Down in the Black Creek Brewery, we frequently said, “Beer is a very personal thing! There’s no right or wrong answer, only the beer that’s right for you!” While I wholeheartedly believe this is true, there is an aspect of beer that rarely came up in brewery conversations: beer faults.
That’s right. While preferences on style, flavour, and aroma are largely dependent on personal palates, it is possible to have beer that is—from a purely objective standpoint—flawed.
What makes beer taste bad? Sometimes, faults in beer arise from poor sanitation or infection (this was particularly a problem in the Victorian age). Sometimes, the ingredients are poor quality, stale, or improperly stored. Maybe something went wrong in the brewing process.
Victorian breweries didn’t have modern standards of sanitation…
Or maybe the recipe itself wasn’t very good (we’ve all eaten baked goods gone wrong—the same principle applies to brewing). Perhaps the wrong ingredients in the wrong quantities were used; or maybe the brewing method wasn’t followed correctly; or maybe a brewer let their creativity and zest for experimentation run too wild.
(A beer that will forever remain etched in my memory is a “Choc Lobster Porter.” Chocolate and lobster do not go together. The best I can say about that beer is that it makes a really good story now.)
Even if a perfectly good beer leaves the brewery, it can still pick up flaws before you drink it: improper storage, age, exposure to heat and/or light, and even dirty draught lines can all create undesirable flavours.
So that’s why a beer might have faults. But what are some common flaws?
This is a very common one. If you’re detecting an odd, green apple flavour in your beer, you’re tasting the result of acetaldehyde. This compound is actually a precursor to sugars becoming alcohol. In small quantities, it can be perceived as a simple fruity note, but a large presence usually means the beer needs more aging.
Astringency isn’t just bitterness. It’s an over-steeped-black-tea flavour and sensation. Unsurprisingly, astringency in beer comes from tannins. In brewing, astringency can result from over-steeping and/or over-sparging the malt, or mashing with water that’s too hot. In some cases, it can also result from bacterial infections.
Mmmm, delicious! You’re smelling/tasting isovaleric acid, resulting from poorly stored, oxidized hops.
Ever wonder why so many beer bottles are brown? It’s to avoid this fault. When the iso alpha acids in hops react with light, it creates a flavour incredibly similar to a skunk’s odour. It’s quite common in beers stored in clear or green glass bottles. To avoid “light-struck” beer, stick to brown glass, draught beer, or cans.
Does your beer taste like you’re licking an aluminium can? A metallic taste in beer is a fault that results from old, improperly maintained equipment and/or poor-quality water.
Water quality greatly affects beer. Here is Joseph Bloore’s brewery in the Rosedale ravine, painted by R. Baigent , 1865 (www.torontopubliclibrary.ca)
Beer and popcorn can be a good combination, but you don’t want your beer tasting like popcorn. If your beer is slick on the tongue and tastes like a movie theatre, you’ve got excessive diacetyl. This is a natural by-product of fermentation: a little can be all right, but too much is unpleasant. Usually, high levels are found in beer that’s been rushed out or beer fermented with weak yeast. However, it can be caused by dirty draught lines.
Beers’ flavours change as they age. If you’re getting cardboard, your beer is probably old and overly-oxidized.
Nail Polish Remover
Yeast gives off esters as it ferments: the resulting ethyl acetate can be responsible for a slight fruitiness…or harsh acetone flavours. Beer that tastes like solvent indicates poor handling, though it can result from low-quality, plastic brewing equipment.
We all know bread goes mouldy. And we all know that beer and bread are made of similar ingredients. Mouldy, musky beer may indicate the presence of mould in the grain or casks. It may also arise from dirty draught lines.
Fortunately, a good brewer using quality ingredients in a clean environment (like our brewmaster Ed!) will avoid most of these faults. But learning to detect flaws is just another part of educating one’s palate. Beer is still down to personal taste—but knowing standards of flavour can help beer-lovers make even more informed choices about their brews. 🙂
To Queen and Country!