Thursday, 9 December 2010

The Taste of Beer

I recently wrote a piece for the journal of the Brewery History Society. It's a special Michael Jackson memorial issue, and features some of the great and the good of beer writing (and myself, obviously). The roll call of other writers is: Pete Brown, Roger Protz, Martyn Cornell, Jeff Evans, Mark Dredge, Carolyn Smagalski, Tim Webb and John Richards. It should be out soon (I think it's the winter edition), so why don't you visit their website, have a look around, and perhaps even join.

But that wasn't what I was going to write about today - the title reminded me, as it's also the title of the piece I wrote for the journal. What I was going to write about, or more specifically ask about, is how people feel about flavour additions to their beers.

I've been mucking about with a bit of homebrewing recently, and have just made a creamy oatmeal porter. I tried to make a chocolate orange porter by adding tangerine peel to the brew kettle, but the flavour hasn't carried through. It's still a tasty beer, but it doesn't quite have the citrussy lift I was after.

Then I thought, hang on, maybe I can just dry hop this beer with a load of citrussy hops (Amarillo, maybe). Looking around a few homebrew forums, I saw that people were adding actual Terry's Chocolate Orange to get the desired effect, or even adding a shot of Cointreau at bottling. PAH! I sneered, PAH!, that's cheating. And then I realised that I was putting tangerine peel in the beer in the first place, so maybe I was cheating too.

So the question is, when does a flavour ingredient in beer become 'cheating'? Belgian witbier is customarily spiced with coriander and dried orange peel, so we all accept that. Does the point where the ingredient is added make a difference to your perception of it being acceptable? Do you like a little shot of espresso in your stout? Is hibiscus flower an interesting addition, or annoying frippery? If hops make a beer grapefruity, why not just add grapefruit juice? Barrel-ageing is becoming an accepted practice, so why not just add a shot of whisk(e)y to the beer at bottling?

Or do you not care a jot, and think as long as it tastes good, why would anyone care?



  1. The last one. An ingredient does not become less noble if it's added later in the process.

    Try actually adding some grapefruit juice to beer (or buy the Schöfferhofer one where it's done for you) and you'll see just how metaphorical flavour descriptors like "citrus hops" are.

    Likewise, you can buy beer-with-whisky-in as well as whisky-barrel-aged beer. They're totally different taste experiences.

  2. It's a good point and one I was going to discuss in my unfinished entry into the Time competition you ran recently.

    Part of the entry was talking about when I worked for Hall and Woodhouse and I was disappointed to find out that their elderflower flavoured beer at the time (golden champion?) was flavoured with elderflower flavouring/extract and not with elderflowers.

    Recently I revisited their beers and tasting Blandford Fly and Poachers Choice I think they must still use this practice, i.e. adding flavourings after brewing.

    I think this is cheating and it makes their beers taste like alcopops.

  3. i think beers being flavoured with diffrent and expermental Ingredients is a brilliant thing, as long as the beer it produces is drinkable. Being a home brewer myself, I recently brewed a wheat beer flavoured with honey, dried orange peel and elderflower, its still maturing at the moment but if the smell from brewing is anything to go by, its going to be mighty fine. But also I’ve tried countless beers where the brewer has added some form of flavouring and it just dominates the flavour of the beer and ruins it, so its all a bit hit and miss

  4. I got my Brewery History Society membership stuff through this week, and am currently working my though the large amount of stuff I was sent.

    As far as ingredients go I think it's anything goes. I've done a couple of 'Radical Brewing' inspired beers recently and the mushroom abbey ale seems to be working out better than the curry spiced IPA.

  5. I think anything goes as long as you are honest about it. If you use extract admit it. If you give a whiskey barrel-aged flavour by adding whiskey, admit it. Generally using "real" ingredients will be better, IMHO, but then again what do I know?

    Generally I am against using flavourings other than malt, hops, and sugars. Then again I like a kriek or wit so... Really I am not enthusiastic about adding extraneous flavorings to beer because there is such a bewildering range of malts, hops, and sugars available that it seems pointless to add even more flavours. And if you want spiciness, banana, or sulphury farts in your beer there are plenty of yeasts out there which will oblige.

  6. I've often though about brewing a base beer and designing half-a-dozen flavourings for the drinker to add in.

  7. Some friends were4 having a discussion on whether Pliny the Elder having hop extract in it took anything away from the beer being regarded as possibly the best in the world (style wise, at least) and brewer Vinnie being regarded as a true craftsman.
    We agreed to disagree on some points but we could not deny the beer TASTES fantastic.
    We felt if he felt that hop extract was the best way he could find to come up with the exact flavour profile he wanted, then probably fair enough. If he only used it as an easy way to get the huge hop profile then his God-like status is affected in our minds.
    If taste is the final objective, then have at it with anything you feel like using. However, the traditional 'style' might be affected.

    So, if the ingredient is used as an easy way to replicate something that can and perhaps should be done by traditional means and that information is not made known publicly (meaning others assume it's been done traditionally), then perhaps that can be regarded as cheating.

    e.g. With some 'chocolate' beers, I think brewers sometimes use chocolate malts, rather than actual chocolate or cacao. But then the FLAVOR is chocolatey. I suggest unknowing drinkers would assume they all were made with chocolate.
    For your porter, perhaps orange peel in the secondary is a better idea. The flavours/aromas are maybe what you are after and those will be boiled away by in the brew kettle a fair bit. Steeping for 5 days or so in the secondary will bring out the flavours you are after.
    Perhaps steam or soak the fruit in high strength vodka first, to sanitise.

  8. If you don't worry about the integrity of a late addition of black pepper on your dinner plate, why worry about it in your beer glass? When I used to home brew, I (horrors) even brewed a concentrate that I diluted by half in the primary. Best addition? Rolled barley for body. Second was roasting a squash, letting it cool and adding it into the rolling boil of a porter.

  9. The ingredients are the crux of the matter. If the added ingredients are "good" (natural maybe a better description) ingredients then it's ok and not cheating, but when these ingredients are created artificially such as the chocolate orange or extracts then it becomes more suspect.

    I lived in Germany for a while and wrote my university dissertation on the German beer industry. In order to be called beer nothing may be added to the beer at all. This does create great beer (which I can say does not giv you bad hangovers if you drink too much)but it lacks the variety that you get in the english beer industry (and that't not saying that you don't get variety in Germany, but it's subtle).

    The highly restricted version of the German beer industry does mean the beer is high quality, but lacks the variation of the english market, but the freedom of the english market allows "bad" ingredients to be placed in the beer which is detrimental to the taste.

  10. The moment taste becomes less important than the 'cause' of the taste - surely is the same moment that we have a 'drink problem.'

    Perhaps it is also at that very moment that the likes of Caroline Nodder begin to make far more sense than anyone previously realised...

  11. Jon, you do know that hop extract is standard in German breweries and fully compatible with the Reinheitsgebot?

  12. but they don't add terry's chocolate orange :D

  13. In my understanding of Nietszche I thought he said that there was no such thing as morality but that it was us choosing to be moral rather than anything handed down from high or engraved in our genes, then on that level whatever you do with your beer is right, providing you tell the poor mug who’s drinking what’s in the glass. Of course this is the road to anarchy and chaos, from which something beautiful and harmonious might come — or not.

  14. Ballast Point Sculpin is my favourite IPA, Pilny dries out too fast. It needs to be fresh. It's soo over-hyped. There was a stout I had recently which I sware had Terry's Chocolate Orange in it. Most interesting reading.

  15. What we think of as adulterations were probably, at some point, "traditional" ingredients or methods. Beer has been brewed in so many ways over so many eons that it's a sure bet someone's thought of something like that before. (Although some ingredients had to wait for the new world to be discovered before they could be added to European beer.)

    I ruminated on this a while back, in a slightly different way.

  16. I believe some folk with a yen for citrus even add lime juice to lager in the glass.

    Happily I don't know what it is to be so jaded that malt and hops don't suffice.

  17. If there are no rules, there is no cheating. The real trick is to use that stuff and keep it drinkable. I mean, really drinkable.

    What is about homebrewers and throwing nonsense into beers? Does the power of recipe formation go to our heads? We think nothing of throwing a few weird things into a batch. But if we encountered a similar recipe in a commercial beer at a pub, we tend to skip it.

  18. TBN, samhill, matthew - it's interesting that the first two comments are so opposed. I guess that comes back to the c-word (craft). If it's done well, it can be a joy, if not, a disaster.

    Ed - I had no idea you were part of the extreme beer revolution

    Simon - what flavourings?

    mental - I think I'm coming down on the side of that view, at least now there is no orange flavour in my porter!

  19. Interesting question... As long as it undergoes the actual brewing process (and isn't miraculously created from some crazy chemicals added to water to taste like beer) then it's beer, if you ask me, no matter what goes in it.

    However, there are some ingredients which make me stop and think, sometimes in a good way and sometimes in a bad way. It's at this point that I perhaps perceive it as different or not quite right.

    Ultimately it lands on the issue of taste; if it tastes good then whatever. If it doesn't taste good then perhaps there's a different or better way of doing it (whether that's adding whole oranges or using lots of Amarillo and Centennial).

  20. Chuwy - whoah, we're talking about correctness to style and authenticity there, aren't we?!

    Alan - good point, although would you make the same argument for a dollop of jam?

    Jon - I'd like to see you define 'good' (and not Terry's Chocolate Orange)

    Hearty - a nice point, and a timely reminder that we need to be alert to smoke and mirrors at all times (although strobe lights and blown speakers are permissible)

    Adrian - yeah, Nietszche's happy-clappy 'oh, well, there are no absolutes' doesn't tell us anything about the use of Terry's Chocolate Orange in beer - or does it?

    Jeff - screw labda8(17) and gamma-decalatone, I want the brewer to come round and apply electrodes to my brain rather than piss about in lab.

    Will - indeed, and lemonade in a lager top. Ginger beer makes a shandygaff. But like you, I've never felt the need.

    Joe - which brings me back to my original thought - is a chocolate orange porter worth the bother?

  21. I agree with Joe, no rules, no cheating but then you might want to abide by the rules in which case you might think certain additions a cheat, but then on the other hand worrying about it is surely a bit like like medievel monks getting their tunics in a twist over how many angels you can get on a pinhead.
    Leipziger Gose has salt, coriander and lactic acid added — it’s ‘traditional’, but would you do the same with a Midlands mild? Why not if it works.

  22. Mark - you're right, of course, but a shot of Cointreau in your porter, although undoubtedly delicious, just seems wrong. Maybe it's the same argument as the Far East drinkers of fine claret adding Coca Cola to their wine - it might be nicer to their palate, but it seems like a bit of a waste to me.

    Adrian - you're right, my head is starting to hurt.

  23. Zak — damn right I am — for once ;-)

  24. well for me, its al about taste....i dont want to sound ignorant (which to be honest, i probably am) but as long as the beer tastes good and not overpowering, who cares whats in it?

  25. I think additives are overdone, and sometimes they are used as a shortcut - in the supermarket beer aisles I noticed a changeover a couple of years ago, from a vogue for beers whose labels said they tasted like mulberries or rhubarb or cabbage, to one for beers with actual mulberries/rhubarb/cabbage added.

    But I'm not anti-additives - I'd have to give up ginger beers, Chocolate Tom, witbier ect ect if I was. It's just about how they're used. I think there is a difference between having a flavour in mind, and adding a bit of this and a bit of that to achieve it, and thinking "banoffee beer, there's an idea - just add bananas and toffee!". (I haven't made that up, by the way.)

  26. I used the word "good" because I was a bit too lazy to think of a better word. What I meant was something that is natural and not processed. Orange peel = good, orange essence = not good. As for the level of processed then I'm not too sure. Even then, I wouldn't want anything to be added after it was poured (and I know that some beers suggest that this is better. I still feel somehow uneasy with a massive slice of orange in my pint)

  27. matt - if more people drank only what they thought tasted good, and on no other cirteria, the beer world would look very different.

    Phil - I guess you're right, again, I suppose it all comes down to how well it's executed

    Jon - I was playing devil's advocate. I guess we all like to think of beer as a relatively natural product, although of course it takes some processing to get from the raw ingredients to the finished beer.

  28. Good lord! Look at the amounts of comments on this post...

  29. My personal feelings are that beer should taste like beer.
    Things added to the boil are ok within reason and keeping to style, like the Belgian Wit you mention.

    My usual statement would be a slightly derogatory "Beer Adulteration", though that said If people like the beer and it sells well... Go for it!

    I'd prefer to use Hops & Malt to influence the flavour personally.

    Who am I to say, look where I work! And notice my last brew, a Liquorice & Treacle Stout... though I can justify the use of sugars to add flavour and Liquorice is a pretty historic addition to beer as far as I know.


  30. Adrian - you've summed up my dilemma perfectly!

  31. A really good question, mate. I know I'm late with this one but it's because I've had a good think and this is how I stand: it shouldnt make a difference how the flavour in a beer is obtained, but when adding 'flavourings' rather than natural ingredients to obtain said flavour just *feels* like cheating to me. And i think it's that feeling, rather than the actual taste, that turns me off 'flavoured' beers such as the Badger ones, or the fruiter Saltaire wares.

  32. Still a dilemma then....

    Read up on hop variety attributes, concentrate your hopping to Flame-out and 80c steep of large amounts to push the hops to the forefront.
    Subsequent brews, blend different hops using the same tactics.

    I made an IPA extract brew ages ago with Bramling Cross, full of Blackcurrant on the nose and taste... a bit surreal at first really. One to brew again.

  33. Leigh - yes, that's pretty much it for me too. But as long as the flavours only enhance rather than override, I could be persuaded otherwise.

    pdtnc - yes, I'm a fan of late hopping - my first homebrew has turned out pretty great. And I used Bramling X for the porter.

  34. Jon Hemmingway - could you possibly drop me an email if you look back at this thread, cheers.

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