I will be making the beer taste metallic, skunked, cheesy, sour, acetic, papery, bitter (in the bad way), astringent, under attenuated, earthy, buttery and butyric (also known as baby diaper). Thankfully, I only abuse mass market swill (which some would say adds insult to injury) and not good craft beer!It’s part of my judging class, but I’d encourage everyone to participate in sensory evaluations whenever you can.The only way we learn what makes a good beer is by learning to recognize a bad one.If you’ve ever visited a new brewery or brewpub and walked away less than impressed by their beers, did you stop to wonder why?Maybe some were a style you didn’t particularly like, or maybe there was a problem with the beers that you simply didn’t recognize.Educating your palate always starts with learning the basics: malt, hops, yeast character and the interplay between them.Leaning to appreciate sour beer styles like Berliner weisse, Flanders red and lambics takes you further down that path, adding bacterial fermentation flavors to your inventory.The flavors most beer drinkers never get are the ones when mistakes are made.Poor storage, bacterial contamination, water problems, poor brewing techniques (or a combination) which a beer judge will encounter at competitions and which sometimes occur in a commercial setting.
Everything is fair game when it comes to flavors.Indeed, I taste everything I can to maximize the range of flavors (even unpleasant ones) I can call upon to describe a beer. During our first class, we stumbled across a beer that had the unmistakable twang of pickle juice.One of my students correctly named the flavor and we had a brief discussion about whether that flavor was appropriate for the style (saison) and just how one goes about getting that flavor in a beer in the first place.Our best guess was a combination of very warm fermentation, poor water chemistry and a potential acetobacter infection. Beer lovers seldom consider just how many flavor combinations can be created from even the basic ingredients of beer and even fewer contemplate how the brewer’s skill (or lack thereof) molds the final product.Beer writer Randy Mosher crystallized this interplay, saying: “In wine, the hand of God is foremost. But in brewing, it’s the hand of man that is clearly visible, and that, to me, is one of its greatest fascinations.” When you really think about it, the combinations are nearly infinite, since hops change from crop to crop and yeast will produce different results depending on temperature, micro nutrients and pitch rate. My class today teaches how many ways things can go wrong with beer and gives an appreciation for how grateful we should be when things go right. It is also a valuable chance for my students to add to their library of flavors, so that when faced with a problematic beer, they can recall what those flavors are and how a brewer can fix the problem. Me? I’m just glad I only do this twice a year!
Bev Blackwood II is the Southwest Brewing News Contributing Editor for Texas and has been covering Texas beers for 17 years An award winning home brewer, Bev has also brewed professionally at St. Arnold Brewing Company and was part of the team that brought home Saint Arnold’s first Great American Beer Festival gold medal in 2007. A long time member of Houston’s premiere homebrew club, the Foam Rangers, Bev teaches their Beer Judge Certification Program course and has also taught at Rice University’s Glasscock School of Continuing Studies.
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