To boil it down to its simplest level, the essence of good beer is found in the interplay of sweet flavors introduced by the malted barley (malt) and the bitterness of the hops. Hops are essentially a spice and introduce flavors and aromas that enhance the character of the malts — like adding cinnamon to baked apples. The cone-like flowers of the hop plant are remarkably reminiscent of the buds of the cannabis plant, and its aromatic oils give off a similar funk. I’ve seen quite a few people huffing at bags of fresh hops like they were doing a bong hit.
The aroma from a freshly poured pint is a bit more subtle, but no less sublime. Let the beer sit for a minute or two in the glass to let it warm up a bit. The aromas are more evident as the beer warms, which is the reason American light lagers taste best when ice cold out of can! Depending on the style, a beer may feature floral, citrus, spicy or piney aromas from the hops, and caramel, coffee or fruity esters from the malts. Some beers, such as English brown ales (Newcastle) and amber lagers (Dos Equis) have little or no hop aroma, while pilsners and light lagers have only a hint of malt aroma.
Different malt and hop varieties are used to impart specific characteristics to the taste of a beer. These flavors may be blended, like in coffee or wine, to achieve the desired qualities. Pilsner malts are light and sweet; Vienna malts are darker and richer. Roasted malts are added to porters and stouts to create coffee and cocoa-like flavors. Malts provide the sugars needed for fermentation. Yeasts feed on the sugars and produce carbon dioxide and alcohol. Not all of the sugars are consumed by the yeast, however, and the remaining sugars, indicated by the final gravity, provide the perceived sweetness and body of the beer.
Hops are added during the boil to provide bitterness, as well as flavor and aroma. The bitterness of hops is measured in International Bittering Units, or IBU, which are calculated based on the amount of alpha acids in the hops. Some brewers will provide the IBU for their beers, but remember that the perception of bitterness depends on the amount of sweetness imparted by the malts. The maltier the beer, the more IBU needed to balance the flavors. A pale ale and a porter might both have the same IBU value, but the pale ale will seem more bitter because there is less sweet malt counterpoint to the hops.
None of which you need to remember to enjoy a good beer. But it does help to think in broad terms of sweet characteristics (brown sugar, honey, caramel, fruit) and bitter characteristics (citrus, piney, herbal). Does one dominate the other? Is one more prominent at first and the other emerges later? Is the flavor profile (the overall taste) consistent with the style of the beer? Bitterness is desired in a dry stout, not so much in an Oktoberfest. Tasting classic beer styles can help train your tongue to recognize these flavors in other beers. To practice tasting malt flavors, try these beers: Spaten Marzen (caramel), Samuel Smith’s Nut Brown Ale (toasted, nutty), and Highland Oatmeal Porter (roasted malts, chocolate, coffee). These beers offer a primer on hop bitterness, aroma, and flavor: Pilsner Urquell (floral, spicy hops), Sweetwater IPA (citrus aroma and taste), Rogue Brutal Bitter (piney aroma).
Now go practice! Next week, I’ll have a rundown of some summer beer offerings.
News in the ongoing campaign against antiquated blue laws: On May 2, South Carolina became the most recent Southern state to raise the limit on the alcohol content of beer. The new limit is 14 percent by weight, or 17 percent by volume (ABV), which means that one of the most conservative states in the South now actually allows stronger beers than Georgia, which has a limit of 14 percent ABV!
Call your state legislator and tell them we are losing revenue! This is the fastest way to get action from a politician and the only way we were able to change the alcohol limit on beer in the first place.
Talking Head columnist Jeff Holland can be reached by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org.