Recently, my wife and I spent two weeks traveling through Montana and Colorado. We hit roughly 15 breweries with the aim of understanding beer a little better. It took most of the two weeks to begin developing an understanding of how to evaluate beer. Like wine, it is still all about the balance and structure, but unlike wine, these qualities come from different sources. A beer flavor profile is built primarily from these components: grain variety, malt and/or roast process, hops variety, yeast variety and water. Certain styles of beer can also have substantially higher/lower alcohol content, added flavors, be barrel aged, be cold or warm fermented, or finally the delivery system (tap) can have a major impact on texture. This post will focus on the 10,000 ft. view, trying to provide the bigger picture that is beer. If you have not already experienced all that beer has to offer, this should introduce you to the tremendous diversity in the Craft Brew Continuum. Most of the breweries we visited are listed at the end of the post.
Grains are typically either: Barley, Wheat or Rye. Barley is most common. Wheat is selected more typically in lighter styled beers and Rye is used in many IPA‘s to add spice and body.
Malt and/or Roast
Malting is the process by which the grain is soaked in water and allowed to sprout, making the starch in the grain available to the brewer for fermentation. These “malted” grains are then dried and can be roasted at different levels to achieve more diverse flavors. There are many different processes that produce light to dark and even specialty malts like caramel, or chocolate. Darker styles of beer rely heavily on Malt/Roast processes to develop their flavors.
There are many varieties of Hops that can be grown in a number of cooler climate areas around the world. Each can taste quite different in the beer. Hops is primarily used for bittering and an international scale has been developed to measure the amount of Alpha Acids that causes the bitterness in parts per million. The scale is simply called International Bitterness Units (IBU’s). As a reference:
- A Lager might have an IBU rating in the 10-20 range.
- An Amber Ale might have an IBU measurement in the 25-40 range.
- An India Pale Ale (IPA) might be in the 60-80 range.
- An Imperial, or Double IPA could be anywhere from 80-200.
Hops is usually boiled and then fermented with the Wort. The Hops can add citrus, piney, floral, or spicy flavors, depending on the variety used. It can also make an enormous difference if additional hops are added and allowed to soak after fermentation. When done in this manner, the hops tend to impart their more complex flavors, rather than primarily the bitterness from the Alpha Acids.
As in wine, various controlled and wild yeasts can be used and will impart different flavors also. The most startling example of Yeast impacting the final beer flavor is in the Kolsch style. Try one sometime and you will get the idea. There are yeasts that are more efficient during cold ferment (like Lager), or warm ferment (like Ale). The cold vs. warm process affects the flavor too.
Water is water, but then again… it is the largest percentage component in beer. It can have an affect on the final flavor profile based on minerality, or other characteristics.
Everything is fair game in this category. On this trip, we tasted everything from pickle juice, or coffee being added to the process to habanero chiles and peach nectar. The Lambic style of beer takes this idea to the limit, with all having a fruit component and usually some level of sweet, or sour to it.
Barrel Aging & The Delivery System
As in wine, barrel aging is a practice used to impart additional flavors and characteristics to the beer. Today, it is not uncommon to see IPA, Saison, Porter and Stout aged in whiskey barrels. The challenge with this practice is the loss of the carbonation byproduct from the fermentation. Often this style of aged beer is put on tap with CO2, or N2 to add the bubbly back. I know my palate has a hard time drinking beer without the bubbles.
Acidity in Beer
This is an interesting topic for me. Acidity in wine is a key component to the “backbone”, or “structure” in a wine. Low acid wines taste flabby and flat. I found the same goes for many styles of beer. So, managing the acidity in beer is crucial too… and has much to do with the water. When the water used in the Wort has a high amount of dissolved carbonates (for example), crisp beer styles like Lager and Pilsner are impossible – unless the Wort is acidified through additives. Acidity can accentuate the hoppy flavors in IPA’s. Porters and Stouts benefit from lower acidity to develop a creamier mouth-feel.
Personally, I enjoy high alcohol beers, i.e. Strong Ale and Barley Wine. You can’t sit down and drink 72 oz. of this stuff like a Lager, but the higher alcohol adds more texture and mouth-feel… characteristics I enjoy. There are many ways to amplify the alcohol. Just as in cooler climate wines, winemakers can Chaptalize and add sugary components, the same thinking can be applied to beer. Typically, it is difficult to get more than 6% or 7% alcohol from simply malted barley, but any sugary substance added to the Wort can increase the alcohol percentage produced by the fermentation.
Evaluating Beer & Beer Styles
In order to evaluate beer, you need to understand the different styles of beer and tie them back to the differences in the components. Based on the Beer Judge Certification Program there are 28 broader categories and 102 individual beer styles. I will just cover the major categories here for this discussion: Lager, Pilsner, Amber, Bock, English Pale Ale, Scottish/Irish Ale, American Ale, Porter, Stout, IPA, German Wheat Beer, Belgian Ale, Sour Ale, and Strong Ale. For the purposes of this piece, we will exclude Mead and Cider…
At least for me, I can fit beer into six major categories:
- Light, crisp beers (Pilsner, Lager, Wheat)
- Lighter ales (Pale, American)
- Medium maltier ales with slightly roasted barley (Amber, Scotch)
- Bitter ales (IPA, Strong)
- Dark ales (Porter, Stout)
- Specialty beers (lambic, sour and beers with added flavors)
OK, for you purists, don’t beat me up to badly. I know there are supposed to be 28 categories, but my palate tends to compare and file away each beer into one of these six.
In these two weeks of visiting breweries, I was able to associate a flavor profile in my mind with each and put the equivalent of a varietally correct wine model in place for each. Similar to my training to taste wine blind and identify grape varieties… I would be comfortable doing the same for beer now. I have also matched my palate to beer styles I prefer, learned beer-making practices that impact flavors I enjoy and flavor profiles to expect based on a written description. It was a great trip! For anyone in the beverage trade, I would highly recommend such a voyage of discovery!
BREWERIES WE VISITED:
Big Beaver Brewing Company
2707 W. Eisenhower Blvd. Unit 9 Loveland, CO 80537 (970) 818-6064 bigbeaverbrew.com
Coopersmith’s Pub & Brewing
5 Old Town Square Fort Collins, CO 80524 coopersmithspub.com
Equinox Brewing Company
133 Remington Street Fort Collins, CO 80524 (970) 430-6489 equinoxbrewing.com
Fort Collins Brewery
1020 E. Lincoln Avenue Fort Collins, CO 80524 (970) 472-1499 fortcollinsbrewery.com
Odell Brewing Company
800 E. Lincoln Avenue Fort Collins, CO 80524 (970) 498-9070 odellbrewing.com
1550 Taurus Court Loveland, CO 80537 (970) 988-6333 verbotenbrewing.com
Avery Brewing Company
5763 Arapahoe Ave Unit B-1 Boulder, CO 80303 (303) 440-4324 averybrewing.com
Upslope Brewing Company
1501 Lee Hill Road No. 20 Boulder, CO 80304 (303) 960-8494 upslopebrewing.com
1507 Montana Street, http://www.bayernbrewery.com, 406-721-1482
915 Toole Avenue, http://www.draughtworksbrewery.com, 406-541-1592