Sunday 19 December 2010

The Flavours of Beer (on Toast)

Here’s a beer description; what’s the style? "Dark chocolate, coffee, berry fruit, vanilla and coconut; smooth and full bodied, strong, lots more chocolate, roast bitterness, boozy bourbon, vanilla..."

Now this one: "Grapefruit, orange pith, tropical fruit, caramel sweetness; a mouthful and it’s sweet first, then fruity followed by a bang of bitterness which clings to the tongue..."

Both are fairly simple, generic examples of tasting notes. The first is a barrel-aged imperial stout and the second is an IPA, right? But, in real terms, do these beers actually taste like the flavours described in them? In other words, does the flavour in IPA actually taste like a segment of orange or grapefruit? And can you recreate the flavour of beer using real ingredients?

There’s only one way to find out...

Here is some beer on toast. Also known as beer canapés. Or deconstructed beer.

There’s an American IPA, a dubbel and a barrel-aged imperial stout. The IPA is golden toast topped with caramel, piled above are oranges, satsumas, grapefruit, mango and some pith from each for bitterness. The dubbel is lightly toasted bread, tea-soaked raisins, a little ground pepper, mixed spices and some milk and dark chocolate. The imperial stout is made from burnt toast, dark and milk chocolate, cocoa, vanilla extract, toasted nuts, a few drops of bourbon, a flake of salt and some coffee. 

They of course tasted nothing like the beers they represented. The IPA was too juicy and the caramel was too sweet; the dubbel was delicious on its own but not remotely like beer; the chocolate overpowered everything in the stout. I could potentially have tried them over and over again to tweak the toppings and try to get it as close as possible to a ‘beer flavour’, maybe I could have added some alcohol to replicate that missing component, I could even have tried blending them with water and alcohol, but I don’t think any of those would’ve got it just right. But then, getting it perfect wasn’t the aim...

What I’m interested in is how representative of real flavours the things we write in our notepads (or the things we register in our mind’s palate) when we drink something actually are. Tasting notes are reductive. An IPA isn’t just oranges, grapefruit, mango and some indiscernible floral; it’s a lot more than that, made up by the unique coming together of its ingredients, and these flavours are easy to scribble down and give an idea of what the beer is like when we drink it. It’s not about tasting notes; this is a sideways glance at flavour, perception and how we describe (or think about) the two. Beyond this it’s about understanding flavours and what they actually taste like: is it coffee or dark chocolate; chicory or botanic bitterness; mango or papaya; crackers or brioche; lemon juice or vinegar (see: Gary Vaynerchuk). It’s also a fun experiment I wanted to try out.

From this test, deconstructing beers to their discernible flavours does not create the same effect on the plate as it does in the glass. However, especially in the case of the stout and the dubbel, it does make for delicious beer canapés! 


  1. Anyone daring to deconstruct this article is a braver man than I...

    Personally, I found it a little reductive.

    (Hiding behind the sofa now...)

  2. I often find that the descriptions my friends come up with for beers differ, sometimes greatly. None of us has had any training, though we agree it is an area we would like to explore more and gain more expertise.
    However we nearly always agree on what we believe to be a good beer or for that matter a bad beer.
    Mark, do you have any suggestions as to where we could advance our ability to define/describe accurately our thoughts?
    Or is it down to one's individual palate?


  3. THG - Necessarily reductive as it's a massive topic!! I just wanted to have a bit of fun with it.

    Ben - Good question. I think it's down to just drinking lots of different beers. There's definitely something to be said for eating lots of different things as well so you know the difference between honey and treacle or passion fruit and lime, for example. Plus, individuals taste things very differently and some people are more perceptive to certain flavours rather than others - some find smoky flavours overpowering while others are very sensitive to buttery flavours (some in a good way, others a bad way!).

    The best thing: just drink lots and go with your gut instinct, even if it does sound a little odd!

  4. Really interesting post Mark, as you say you cannot reduce the constituent parts of a beer’s flavour and then rebuild them on a piece of toast and hope for the same experience, it would be like putting William Burroughs, Tom Wolfe and Kingsley Amis in a big pot and hoping that Martin Amis comes out. However, I like the idea that when one is tasting a beer, especially with people for whom beer is just, well, beer, it’s great to pinpoint flavour and aroma notes such as grapefruit, peach, whatever — the idea, whether you are writing about beer for a mass audience or talking to friends down the local, is to communicate what they find in a beer’s nose and palate. And hopefully make them think about it more.
    And what will happen if you deconstruct lambic on toast…

  5. But... when one writes in one's tasting notes "orange" I assume one doesn't actually mean that every flavour note from orange is contained within the beer but rather than a few flavour notes from oranges are present there, sufficient to bring to mind oranges.

  6. ATJ - I though about lambic but a piece of toast with lemon juice and pepper on really didn't do it for me... I also couldn't quite stomach banana and bubble gum for a wheat beer! (And there we look again at good ways of describing things to make them sound appetising...)

    Kavey - Exactly right. I get 'orange' but there must be hundreds of different 'orange' flavours. There's enough of it in there to make it present and obvious. Like I said, tasting notes are reductive. This is also as much about trying different flavours to see if it's actually 'orange' or whether it's tangerine pith, clementine segments, orange blossom...

  7. A word of caution. It's beer and it takes a subtle palate to recognise the hints and nuances. A LOT of people won't get any of them. To them its just an odd beer with funny tastes.

    For others it does give an idea of the taste to be expected. Kavey has the right of it in that generally it will "bring to mind" some hints of x or y.

    I'm guessing for those that write overly descriptive tasting notes, that they rarely make this point clear. Maybe it is assumed? It shouldn't be.