The old adage of “you drink with your eyes first” certainly applies to beer, with regards to colour, clarity and head retention.
Colour is usually imparted through a blend of roasted malts and grains bringing a range of colour from pale straw to opaque black.
Clarity is largely determined by style; some should be free from haze and cloudiness (pale lager & ale), while others embrace it, such as wheat beer.
Although not applicable to all styles, a thick foam head is widely regarded as a sign of a well-crafted beer.
Beer is composed mostly of water. Historically, beer styles have evolved from specific regions due to the unique local water available to them; with different mineral components. As a result, different regions were originally better suited to making certain types of beer, thus giving them regional character. For example, Dublin, Ireland has hard water well-suited to making stout, while the town of Plzeň in the Czech Republic has soft water well-suited to making Pilsner.
Be sure to stop and smell the hop flowers… Beer is a complex beverage with a wide range of aromas. These may be formed from the various grains and malt, type and quantity of hops, and various other aromatic components that can be contributed by the yeast strain. Other elements may also be derived from the water and the brewing process.
The most common starch source used in beer is malted barley. By malting grain, enzymes are produced that convert starch in the grain into fermentable sugar which is a key determinant of the final alcoholic strength and body. The final step of this process, kilning or roasting, determines the colour, flavour and aroma. A brewer can choose to blend various malts and grains (such as wheat, rice, oats, and rye, and less frequently, corn and sorghum) to achieve their desired style and profile of their finished beer.
Body and Mouthfeel
Is your beer light or heavy, still or sparkling, simple or robust? These are a few of the characteristics we use to describe the body and mouthfeel. A beer that feels clean and refreshing on a hot day will be completely different from the one we seek on a cold winter night to warm us up. Carbonation changes how it feels; rich and creamy or light and spritzy. Alcohol will also play a factor in the weight and complexity; think about the texture of skim milk to cream.
The flowering cones of the hop vine are used as a flavouring and preservative agent in nearly all beer made today and have been used in beer production since the 9th century. There are hundreds of different hop varieties; some contribute floral, citrus and herbal flavours and aromas. Others are desired for bitterness, which balances the sweetness of the malt. Hops in beer also aids in “head retention”, the length of time that a foamy head created by carbonation will last.
Sweet, Sour, Bitter…. These are the basic flavours we generally associate with beer. Aroma and flavour go hand in hand; the taste characteristics of a beer may come from the type and amount of malt used, strain of yeast, brewing water and type and amount of hops. It may also come from the brewer’s imagination and include all sorts of fruits and spices.
Yeast is the microorganism that is responsible for fermentation in beer by metabolizing the sugars extracted from grains, which produces alcohol. There are generally three kinds of yeast used in brewing beer; ale, lager and wild yeast. Within these categories are hundreds of unique individual strains, all of which produce different characteristics and flavours. Many of these strains are closely guarded secrets held by individual breweries and have been in use for generations.
International Bitterness Units (IBUs) are calculated as a measure of perceived bitterness of beer. The scale generally ranges from 0-110 IBU and is best used as a guide, not a rule as everyone’s tastes are slightly different. The higher the IBU number, the more perceptible the bitterness will be in a beer. Many brewers today are including International Bitterness Units values on their packaging to help consumers identify a beer that suits their taste.
Alcohol By Volume (ABV) is the calculated percentage of alcohol contained in a given package size of beer. Alcohol contributes more than just its intoxicating effects to a beer but adds weight and body as well. A beer with a higher percentage of alcohol may feel richer, fuller and more complex on the palate.
Standard Reference Method (SRM) is a way to measure the optical density of a beer, in other words, the colour of beer. The colour of a beer can be indicative to both the style and flavor profile. The SRM method measures the colour of a beer using a number scale. A smaller number on the SRM scale indicates a beer that is light in colour, a larger number indicates a darker style of beer. The SRM scale is helpful to identify between darker beer (stouts, porters) and a lighter beer (pale ales, pilsners). This is helpful because it can indicate not only different beer styles but also the use of specialty malts in beer; specialty malts add body, flavour and colour.