Understanding Your Beer And Identifying Characteristics
Welcome to Grand Rapids, Michigan, where we LOVE our beer! There is a reason the city’s nickname is Beer City USA! It’s not abnormal to go to a brewery in the middle of the week to find it packed to the walls with customers looking for their next favorite beer. Sure, it’s easy to slam back a beer quickly and ask for another without fully tasting the beer. Here in Grand Rapids, we like to fully experience our beers. There is so much more that you can derive from a beer aside from the color and bitterness. This guide is intended to help you open your horizons to the possibilities of beer!
There are a few different categories that we break beer down into: color and clarity, aroma, taste, and feel or mouthfeel. Each of these characteristics of a beer can be distinct and completely change a flavor profile. Once you get skilled at identifying each type of beer’s unique characteristics, you should be able to tell what kind of beer you are drinking simply by taste or smell even.
The first thing you notice when you see a beer in a glass is color. Before it even gets to your nose to smell, you can already tell a few probable characteristics of your beer. As malt is toasted longer in the brewing process, the darker it gets, the more the flavor changes. A malt that has been toasted a long time will generally have robust notes of dark chocolate and coffee in it. One could expect a balanced, toasty caramel flavor profile with a medium roast malt. A beer with malt that was only toasted for a short time will be lightest in color. It will also have a more approachable, crisp, “biscuit” flavor. Color can be affected by adjuncts, or additional ingredients, like chocolate nibs or coffee beans. These are added to the mash to add flavor.
The clarity in a beer is caused by yeast or protein. All beer has the protein or yeast haze in it at first, but it can be removed. Different beer usually has different levels of clarity. For example, lagers are usually brilliantly clear. American IPA’s could be described as clear, but not brilliant like lagers. Hazy beers, such as the German Heffeweisen, have a cloudy look to them. Imperial Stouts that are dark in color, usually are nearly completely opaque. They can have clarity to them, but the dark malt combined with the yeast or protein often times creates an opaque visual characteristic.
Aroma and Taste
Hops, yeast, and malt, are the main contributors to beer’s flavor and smell or aromas. Malt effects the beer in that it usually gives a range of flavors from bread, to chocolate, to coffee. There are a lot of different variations of flavors given by the malt depending on the amount of time that was spent roasting it. The toasting process also produces a range of levels of flavor, from light and mild, to balanced, to robust or full! It’s fascinating how many different factors impact a beer’s profile.
Yeast has a major impact on the beer flavor profile as well. Yeast produces CO2, ethanol, and esthers and phenols. Esthers and phenols are different aromas associated with beers a range from fruity to banana for esthers, while phenol aromas are more earthy and clove-like. A pilsner usually has a clean aroma from the yeast because it has been filtered out more than others.
Hops are another huge factor when it comes to the flavor profile of beer. The type of hops used in brewing span a wide range. Their flavor profile can be delicate and light, to strong and assertive. Some of the lighter flavors hops contribute to the brew are floral, fruity, or woody. Within each of those categories are more flavor variations. These include some such as geranium, grapefruit, tropical, and pine, just to name a few.
A beer’s feel, or mouthfeel is the physical characteristics of texture in beer. As you take your first sips of a beer, you will notice its carbonation, weight or viscosity, and the finish or after-feel. Carbonation varies from type to type just as flavor does. A hefeweizen has more effervescence than a nitro beer. Fullness refers to weight or the viscosity of beer. An American lager will be thin and viscous, while a barleywine will be full bodied and almost “chewy”. The after-feel is how your mouth feels after you swallow your drink. Some beer will leave your mouth feeling dry after you finish because of the tannins in it. Others will have a lingering cream feel as well.
No matter the beer you order, you can always guess what it may taste like. If you have a brilliantly clear beer, with a light gold color, and little to no aroma, you can expect a lager or pilsner, generally. For a beer that is described as having the flavor and aroma of banana and clove, a brown color, and slight haze, you generally have a hefeweizen. The most entertaining portion of trying new beers is trying to see how much you can figure out about a beer without tasting it right away. Instead, study the characteristics that strike you as you first receive the beer, like color and aroma, then taste. This way you can try to guess the flavors and characteristics associated with your beer, and confirm afterwards. Enjoy!