According to Michael Jackson, not the singer, but the most respected beer writer in the US, “beer is much more extensively consumed than wine, but less adequately honored”. Its history in America dates back to times long before Europeans put a foot on this land. Nowadays, the number of styles, aromas and beer flavors are countless.
Everything started when the pilgrims arrived in New England to look for supplies. They found out that Native Americans already made beer from maize, birch sap, and water, as opposed to the traditional barley used by Europeans. However, settlers decided to recruit brew masters from London and establish breweries all over the colonies.
This is when George Washington decided to boycott the English beer imports, which ended up giving a push to national production. By the time he was leading the war for independence, he proclaimed that troops had to receive a quart of beer with their daily rations.
Since beer has been part of our history for such a long time, we are here to discuss the basics of a good craft beer and how to create different beer flavors.
Beer flavors, aroma, color, and other essential features
While the taste could be subjective, there are tools to measure the attributes of the different types of beer. They are known as quantitative parameters of beer character and the following are the basics you will find when sampling one.
There are five points to check when it comes to this feature. The first one is the glassware used. It’s a completely different experience to drink a beer from a plastic cup than from a proper glass.
Next, you should notice the head of the beer (frothy foam on top), which will vary according to the type which is being served. How long the head remains is also considered as one of the key indicators.
The third and fourth points are color and clarity. There is no right and wrong way here, but depending on the style, some tones should be present.
Finally, the lacing left in the glass as the beer is drunk shows the head retention and the carbonation character of the drink.
Since you are using a proper glass, all you have to do is to inhale deeply to enjoy the different aromas in your beer. There are multiple flavors you can pick up, but generally they are classified as follows:
An intense smell of vinegar could be the sign of a bad beer, caused by improper sanitation.
3. Flavor and sensation in your mouth
The next logical step is to taste the beer. Before you swallow, give it a little swirl in your mouth to pick up as many beer flavors as you can. The list of notes here is large. You can catch the sweetness or bitterness, the taste of coffee or malt, and how light or heavy it is. Take a second sip and savor the lingering taste in your mouth.
4. Alcohol content
There are two components to check: the measurable alcohol content and the impression of it. The first one uses two methods. The Alcohol by Volume (ABV), which is done with lab instruments, and the Alcohol by Weight (ABW), which is a percentage of the total mass of the liquid. Most breweries in the United States use the ABV method in their products.
Impression, on the other hand, refers to the intensity of alcohol that is left in your mouth. The taste of alcohol can be used to balance out other beer flavors such as sweetness or bitterness. However, a beer can have a high ABV, with a low alcohol taste.
5. International Bitterness Unit (IBU)
The bitterness comes mostly from hops, so this system determines the intensity of the flavor. Lagers, pilsners, cream ales, porters, and wheat beers are on the lower end of the scale (1-40). IPAs, pale ales, and amber ales can have an IBU greater than 60. However, the presence of fruit flavors or honey can affect the perception of bitterness, adding different beer flavors. Some IPAs, for example, have a fruit profile, changing the traditional bitterness of the beer completely.
How to create different beer flavors
There are four main ingredients used in beer: hops, grains or malt extract, yeast, and water. However, when it comes to homebrew, multiple beer flavors can be added to the mixture to create unique drinks. Fruits, honey, and spices are the most popular choices among beer aficionados.
1. Tropical fruits
You just need to select a base beer and a tropical fruit to create a unique flavor. Fresh or frozen fruit and purees are a great choice when adding to a beer. But we recommend you get your hands on the highest quality products with minimal amounts of preservatives.
The next step will be figuring out how much you should add to the mix, to keep a balance between the qualities of the beer and the sweetness of the fruit. The most popular brewing fruits have low sugar content to avoid overpowering beer flavors. The fruit is often added during the boiling process to pasteurize the mixture and avoid any contamination. Furthermore, the fruit will add sugar to the wort during fermentation. This will give a different character to the drink than if it were added post-fermentation.
Whether honey is used to raise the alcoholic content or to add sweetness, it’s highly fermentable and mostly present in holiday beers like pumpkin ales, cream stouts, porters, and light lagers. If you want to raise the alcohol content, you should add the honey during the boiling process. But if you are looking for a brew with a strong honey character, it should be added to the primary fermenter.
The best option, as with any other ingredient, is to get the raw, unheated, and unprocessed product. The more natural the honey, the more vitamins, antiseptic qualities and nutrients it has. “Honey also adds subtle floral notes and aroma to beer, thanks to the various pollens and nectars used by bees in its production” (Fisher, J. and Fisher D.).
Way before hops became the main flavoring agent, some herbs and spices were used in brews. You can add almost any spice that comes to mind. The trick here is to have as much control as possible, because some spices can be really strong. The recommended approach is to add the new ingredient during post-fermentation, so you can taste it and adjust it. If you decide to include the spice while the beer is boiling, you could get unpredictable reactions, since some spices react to heat and the level of variability in certain spices is higher. Also, the notes might not survive the fermentation, resulting in unbalanced beer flavors.
As mentioned before, it’s better to use fresh spices than the dry ones you find at the supermarket. Among the most popular are cinnamon, cardamom, peppercorns, coriander, cloves, ginger, allspice, and some others.
Most common mistakes when creating beer flavors
- Neglecting sanitation: when adding new flavors, you may also be adding bacteria. The result could be a sour taste. Choose high-quality ingredients and sanitize your equipment regularly.
- Uncontrolled fermentation temperature: this is one of the most important variables in homebrewing. Yeast only works within a temperature range that stays at a consistent level throughout the process.
- Inexperience: since you are trying new beer flavors, it’s a matter of trial and error. However, you should change one aspect at a time. According to Jamie Floyd, co-founder of Ninkasi Brewing Company, “If you make more than one adjustment at a time you may not know what you did right or wrong the next brew” (Popular Mechanics, 2013).
Creating a balanced beer takes time. It’s a good idea to take notes on the amounts of ingredients used in relation to the batch size. This will help you to get to your preferred taste and could be the path to great beer flavors and fruit brews.