All jokes aside, however, it is not uncommon to stumble upon flavors that are slightly amiss, be it due to improper brewing processes, age, oxygen exposure, or even dirty tap lines. It is essential for anyone out in the sales market and in the brewery to recognize when a beer has gone bad or tastes off. Otherwise, our beer drinkers will not be experiencing the best product possible.
Last Friday, we were led in a sensory training session by Big John (our bottling line coordinator) and Walt (the Brewmaster). They began by grabbing a sixtel of our crispest, lightest beer because it would showcase a defect the best. Believe it or not, the most difficult beer to make is a light beer BECAUSE it is easier for off flavors to be detected. If the brewing timing is off, even just a little bit, while creating a lighter bodied, lighter colored beer, an entire batch can be ruined. By contrast, thicker and darker beers can cover over a multitude of imperfections. Likewise, the addition of massive quantities of hops can also hide flavors that are not consistent with style. When tasting for imperfections in beer, it is necessary to be aware of the fact that certain flavors that are considered "off" in one beer may be present, and even encouraged, in other styles.
|Light Beers are Craftsmanship and Art in a Glass|
Next, they had to create these imperfections. John and Walt had procured a kit of chemicals that would simulate these off-flavors in beer. Then they added them to pitchers of our crisp beer and let them sit until they reached the optimum temperature for tasting.
We started off with a "control beer" (contrast that with my usual "out-of-control beer"). The point of this first beer was to make sure that we could identify the way that the beer was intended to taste, as well as giving us a baseline to compare the spoiled beers with later. As usual, it tasted crisp and clean, started smooth, and finished with just a little bit of bitter. Between each "off" beer we tasted this again.
Then they poured the first doctored beer into a cup. We began by smelling it -- first with a pass-by, then three short sniffs, and finally one long one (in many ways, the ritual reminded me of the hokey pokey: you smell the beer first, drink the beer out, you let the beer sit, and then you swish it all about). This first beer smelled like a Jolly Rancher. When we took a drink, the body of the beer fell flat and it finished with less bitterness than the control. John identified the chemical in this beer as Acetaldehyde. It kills the carbonation in the beer and gives it a taste of green apples.
|Green Apple = Bad|
The next beer smelled very familiar. It burned the nostrils just a little bit and finished, in my opinion with an iron-y taste (Not the Alanis Morisette kind of Ironic). I compared it to drinking from a dirty water fountain. We were informed, upon consumption, that this beer contained Acetic Acid. It is often compared to the taste of white vinegar.
|White Vinegar = Bad for beer, good for cleaning floors|
I have to be honest, the third beer tasted pretty good to me. When I smelled it, it smelled like a bread my younger brother used to make -- a vanilla almond swirl bread. The taste was consistent with that almond-y smell, but it finished sour. Come to find out, the chemical in this beer WAS almond and as much as I enjoyed it, a crisp, lager style should not taste like almond.
|Jalapeno Smokehouse Almond in Beer = SUPER BAD|
The fourth chemical was DISGUSTING. I took one smell of this beer and was instantly transported back to a horrible night I had with Natty Light in college (Fact: smell is the sense that is most adept at triggering memories). This beer smelled like vomit AND THEY STILL MADE ME DRINK IT. It tasted like curdled milk. The chemical was identified as Buteric Acid.
|Buteric Acid = Bad|
By this point, my taste buds were angry at me. Fortunately, the next beer was very enjoyable. It smelled like my Werther's Originals eating Grandmother and finished far sweeter than usual. This chemical was identified as the ever-dreaded Diacetyl. This imperfection is generally relegated to lagers, as the colder fermentation temperatures of lager yeasts is the perfect environment for Diacetyl production.
|Butterscotch = Bad|
The Dimethyl Sulfide in the sixth beer caused an aroma of creamed corn and caused the beer to conclude with tart, metallic-like taste. Thankfully, it did not also have the consistency of creamed corn (textured beers -- brilliant?).
|Creamed Corn = Bad|
The next beer tasted like face-planting in a field (or pre-internet childhood). John called this off flavor "Earthy" and informed us that this would only be present due to bottling line issues.
|Gummy Worms in Oreo Dirt = Delicious|
While the eight beer made me want to vomit, it did not actually smell or taste like vomit. Rather, it smelled like an open, New York City sewer, on a hot day in July, where the entire population is suffering from Montezuma's revenge. Seriously disgusting. It is caused by the chemical Mercaptan, which is caused when yeast cells commit autolysis (for non-chemistry majors like myself, that is pretty much cell self-cannibalism, deriving its name from the words auto (self) and lysis (destruction)).
|Sewer Gator = Bad, but possibly fun|
The last off-flavor I had the opportunity to try smelled like nail polish remover and tasted similarly. This Ethyl Acetate is noted for its solvent-like smells and finish.
The sensory training class continued for five years (or, more precisely, two hours) after I left to do tours. I later heard that I missed such delicious tastes and smells as "vanilla," "phenol," and "brewers tears" (ok, I might have made that last one up).