Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Beer Tasted Like Face-planting in a Field

Have you ever noticed how sometimes a beer tastes a little bit off and you can't exactly put your finger on what the taste is or why it tastes so weird?  I had encountered this problem prior to working at the brewery, but it turned out that the reason it tasted so funny was because I just drank crappy beer.

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).

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Drinking Beer Prevents Cholera

Books are dangerous. And they are even more dangerous when they are read.  A single book can change the life of the reader forever. That happened to me once (and no, it was not as a result of reading Fox in Sox, which is the best book ever).

Farenheit 451, anyone?
The book that changed my life was on the cleanliness of water.  I never thought about how, over the history of mankind, the water which a society had access to determined the ability of a culture to progress and survive and how, even in modern times, people can contract cholera or be infected with cryptosporidium from tainted water. After reading that book, it was all I was able to think about (it also made me realize that there are many people who still do not have access to clean water).  For over a YEAR, I refused to drink anything that was not boiled first (sometimes, I feel really bad for my Mom).

Upon entering the brewing world, water has once again taken an important place in my life.  Outside of bacteria, I had never given much thought to what else might be present in water. Believe it or not, many brewers have to alter the chemical composition of the water that they use to correctly create the style of beer they are brewing. Prepare to get knowledged based on my limited knowledge (I feel the need to establish that this is based on my understanding of the BJCP style guidelines and is not a scientific dissertation).

More than anything else in history, the styles of beer produced was based on geography.  Initially, any beer was the result of the type of water, grains, ingredients, and technology indigenous to an area. The ancient brewers did not intend to create specific styles of beer, they were merely using the supplies that they had on hand.  (Styles did not remain static. Over time, as technology developed, access to ingredients increased, and consumer demand altered, more stylistic options became available.)  Interestingly, the type of water that they had access to influenced the flavor and brewing process of the beer. Water makes up 85-90% of the composition this libation.

I wonder what sorts of flavors Nile crocodile adds to a beer.

Now, for a little chemistry lesson on some of the chemicals present in water.  The concentration of hydrogen ions in water determines the pH level.  A low pH (below 7) is indicative of high hydrogen ion concentration. This means the water is acidic. Higher pHs (above 7) contain greater hydroxide concentrations and create alkaline water.  The pH of the water in brewing, which is determined by the hardness, alkalinity, and buffering salts of the ingredients, affects the finished product greatly.

Likewise, the cations and anions contained within certain waters are vitally important.  The two most common cations are calcium, magnesium and sodium. Calcium aids in protein coagulation during the hot and cold breaks of brewing.  Magnesium also participates in the same chemical reactions as calcium, although to a lesser extent, and also provides nutrients for yeast.  Sodium accents sweetness in low levels, but is salty at higher levels.

In terms of anions, brewers deal most with bicarbonate, sulfate,  and chloride. Bicarbonate works with the acids of dark and roasted malts to neutralize them and reacts with calcium to reduce hardness in the water.  The presence of sulfate accents hop bitterness and dryness when present in large concentrations.  Finally, chloride enhances sweetness.


Certain bodies of water are famed for the styles of beer they helped created.  For example, the water of Burton on the Trent is renowned for creating drier flavors that accentuate hop bitterness in ales, a result of high sulfide levels in the water.  Likewise, the soft water in Plzen helped to produce lagers that were bitter, but still retained a soft palate.

Because we got scienced, we now know that this will have a drier flavor, with accentuated hop bitterness
Here at the brewery, we have to be very careful that our pH levels align properly with the style of beer we are brewing.  The water used in our Dortmunder Lager has a very specifically dictated chemical composition, as does the water for our Munich Lager.

In case you are still stuck on the paragraph about water with cholera in it, just know this:  when there were epidemics of cholera, the people who drank beer did not contract it.  The boiling process killed any vibrio cholera that were present. So, drinking beer will prevent you from catching it too.

Think of this as your cholera prevention kit