What does beer really taste like?

A few columns back we discussed five NZ Double IPA’s. We had a friend say, “I tried those beers – Wow were they bitter!” It’s true that with such high hop levels, they are more bitter than average beer. But the intensity of his reaction made us wonder if he was a supertaster.

We’ve been reading a bit about taste lately and out of the five tastes (bitter, sweet, salt, sour and umami), bitter gets the strongest reaction. If you are a supertaster, you literally have more taste buds than average, and so bitter flavours in particular seem many times more intense than for the rest of us.

We like double IPA’s because of the extra hop flavour, and we tolerate the added bitter taste. But that got us thinking about what beer actually tastes like. This may sound nitpicky, but in food science taste and flavour are defined separately. The five tastes are perceived by your tongue, while flavour includes all five senses. You might have seen the experiment of a blindfolded person with their nose plugged that can’t tell apple from onion. Sight, sound, smell and touch all add to how we perceive a food flavour.

Bitterness in beer comes mainly from hops and dark roasted grains. Which variety of hops, when in the process they are added and how much is added will all affect bitterness levels. Likewise with dark grain which, like coffee, is made bitter by roasting. Alcohol itself is also bitter, but that’s not as detectable in beer.

Because of the bitterness, you might not think of beer as sweet, but you can find quite a wide range sweetness levels in different beers. Beer is all about turning sugar into alcohol, but it is not 100% efficient. Brewing yeast doesn’t digest certain specific sugars like lactose, and struggles at higher alcohol concentrations, so the fermentation process can leave some residual sugar in the beer. Sugars can also be preserved by taking the yeast out via filtration or pasteurisation.

We find, however, that aroma and texture can give a much greater apparent sweetness than the actual sugar level would suggest. So, while a beer like Southern Tier Creme Brule has some lactose, the caramel and vanilla aromas really give it a dessert quality. When we first experienced dry NZ hopped beer styles they seemed sweeter from tropical fruit aromas in the hops.

A sour beer trend is rising in NZ, and again the sources of sour vary. The actual sour taste typically comes from lactic acid from the malting process or fermentation process, or sometimes you get citric or malic acid from added fruit. Just as bitter and sweet can mask each other, so can sweet and sour.

And salt has no place in beer, right? Actually salts are one of the biggest influences on regional beer differences historically. When breweries talk about their water, they are actually talking about mineral salts in the water. Burton on Trent has such a distinctive water profile that breweries worldwide “burtonise” their water to get authentic English ale malt hop balance.

And salt doesn’t stop there. The newest trend at Beervana this year was the salty beer. Good George Lime and Horopito Gose, Fork & Brewer Big Tahuna with sea water. Previously, we’ve tried a Wild and Wooly Gose at the X-Ale fest and Garage Project’s Umami Monster…

Which brings us to the mysterious 5th flavour, umami. Umami is related to glutamates, which are formed during the breakdown of proteins. Described as savoury or mouth-filling, umami is an enhancer of other flavours. Many high umami foods are fermented, including miso, parmesan cheese, sauerkraut, and Marmite.

Barley provides a small contribution to umami in beer, but the largest boost in flavour comes from the yeast cells breaking down during the fermentation process. Traditional beers with high umami content such as aged stouts require time. Umami Monster, however, actively adds glutemates via seaweed and fermented fish to make a distinctly savoury dark beer. Kereru’s Karengose is a sour, salty seaweed beer.

These beers show that as brewers think more about taste in developing new beers, we can expect to see a proliferation of unexpected flavour combinations.

A version of this column appeared in the Nelson Mail.

About Fritz and Maria

Fritz and Maria have been living, drinking and brewing together for over 20 years. As beer commentators and educators they strive to create a beerocracy where people exercise their palates by voting for quality in the marketplace. Their interests include the personalities, business, and culture of craft beer worldwide. As distillers for Rough Hands, they loved being at the place where magic meets science. Fritz and Maria can be found speaking at beery events, holding guided tastings, judging competitions.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *