive reality.  It’s rather startling just how easily we can be tricked and even manipulated, and there are long and growing lists which detail our understanding of the “failures” which can be triggered in our sensory systems.  Of course these are general tendencies and not concrete rules that every human unknowingly follows.  But bias is a clear and present threat to the validity of all sensory data, and care and vigilance must be exercised by panel administrators in order to mitigate its effects.

First, we’ll discuss some of the more general ways that humans can be fooled, some of which you’ve probably seen before, then we’ll move into how it directly affects a sensory panel and even the average beer taster.

Probably one of the most famous examples of these failures of the human brain’s perception abilities is the selective attention test by Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris from 1999. Basically the video shows you a small group of people passing basketballs back and forth and asks you to count how many times the balls are passed. If you haven’t seen it, follow that link and watch it. It’s only a minute or so long, I’ll wait here. — Great, did you see the gorilla? At one point in the video someone in a gorilla suit walks across the screen, right through the basketball game. The point of the exercise is, if you’re so attentive to the basketballs you can miss something which is right in front of you, even if it is quite absurd and out of place. It’s probably so famous that it’s hard to fall for it anymore, but it is a well documented experience.

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Help Me Help You Find Fresh Beer

I’ve already mentioned, buying fresh beer is very important to me, and it should be for you. The problem is it’s so hard to find out whether the beer in front of you at the grocery store is fresh. Some breweries don’t label their beer with any production information, some put it in hard to find locations, some use a format which defies decoding, and some use a “Best By” date rather than a “Born On” date (which makes it difficult to tell how old the beer is since you don’t know what the brewery considers their beer’s shelf-life to be).

So what I propose, and it just may be a bit daft to try, is for us (you and I) to attempt to compile a collection of label information for various breweries. If we can get enough information gathered together, maybe people can start to find the fresh beer that they deserve. Of course, just because the label says it’s a young and fresh beer doesn’t mean it hasn’t been abused.  It doesn’t take long for elevated temperatures to adversely affect beer flavor; just a few days in the trunk of your car in summer is enough to trash something like a lager or pale ale (something like a stout or imperial IPA might hold up a bit longer).

More after the break…

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Guest Beer: Buy One, Get One

The Sensory Panel tasted more guest beers this week, and two of them stood out to me as needing discussion here. One of them will provide a segue into the next article.

First up: Lagunitas Hop Stoopid Imperial IPA. I realize that I’ve already profiled a Lagunitas product, and I wouldn’t normally choose another so soon but, as I said, this one stood out. I had just purchased one for my personal use last week and after I realized what it tasted like I decided I had to put it in front of my panel. This beer is a perfect example of a “Two-Face” beer (a beer which is enjoyed at first… until you notice something that makes you want to pour it out) and also a good example of a popular flavor defect. When you first open, pour, and smell the beer it smells quite good, overflowing with fine hop flavors (citrus, floral, resinous hop flavor, dry-hop aroma, tomato plant, lingering bitterness). However, it doesn’t take long for Mr. Hyde to show his face: burnt rubber and, above all, mercaptan. It’s so intense that this beer can practically be used for a flavor standard for mercaptan. We’ll talk more about mercaptan in the future (can’t use up all my material all at once), but at the moment it’s enough to say that it smells like natural gas or propane. More accurately, it smells like the additive (ethanthiol) that they put in natural gas and propane to make it odorous, since they have no odor themselves. So is it a good beer? It was ok at first, but once I nailed down that mercaptan identification it was down the drain. Pity.

The second beer is from Unibroue (a Canadian brewery which focuses on Belgian beers). The beer was Fin du Monde (End of the World), and it’s described as a Belgian Triple. I’d had this beer a few times in the past and it’s been a pretty decent beer, despite the fact that I can only take so much of the clovey-phenolic flavors common in Belgian beers before I have to move on. This particular beer, however, wasn’t great, and the problem was the yeast. Apparently this beer had been abused a bit, since it had significant levels of the meaty, soy-like autolyzed flavors which are released from dead yeast cells. The label said that it was “Best before 2013”, to which I had a good laugh since the flavor had already been destroyed and it’s barely 2011. Personally, I don’t see how you can give any unfiltered beer a shelf-life of over 2 years since no matter how well you take care of it the yeast WILL die and throw autolyzed flavors. Now it did seem like these flavors did reduce a bit after it had been in the glass for a few minutes, allowing some of the more classic Belgian beer flavors come through, but it never really went away. Descriptive terms: hazy, soy, meaty, autolyzed, apple sauce, clove, alcoholic, rubbery, tangy, sweet. Another good beer, ruined by the distribution system.

Which brings me to my next topic… (which should be posted soon).

Olfaction: Does the key still fit the lock?

Welcome back, Beer Readers! I’ll kick off 2011 with a brief [read: “half-assed”] discussion about the current level of understanding about how smell works.

Frankly, the sensation of smell is poorly understood. Specifically, the uncertainty is focused on how the receptors are stimulated by the odorant; the actual mechanisms behind how the resulting signal is carried to the brain is fairly well established (we’ll discuss gustducin and G-protein-coupled receptors more in the future).

For many years, olfaction has been described as a receptor-based system with aromatic molecules stimulating specific receptors in the olfactory bulb. This system has been called the “lock and key” model, since each receptor responds to only one “key” molecule. In this model, the differences in size and shape of a molecule is what allows the receptors to differentiate between odorants. There are some shortcomings in this model, however. Some molecules which are very similar in size and shape can have startlingly different aromas. Also, if one receptor matches one odorant, then how is it that can we identify many thousands of individual aromas when the human genome only has 350 genes which code for olfactory receptors? [By comparison, mice have 900 olfactory receptor genes which code for about 1200 individual receptors; or about 1200 different aromas, in the lock and key model.]

New research (and by “new” I mean within the last 15 years) descibes a much more complex picture of what is going on, and some follow-up research demonstrates that this new model has some real potential. What the new model posits is that, when the odorant molecule binds to the receptor, inelastic electron tunneling takes place where an electron is transferred from the from the donor molecule to the receptor, in a non-redox process (it can do this due to its ability to act like both a wave and a particle). This “activates” the receptor and allows it to “read” the vibrational energy within the odorant molecule. These vibrations can apparently vary rather significantly due to very slight changes in the structure of the molecule, which agrees with the observations that similar molecules can show different characteristic aromas. This could theoretically imply that a single receptor could might be able to associate with a number of different molecules, each one being seen as unique due to the differing amounts of vibrational energy they carry. But this quantum physics stuff starts to get a bit over my head (I’m more of a chemist), so I’ll just let this other WordPress blog post from 12/2006 describe this research.

I just love it when we find out that things are far more interesting, complex, and nuanced than we previously thought. It just re-affirms that we can’t become complacent about our level of understanding of the world, since you never know when the apple cart will be upturned and years of scientific understanding need to be re-assessed.

Happy New Year, hope your holidays went well, and see you next time! Prost!