If you have ever taken a wine-tasting class, chances are you have been exposed to the “Flavor Wheel.” This handy tool is meant to give tasters a common vocabulary. You might not know it, but the same thing exists in the beer world.
Created in the 1970s by Morten Meilgaard, a sensory scientist, beer flavor is broken up into three large sections; aroma, mouthfeel and taste, with 14 subcategories that are further split into 44 individual flavor components that range from bitter to sweet and grainy to leathery. Homebrewing contest judges use this as a guide to describe what they are tasting and to decide if a brew adheres to stylistic guidelines.
While the Beer Flavor Wheel is round, in reality beer flavors can be pretty lopsided. Hops push the bitter, herbal, fruity and floral receptors on our tongues. Malt offers caramel, grain, biscuit and roasted flavors. In an age of extreme brews, we experience everything from high gravity direct alcoholic notes to sour Brettanomyces ales.
In a world crowded by radical flavors, you may wonder “What’s next?”—it might just be that your next beer will show a softer side.
Soft beer? No, this is not some new name for non-alcoholic beers. Rather it is the embodiment of the theory that when culinary trends head to the extreme, there can be a reactionary recoil back to to the basics. This is a loose example of a law of physics brought down to the level of your palate. For every trend like nouvelle cuisine or Asian fusion, there is often a return to traditional fare like comfort food and ethnic cooking. Beer is the same in that for every imperial IPA, someone out there is creating a lightly hopped lager.
Our beers follow my personal philosophy and what I like to drink,” says John Marrino, one of the partners at The Olde Mecklenburg Brewery in Charlotte, N.C. “The key is balance. I want a good, full-flavored beer, but not extreme in either direction. We brew our altbier—OMB Copper—to be something people will want to drink during the course of an evening. Some of the extreme beers are just made to be fun for the beer geeks.”
Softness in beer comes in many forms: the refined crispness of a Kölsch; the reserved maltiness of an altbier; the creamy character of a dry Irish stout on nitrogen.
There is a paradox with these beers because they have so many subtleties present. They are full of flavor and full-bodied, but they are not at all heavy,” Marrino says.
Any beer festival attendee will tell you that after the first hour or so of drinking big beers chock-full of hops and malt, it is difficult to detect differences from one beer to the next. In today’s beer world, packing as much flavor as possible into a glass appears to be the sole goal of many brewers. But there are beers that can appeal to your contemplative side—if you just slow down and give them a chance.
Altbier is a perfect example. I was recently in Düsseldorf, a town along the Rhine in northwest Germany. Düsseldorf is famous for its altbier breweries. Altbier—or “old beer”—is a dark amber-colored beer that you would expect, at first glance, to either push forward a hop tang like an IPA or the malty sweetness of a doppelbock. These top-fermented beers do neither. The hops are certainly there and malt also makes its presence known, but it is not overpowering. What you come away from drinking a fresh altbier—whether it is your first glass or tenth (after all, they serve these beers in 0.25 liter glasses)—is the realization that the overall mouthfeel turns out to be silky and smooth.
There is plenty of flavor in altbier, but there is a softness that allows you to taste each component in the beer. Part of the explanation may come from the traditional time-consuming practice of decoction brewing, where the mash is split, boiled separately and reconstituted for aging. There is a flavor depth that goes well beyond the one-dimensional.
Just down river from the altbier capital is the city of Cologne (Köln), where Kölsch is king. The Köln Guild of Brewers was established in 1396, but it was not until 1986 that about 20 local breweries joined together to form an appellation to try to protect the term Kölsch from being used by other breweries. Kölsch is a top-fermented beer that is lagered and the result is a light, golden-colored brew that is dry, refreshing and dances across your taste buds.
Vince Mandeville, head brewer at Saint Arnold Brewing in Houston says the company’s Fancy Lawnmower beer is a Kölsch that uses wheat and pilsner malts and is 18 IBUs. “We’re in Texas and it’s hot all the time,” he says. “This beer is a daily drinker down here. It’s something that will quench your thirst and not challenge your taste buds if you have more than one.”
As proof that beers that are softer on your palate have a place and a time, Mandeville recounts the Craft Brewers Conference in San Diego in 2008. As part of the event, a brewer hospitality bar had been set up with around 100 taps, mostly pouring high-gravity, high-hopped or sour Belgian-style brews. “By the end of the conference, everyone was looking for our Kölsch. Their taste buds had been assaulted by the other beers and they were just looking for a good beer,” he says.
There are other beer styles that argue in favor of a softer approach to the brewing art. Vienna-style lagers are similar in color to altbier and offer up a soft maltiness, but finish dry with barely a hint of sweetness. Brown ales, once only found in certain parts of Great Britain, have spread to American craft brewers. Brooklyn Brewery’s Brooklyn Brown is the perfect example of an ale that has hops present, but has a level of malt that takes the edge off the presentation. The moderate level of carbonation found in most brown ales also means that the beer tends to be coating as you taste it.
Jeff Motch, an owner of the Blind Lady Ale House in San Diego, Calif., says when a keg of Russian River’s Pliny the Elder or Alpine’s Nelson IPA goes on tap “they go insanely fast,” but he is seeing a trend where people who used to seek out super hoppy ales now look for Belgian wits and lighter style brews.
When we have Mission Brewery Blonde, a Kölsch, the keg will last only a night. The same thing is true of Hangar 24’s Orange Wheat, which is an American-style wheat that has real oranges, but a pretty light mouthfeel,” Motch says. “People are pretty attracted to these beers.”
One final note on softness when it comes to beer: Beers served on nitrogen provide the kind of velvety mouth feel that makes it easy to think of your next beer while your pint is still half full. If you are lucky enough to get to Dublin, you will no doubt visit the Guinness Brewery to have a pint from the source of what is obviously the world’s most popular beer poured on nitrogen. But make sure you get to one of the Porterhouse Brewpub locations in the city and have one of the stouts on draught. The Plain, the Porterhouse’s Porter, is one of the softest dark beers you are likely to ever encounter.
So the next time you feel the need to dial back the hops and lower the levels of malt, think about making your next beer a brew that engages the softer side of the Flavor Wheel.
Rick Lyke has been writing about beer since 1980. He is a contributor to the upcoming book 1001 Beers You Must Taste Before You Die expected to be released in Spring 2010.