Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Does This Beer Taste Off To You?

During the homebrewing journey you will encounter many different flavours, some expected and welcomed with open arms, and others completely unwanted that could result in your hard work being poured down the drain. You go to great efforts to avoid some of these nasty flavours, so it’s no surprise you could be unfamiliar with some of them, but they are flavours every brewer should be aware of.

Which one gets you out of the Matrix?
Thankfully for us, a company by the name of AROXA have a solution. How about tainting a perfectly good (but bland) beer with these unpleasant flavours for the purpose of research? Their UNO kit gives brewers and beer judges alike the opportunity to taste ten of the most common flavours that they might encounter when tasting beers. We had discussed this kit numerous times at previous homebrew meets, but it wasn't until Ale is Good posted a excellent blog post about the very same kit that we actually got our arses into gear and put an order in.

What we received was a superbly packaged item which was more akin to a next-gen gadget! What you get is a ‘pod’ containing 10 colourful pills, each with an accompanying cue card detailing how best it should be consumed, how the flavour and aroma occurs and the variety of beers you might expect to find it in. All we needed to supply was an inert beer and all eyes were on good old Bud, but we ended up with something probably even more bland than that - Coors Light. We certainly got some funny looks from the other patrons in Red Willow when we started cracking open the cans, even more so when we started dumping the contents of brightly coloured pills into it! Curiosity got the best of one person who wandered over to inquire what we were doing - don’t panic, it’s all in the aid of science! 

In attendance was myself, Mike, Graham, Tom and Bruce.

H2S - "like boiled or rotten eggs"
To kick off proceedings we picked the closest card to hand. As soon as we added the pill's contents to the first portion of the beer there was an immediate air of egg sarnies wafting across the table, enough to put you off  even trying it, but that’s not in the spirit of the exercise! There was a slight musty taste to the beer, but it wasn't totally unpleasant, definitely had more in aroma than in flavour.

Cue Card Blurb...
Present in all beers. Concentrations vary considerably from beer to beer. Off-flavour in most beer styles. Signature flavour character in Burton ale.

Diacetyl - "like butter, or butter popcorn"
With a sniff of the beery jug there was a definite smell of buttered popcorn, which wasn't all that bad. In the mouth there was a slick buttery feel that totally flattened any taste the Coors had to offer (if it had any to begin with!). I've encountered this flavour first hand with an off bottle from a fellow homebrew club member, but this was definitely more pronounced. 

Cue Card Blurb...
Desirable flavour in some ales, stouts and lagers, eg Pilsner. Off-flavour in other lager beers. Considerable efforts are made by breweries to lightly control this flavour character.

Isoamyl Acetate - "like bananas or pear drops"
This one wasn't completely unpalatable, due to it being a flavour that is expected in the Hefeweizen beer style (see Franziskaner Hefe-Weisse). It had a strong smell of foam banana sweets, which isn't a surprise as Isoamyl Acetate is what banana flavouring is made from. Some of the group caught hints of pear drops, which the cue card also mentioned, but that favour alluded me. We pretty much agreed that this one actually improved the beer. As a comparison the bar manager of Red Willow, Pete, got us a sample of their own Witless to see how it tasted in a proper beer...obviously was superb!

Cue Card Blurb...
Present in all beers. Concentrations vary considerably from beer to beer. Key flavour impact character in some lagers and ales. Signature flavour character in German-style wheat beer.

Musty - "like corked wine or a damp cellar"
I think from all the samples we tasted, this was the most revolting. As soon as we added the compound to the beer, an awful stench of damp cellars hit our nasal passages. Bruce said it reminded him of scout huts, so God knows what repressed memories this thing had unearthed! The smell was almost overwhelming, to the point where human instinct was telling us not to drink it! We pushed on and took a swig with noses pinched. Not only did it smell musty, but it tasted quite musty too and left a dry lump in my throat. Some of the guys got a hint of chlorine coming through which, once highlighted, we could all taste. 

Cue Card Blurb...
Taint in beer. Associated with a high degree of consumer rejection, even at low levels. Often described by consumers as ‘chemical’ or ‘contaminated’.

DMS - "like sweetcorn or tomato sauce"
Did someone just open a tin of Green Giant sweetcorn? Initially there wasn't a lot to taste other than the Coors (in which there’s not much flavour), but then it snuck up on the taste buds, nasty lingering sweetcorn-like flavours, which almost had Mike gagging. I think we each only had a couple of sips before it was tipped into the dump jug. 

Cue Card Blurb...
Desirable flavour in some pale lager beers and ales. Off-flavour in other beers. Excessive levels are indicative of growth of contaminant bacteria during fermentation.

Metallic - "like ink or blood"
At this point we started blind tasting to see if we could guess the flavours. This was an obvious one, there was a strong iron flavour, but it didn't really smell of anything. When we checked the cue card it advised us to rub a bit of the beer on the back of our hands and give it a sniff, sure enough it smelled quite strongly of a metal works.

Cue Card Blurb...
Taint and occasionally off-flavour in beer. Primarily affects the beer mouthfeel, but occasionally beer odour can also be affected. Metallic odours can also be produced by lipid oxidation. 

Phenolic - "like cloves or wheat beer"
To me this one had a strong scent of smokey bacon crisps, which for some reason always reminds me of cider (particularly Strongbow)! In the mouth this wasn't all that bad, it gave the Coors a Saison-like tone which was actually quite palatable. Mike had recently brewed a beer that had this exact flavour, which although it was obvious that it had been infected by some wild yeast, it was still a decent tipple. 

Cue Card Blurb...
Key flavour impact character in some ales and stouts. Off-flavour in lager beers when it is associated with a moderate degree of consumer rejection. Signature flavour character in German-style wheat beer. 

Hop Oil
There was nothing on the nose with this one, but it basically tasted of a crappy lager, even more so than just the Coors alone! Furthermore it had a slight stale tone, like drinking the dregs of a lager that had been left out in the sun for a few was a taste we were all familiar with. 

Cue Card Blurb...
Positive flavour character imparted to specialty ales by addition of hop oil. Different hop varieties in combination with different beers give rise to a variety of hop flavour characteristics

Considering the accompanying cue card had the icon of a skunk on it and advised to smell the beer at arms length, we all thought this one didn't actually smell so bad. There was a slight scent of sulphur, but nothing as overwhelming as some of the other flavours on offer. It tasted pretty similar to the previous sample, but this one actually did simulate a beer left out in the sun.

Cue Card Blurb...
Off-flavour associated with  beer packaged in clear or green glass exposured to light . Consumers are very tolerant of this off-flavour. Many successful beers contain this flavour at  point of consumption. 

And eventually we get to our final flavour, which by at this point we’re all gagging for something hoppy and tasty! This one didn't really taste or smell of anything too unpleasant, just of a standard lager. There was nothing else to report really.

Cue Card Blurb...
Off-flavour in beer associated with ageing. Formation of this flavour is more pronounced when precautions have not been taken in relation to minimising process oxidation. 

. . .

The aftermath...
With the tasting session done we all dashed off to bar to get a beer with a wanted flavour. Whilst almost everyone went with Quantum’s excellent NZ Pale, I went for a Arbor Ale’s 2014 - a black IPA which, according to Ratebeer, is over 1200 IBUs…whaaaa?! I wanted hoppy and got it in spades! Despite the strong hop flavours, I could still taste some of the nights nasty offerings.

In conclusion, we were all expecting the off flavours to be quite bold, but instead we found subtle nuances that our taste buds really needed to hone in on. Due to varying palates, a few of us couldn't initially pinpoint the off flavour and that's where it helped doing the tasting in a group so we could explain the flavours in various ways and highlight them to other members. 

All-in-all, the kit was a fantastic exercise and certainly well worth the money, especially if you can round up ten people to split the costs. What was interesting is that I was expecting a lot of the flavours to be indicative of a spoiled brew, but not all the flavours you would want to totally avoid, depending on what you’re actually brewing.

If you’re serious about brewing then it’s definitely worth checking out!