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.