The language of flavour

Want to know why your beer tastes of fruit? Ask Mark Dredge


Everyone in the room – some 200 people, all beer professionals – have a glass of a pale beer in front of them while Pat Fahey, content director of the Cicerone Certification Program, is discussing how we understand flavour.

Attendees call out some of the flavours they perceive: Grapefruit, orange zest, piney hops, floral hops, some light caramel malt, bread. While tasting the first beer, Fahey has volunteers pass around a second beer. Unbeknown to them, it’s the same pale beer, turned brown with a flavourless colouring.

“So they have the two beers which, from an aroma and taste perspective, are basically identical, and they interact with this beer and I ask: so what does this one taste like?’,” recalls Pat.

People reply with words like nutty, chocolatey, toasty, coffee. These are words which hadn’t been there before, and weren’t associated with the beer in the other glass in front of them.

“The thing is, they weren’t wrong,” says Fahey.

A sense for flavour

When we talk about the flavour of a beer, what we mean is our full sensory experience of it. While we perceive flavour as coming from the mouth, it’s actually fully constructed in the brain as a composite of all of your senses – smell, taste, touch, sight and sound – plus context, expectation and your own life experiences, making it a uniquely personal perception. 

A glass of pale ale is a complex mix of smell (grapefruit, orange peel, pine needles), taste (sweetness, bitterness) and touch (medium-bodied, moderate carbonation) which combine with sight, context, expectation and experience (I’m drinking a Pale Ale so I know to expect citrus fruit aroma, caramel malt sweetness, and a bitter finish).

If we’re passed a brown beer without any other information, then colour becomes our first reference point and, because we’ve drunk dark beers before,

we expect toasted, roasted qualities. Even if those flavours aren’t technically there we still perceive them because flavour is much more than just our sense of smell and taste. 

The whole process of tasting beer and perceiving different flavours fascinates me. I’ve long wondered why we taste things like grapefruit, pepper, and chocolate in beer, or why we sometimes get very specific and unusual flavour memories (how could a DIPA remind me of tinned peaches, which I haven’t eaten since I was a kid), and then how can we actually describe the beers we drink to others (which is ultimately my job).

My interest has increased recently as I’ve developed a new beer flavour wheel and a hop wheel to help put words to our drinking experience. It’s a ring of colours, fruits, herbs, spices, carbs, and drinking qualities, and while I might be able to pick out black tea, melon or coffee, I didn’t really know why. It turns out that drinking beer isn’t as easy as I thought and understanding flavour is very complex, while describing beer can sometimes be impossible.

The smell of beer

Smell is the most important sense for flavour and it works in two distinct ways: orthonasal and retronasal. Orthonasal is the stuff we smell in the world around us when we inhale (fresh laundry, burning toast, your beer). Retronasal is a smell sense created in the mouth once we’ve chewed or swallowed and then exhaled. Most of what we sense as flavour is actually retronasal smell plus taste and mouthfeel. 

The smell senses are hardwired to the parts of the brain which process emotion and memory. “Once you smell something, you record that smell in your brain,” says Bill Simpson, managing director of Cara Technology, who teaches thousands of brewers and beer drinkers how to taste, and what’s remarkable is that “it’s almost like we cannot forget a smell”.

Every smell we experience is recorded in a vast bank of aromas which we can constantly add to and withdraw from. “The smell memory is absolutely amazing,” says Simpson. And every time we have a beer, we’re not just recalling other beer memories; we can reference almost anything we’ve ever smelled, and where we smelled it. 

While we forget other senses (pain) and facts (what we did on Tuesday), smells attach to emotions or specific memories and make them stick in our brains, which is why we sometimes recall unexpected smell memories which are very specific to us and bring with them an emotion.

When we drink a beer, our brain takes in the smells and tastes and begins to form a picture of it, then it uses the other senses and any other information it can get to create a more complete perception.

We can sense different textures, temperatures and carbonation, where a crisp, dry pilsner is distinctly different from a juicy, thick hazy DIPA. We’re easily guided by the appearance, as we’ve seen, judging golden beer very differently from brown beer and applying an expectation to the flavour (think of a green smoothie and a purple one and you’ll imagine very different flavours). We can also be swayed by words or opinions, so if you’re handed a beer and someone says ‘taste the tangerine in this!’ you’ll probably taste tangerine.

My beer smells of chemicals

So what actually are all the flavours in your beer?

Imagine the smell of a ripe banana. What you’re actually smelling is around 250 different volatile aromatic compounds, but one in particular, an ester called isoamyl acetate, is the most prominent and therefore most associated with banana (“isoamyl acetate is the Mick Jagger of banana,” says Simpson). Now imagine a glass of Weissbier – where we think we smell banana, we’re actually smelling isoamyl acetate, which our brains instantly associate with banana.

The smell of anything, or everything, is made up of a complex mix of chemical compounds and molecules and your beer might contain thousands of these aromatic chemical compounds. You might pick up solventy and lightly fruity high alcohols, or fruity-floral esters which are found in most fruits and flowers. Terpenes, terpenoids and sesquiterpenes are found in all plants, including hops, and give fruity, herbal, spicy and floral aromas. In the malting process, the grain sugars react with amino acids and form Maillard compounds which are toasted, honeyed, caramelised and roasted. Then there are sulphur compounds, ketones, aldehydes, phenols and acids. 

None of these thousands of compounds are unique to beer. The most prominent volatile chemical in the hop flower is myrcene, which is also found in pine trees, thyme, verbena, cannabis, bay leaves, lemongrass, mandarin juice, blood orange and mango. Linalool is another important hop compound and it’s also found in ground coriander, papaya, orange juice, lychee, lemon, black tea, ginger and lavender.

Then there’s humulene (which smells like pine, orange), farnesene (herbal, light citrus), caryophyllene (woody, pepper), pinene (pine, lemon peel), nerol (citrus, fresh rose), citral (lemon candy), limonene (orange, lemon), geraniol (rose, geranium). Hops contain thiols, which are potent, sulphur-containing volatiles found in very low levels and can be responsible for a pungent tropical fruit aroma. 

“Your brain detects individual chemicals incredibly specifically and they then combine into a smell pattern or impression,” says Simpson. In much the same way as letters combine to create a word, which in turn form into a sentence, the linalool, pinene and limonene combine to give us the orangey smell of an IPA. 

The magic of fermentation

The core of any beer flavour comes from alcohols and esters via the interaction of malt and yeast during fermentation. The esters are usually in low levels but, like a Where’s Wally, once you know where to find them they are obvious. Sweet solvent, apple or pear-like, plum and honey are common ones, plus the banana-like ester in Weissbier. Yeast can also produce peppery and clove-like phenols, a flavour that a lot of us are predisposed to dislike.

This all brings up another key point: while the memory associations we form with particular

aromas are key to how we perceive them, so too are the sensitivities that are hard-wired into our physiology. There are some compounds we’re simply destined to like or hate, or even a few to which we might be ‘nose-blind’.

We can train to identify individual chemicals, often if there’s an off-character (butter-like diacetyl, apple-like acetaldehyde) or dominant flavour traits (banana-like isoamyl acetate), but most of the time it’s a synergistic combination of aromatic compounds, along with the beer’s bitterness and sweetness, the mouthfeel and the appearance, which our brain tries to make sense of. 

Now comes the next challenge for the brain: it knows it’s drinking a beer, it sees a yellow liquid, it smells fruits, and senses alcohol and bitterness. But how can we put words to the flavour experience?

The language of beer

Just because a mouthful of beer may set off a constellation of frantically firing memory neurones doesn’t necessarily get us any closer to being able to convey that feeling to another person in a way that makes sense to them. So let’s look at the linguistic arsenal at our disposal:

Hedonic assessments (I love it, I hate it)

Specific flavours (coffee, lemongrass, honey)

Figurative language (silky, rich)

Metaphor (a glass of sunshine)

Cliché (dangerously drinkable)

Analogy (as bitter as my ex)

Imagery (spring-like with floral hops and fresh cut grass)

Idioms (not my cup of tea)

Slang (juice bomb, crushable)

Abstraction (smooth, clean, funky, dry)

Anthropomorphism (lively, subdued, “the can is calling my name”), 

Technical (wort-like, well-attenuated)

Scientific (esters, diacetyl, oxidised).

We can also apply scale to these qualities (subtle aroma, medium-bodied, intense bitterness). We can add reasoning to our preference (it’s good because). We can add context (it’s a classic Bavarian Helles), place or memory (which reminds me of Munich) and emotion (where we sit in the social warmth of the beer garden).

While we have all these ways of talking about beer, and limitless food reference points, why are we so often left struggling to find just the right word? 

The language of flavour

“People don’t pay very close attention to how their sense of aroma works, and as a result they struggle to apply language when they try, and that’s frustrating,” says Pat Fahey. 

All of us are able to make hedonic assessments of a beer (or any other drink we might be inexperienced at): we dislike it, like it a bit, like it a lot. And then we can usually give a simple reasoning: it’s too bitter, it’s smooth, it’s fruity. As we get better at it, we tend to move from hedonic judgements to source-based descriptions and informed reasoning (I like the lemon zest aroma and the peppery spice in this Saison). 

Most of us assimilate the tasting process to begin. We see a tasting note saying mango or orange and

we try to figure it backwards from there; it’s like learning a language from a book, but assimilation is not going to give you a complete understanding of flavour. This is where the language used by others can frame your experience. 

“The way that you talk about a beer is going to shape that person’s experience with it… You can give people a better experience by how you communicate about it,” says Fahey. This is one of the reasons that being able to discuss flavour is a foundational topic for anyone studying on the Cicerone Certification Program, and why having an established set of words or using flavour wheels is useful. 

The descriptions of beers made by brewers certainly shapes our perception of it. If we read juicy pineapple, ripe mango, vanilla and apricot then we expect luscious, sweet fruits, and we’re primed to taste them in the beer even if they aren’t really there (so the next time you buy a can with those descriptions, try focusing more on the actual flavours you get - are they really like that?). 

A good example of framing context is a compound called 4MMP. It’s a sulphur-containing thiol that’s found in hops, Sauvignon Blanc wine, blackcurrant, gooseberry, passion fruit, and also cat pee. Train someone to taste 4MMP as blackcurrant or passion fruit and they’ll like it significantly more than if they learn it as cat pee (hopefully something a brewer would never put on a beer description). 

When it comes to unpicking the often complex tapestry of flavours, it helps to have reference points. Many beers today list the specific varieties used, so if we see a beer with just Mosaic, we can learn what that hop tastes like, then we can begin to recognise it in other beers. It’s like tasting cumin on its own and then noticing it in other dishes. Likewise, the more fruits, flowers and foods we smell, the more likely we are to find them in beers.

When we do pick out certain flavours it can be very rewarding, which perhaps explains why we see drinkers gravitating to stronger-tasting styles, like double IPAs: “You’re able to be like ‘it does taste like mango juice or orange juice,’” says Fahey. “The flavours are so in your face that, even if you have not spent any time focusing on your sense of aroma, you’re going to be able to pick those things out.”

Nuance takes more time and practice. “Professional tasting is like sport or athletics,” says Simpson. “It uses the mind, it uses the body, and the more you practice the right things, and learn the techniques to do it, the better you’ll get… I’ve never seen someone who doesn’t get better with training.” Training simply means tasting more beers and foods and trying to connect the flavour sense to words. 

Training simply means tasting more beers and foods and trying to connect the flavour sense to words

Our experience is refined by nuance. We go from smelling something fruity to being able to say citrus or stone fruit. Then we can be more specific, like lime or peach. Those words then form a flavour dictionary, and more confident tasters can go further, getting lime zest or lime sweets, underripe peach or tinned peaches. But remember this: we can only smell things which we’ve previously experienced. If a beer label says guava and lychee but you’ve never tasted them before, then you won’t smell those fruits and instead you might get mango or grape.

One interesting thought is that, because flavour perception is so uniquely personal, we can’t really be wrong, and whatever we smell and taste is true to our senses. If everyone in a group tastes orange and you taste banana, then that’s what you taste. The brewery might prefer to describe their beer as orange, but that doesn’t undervalue your experience. 

“The biggest thing that makes people think that something’s not right is when something doesn’t fit,” says Simpson. If I make a spelling erorr in this sentence, then you’ll probably spot it, and you’ll deffinatley spot it if it’s a big mistake. Even if we can’t describe what the false note is in a beer, we often know it’s there and it affects our enjoyment.

The only way to truly train yourself properly is to regularly blind taste beers and different foods. Only then will you begin to make flavour judgements on pure chemical components. But, let’s be honest, most of us want all the other sensory cues. We want to grab the can, read the label, hear the sound of it opening and pouring out, have an expectation and an experience with it. And it’s a uniquely personal experience shaped by our own tastes and flavour preferences.

“Understanding your senses is understanding how you experience the world,” says Fahey. The more we understand something pleasurable, the more we enjoy it. Our brain might still be tricked sometimes, but when we know how complex smell, flavour and language is, we can’t really blame our brain for wanting to simplify things for us.

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