What’s Wrong With My Beer?

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what's wrong with my beer?

Each month, Fermenta: The Michigan Women’s Craft Collective awards a scholarship to a member. The scholarship program covers a variety of classes and educational opportunities ranging from introductory courses and workshops to continuing education and certifications for professionals. As the winner of the April scholarship, I received an off-flavor tasting kit from the Cicerone program in collaboration with AROXA.

The kit contains food-grade additives for the six most common off-flavors: three associated with production and fermentation, and another three that develop during storage and handling. Online support materials include a seminar narrated by Ray Daniels that walks users through the tasting process, printed materials for presenting the kit, and printed materials with talking points for each off-flavor. The off-flavors related to brewing and fermenting are DMS (dimethyl sulfide), diacetyl, and acetaldehyde. For storage and handling, the kit covers trans-2-nonenal (oxidation), lightstruck, and infection. The spike additives express each flavor clearly when used with a light-style beer such as Pilsner or Kölsch.

I worked through the kit with a group of co-workers from HopCat Detroit. Our group included bartenders, servers, our beer program manager, and a beer program manager-in-training, some of whom are new homebrewers. We used a Kölsch-style beer for our control and spiked beers. First, using our control sample, we walked through how to smell and taste beer. Moving on to the spiked samples, each person made notes on what they smelled and tasted, and then we shared them with the whole group before going through the seminar notes on the causes and commonly perceived aromas and flavors.

The additives are each mixed into a beer and, alongside the control pour, the participants smell, taste, and describe their perception of these off-flavors. Since the basic kit is designed for six participants, one of its strengths is the opportunity to work through the seminar and kit with a group and discuss how each member individually perceives each aroma and flavor. Discussing experiences in addition to specific descriptive words helps to tie each off-flavor to memory and develop stronger vocabulary around each sample. These words and experiences aid participants in learning to associate industry-standard vocabulary terms with individual perceptions.

For example, one of our participants immediately said that the acetaldehyde sample reminded her of Halloween. After talking through it for a minute or two, she realized it was pumpkin she smelled. Pumpkin, along with green apple and cut grass, is a common aroma associated with elevated levels of acetaldehyde that can occur in young beers that may have been separated from the yeast prematurely. Acetaldehyde is present in all beers, but healthy and active yeast will convert it to ethanol, leaving little in the finished product.

This kit is an excellent way to familiarize oneself with common off-flavors and is perfect for homebrewers, competition judges, industry professionals, and enthusiastic consumers. More information on the kit can be found at cicerone.org/us-en/online-webinars and on Fermenta at fermentamichigan.org.

Debbie Leggett, writer of Tipsy Linguist, is a sociolinguist, philosopher, lifelong resident of the Detroit area, traveler, restaurant and bar professional, and craft beverage enthusiast. She loves to hear stories, tell stories, and discover all the different ways humans connect in this wonderful world. Language is a social event, it brings us together, sometimes creates confusion and distress, and is so uniquely human. Interestingly, delicious fermented beverages do something similar.