I will likely never forget the day I ordered a beer and was served a dry hopped glass of something akin to pool water. Then again, calling it that might be too much credit for the beer – it didn’t seem to be dry hopped much at all. And ok, of course the beer hadn’t been sourced from a pool. But the brewery had indeed served me a beer which featured the interesting yet bracing note of something not unlike chlorine, which was odd since I had asked for the kolsch. My wife verified the same, purely by the look on her face. The next day, I asked a couple of friends who home brew what they thought, and the answers generally centered around poorly cleaned brewing equipment, which made sense, I suppose. Whatever it was, I couldn’t fathom how the brewery had served that beer to begin with.
While a ho hum, average tasting beer is often instantly forgettable, you may forever remember the beers with which something was defective, as with my “kolsch”. We’re not talking about beer that simply wasn’t very “good”, as in muddled, too bitter IPAs or tasteless, thin as water “stouts”. We’re talking about the double IPA that tasted like it had been fermented on a bushel of green apples, or the lager that tasted like it had been randalled through a bag of movie popcorn with extra butter. What we’re talking about is truly flawed beer, or beer that exhibits one of the many “off flavors” – like ripe, green apple or straight butter – that can occur when brewing, often stemming from a fermentation that didn’t go well. Luckily, such flavors in beer don’t occur too often in commercially produced beer. These days, a run in with what’s generally called an “infected” beer seems to be much more likely.
First, a shot at clarification. It seems the term “infected” gets thrown around a little carelessly these days to describe a beer with less than desirable aromas and/or flavors. Just because someone opens up a year old pale lager that tastes like it was filtered through a cardboard box doesn’t make it infected. There are some shared attributes and causes between “off flavors” and what is generally referred to as an “infected” beer. But I think it’s fair to say that when folks refer to an “infected” beer these days we’re probably talking about some bacteria which has caused it to go south in some unintended fashion, typically resulting in a souring effect on the beer. The key word here is unintended. And no one seems to be completely immune of the wide range of possible pitfalls when brewing beer.
For those not residing on an island or under a rock, you are likely well aware of Goose Island’s troubles with batches of their vaunted Bourbon County line last year. Soon after its release, customers began finding unexpected, sour flavors in the Bourbon County Barleywine and the Bourbon County Coffee Stout, and some have reported similar off flavors in the standard Bourbon County Stout as well. Despite the complaints, the beer was apparently testing fine at first, at the brewery’s own microbiology lab. When complaints began rolling in, Goose Island reached out to an independent lab which eventually did identify a bacteria that was indeed affecting some bottles of the Barleywine and the Coffee variant. In addition, in a podcast interview with Goose Island’s Brewmaster Jared Jankoski, there was more than a slight mention of off flavors in the Stout as well, possibly due to altogether different circumstances. Beyond the identification of the issues, as well as the admittance of the same which so many had been waiting for, the interview serves to prove how some of the most sought after beers in the country can go sideways despite the brewery’s best intentions. The moral of the story is that if it can happen to Goose Island, and especially to the beers they are most known for, it can certainly happen to most anyone.
First off, an approving nod to breweries who own up to a beer which didn’t go as planned. It shouldn’t be surprising that some beer just doesn’t come out the way the batch was drawn up to, but it should be surprising that you ended up with it in your hand. But consequences go well beyond the beer tasting awful. For those who can recognize such faults, any sadness likely comes from the pouring out of the beer, and about the wasted money. But there’s always the chance that something worse might happen, that a newcomer to beer might be led to think that the odd flavors and aromas are expected. I’ve seen Untappd comments on imperial stout check-ins that note that “the tartness to the beer is unexpected, but so very interesting”. Seriously, how many sour stouts can you name? Such thinking might lead to a continued acceptance of poorly rendered beer, which I’d say is the worst possible consequence of all.
So do some reading on off flavors, there are plenty of articles. Then, go ahead do what you’ve been doing already, and taste plenty of beer. When things don’t seem quite right, be ready to recognize it. And by the way, if you feel as if something needs to be called out, do it kindly. I’d like to think that no one wins with poor quality product. With so much beer out there, it is bound to happen, but remember – there is so much beer out there. No matter if we’re talking about nationally distributed brands or your local brewery, we should all expect nothing less than good, well made beer.