Take A Deep Breath – Connecting Beer, Science, and Your Nose. (You’ll Love Your Beer Even More)

Wine connoisseurs.  What just came to mind?  Was it someone with a freshly poured glass of red wine, spending as much time smelling it as tasting it?  If you don’t count yourself as one of these folks, you might not completely understand what the big deal is.  Just drink the wine, you say.  Or perhaps you do understand, and even if you’re not much of a fan of wine, you concede that part of the enjoyment of a glass of good wine could lie in the aroma.  You’d be right, of course.  But I imagine you’re reading this blog because you’re curious about a glass of good beer, so here’s how this applies to you.  It’s also how you really get some of those wine connoisseurs going.  Tell them there’s as much to aroma in beer as their glass of wine.  Understandably, you may not have a wine-only connoisseur handy right now, but just imagine the look on their face.  Care to guess who is being misunderstood now?

A couple of weekends ago, it would’ve been me.  A glass of Dogfish Head’s limited release Squall IPA – a beer with a substantial amount of aroma to offer – was sitting in front of me, waiting to enjoy.  Without thinking about a single wine connoisseur, my nose went right to the top of the glass.  A couple of long deep breaths later, I moved onto enjoying how it tasted too.  This might be you as well.  But in case you haven’t considered it before, craft brewers put careful consideration into aroma to add to the overall enjoyment of their beer.  Perhaps not surprisingly, so much of a beer’s aroma comes from another misunderstood topic of the beverage – the hops.  Arguably, they are most misunderstood ingredient in beer, and are at the center of one of beer’s biggest myths.  Along with having a natural preservative quality, their most basic job, of course, is to add some bitterness to balance out sweetness the kilned, or roasted grain, brings to the beer.  Without them, beer would be a sweet concoction to say the least.  The myth that hops only adds bitterness however, falls well short of all they actually do.  Hops add wonderful aromas to beer, from flowery to citrus or pine like.  All sorts of flavors are also given to a beer by the hops, depending on how much are added and what variety.  For those who grow to enjoy these flavors – which also include citrus like or pine like tastes – hops become a focus for what to look for in beer.  Personally, I have grown to tremendously enjoy some of these flavors.  Now, keep in mind that when I first started out tasting well made craft beer, I had reactions similar to the ones most people have when tasting beer with a noticeable hop character – something I referred to in another blog post called “Facial Contortions 101”, if that will tell you anything.  It took me close to a year of tasting various beers with various levels of hop character to move from a low tolerance for these flavors to where I am now.  Today, I regularly get an absolute craving for a citrusy India Pale Ale.

At their most basic level, two primary characteristics are considered when talking hops – bitterness and aroma.  There are countless lists of hop varieties on the internet, and each one very succinctly notes each hop’s aroma and “bittering” capabilities.  Adding the balancing bitterness to a beer is somewhat straightforward – during the step in brewing beer as the beer is being boiled, “alpha acids” within the hops convert and add the necessary bitterness to the recipe.  As far the importance of aroma, you only need to visit most any brewery.  Often during a tour, someone from the brewery will hand you a couple of dried, whole flower hops and instruct you to rub them together in your hand, then smell.  The aroma is unlike anything you might have smelled before – distinctive, pungent, with flowery, grassy, citrusy or pine like characteristics.  These aromas come from essential oils within the hop, but when the hops are added during the boil for bittering, these oils actually evaporate, and any affect on aroma is lost.  To add aroma, hops are again added towards the end of the boiling process, as temperature drops, and in many beers, are also added during the fermentation process as well, a process known as “dry hopping”.  Adding them towards the end of the boil means that some hop flavor will survive to be a part of the final beer.  Dry hopping is also an excellent way to give any beer plenty of hop aroma without adding much, if any, additional bitterness.  By the way, my Dogfish Head Squall, according to the brewery, is dry hopped with no less than four different varieties of hops.

But if hops are routinely discussed in terms of only bitterness and aroma capabilities, how do my favorite beers, the ones with the tropical fruit-like or red grapefruit like flavors, actually taste that way?  You only need to go as far back as 8th grade science class.  Forget the Bunsen burners and beakers though, we’re not blowing anything up today.  Today’s lesson is all about how we taste things.  Remember that our tongues can only detect five major taste categories – sweet, salty, sour, bitterness, and a savory component.  That’s it.  How we can tell a grapefruit from a mango has to come down to something else, and it does.  We very easily forget how smell helps us taste – literally, towards the back of the nasal cavity, near the throat, there are areas that detect the aroma from food or beverage items that would be present in the mouth.  The information collected about these aromas are part of what is called retronasal olfaction, and basically put, gives the brain information about the food present in the mouth that is translated as a flavor, or taste, instead of what is truly is – an aroma.  It’s an experience called olfactory illusion, and even though you can tell yourself that your interpretation of food is happening this way, the connection is too strong to overcome.  Basically, you will always interpret taste with tremendous help from smell.  Now, we all remember testing this back in junior high school, as we held our nose and saw how it affected the flavor of things.  Another common example is the stuffy nose one – when you have that head cold, things just don’t taste right.  Most of the examples you’re likely to find, of course, only consider solid foods.  But given how aromatic hops are – remember, they give them to you to rub them together and smell them in brewery tours – I cannot imagine that those amazing tastes, like the smell of a freshly sliced open grapefruit, actually come from their wonderful aromas.

Without a doubt, good, craft beer is designed to be a total sensory experience.  Craft brewers are often described as part artist, part scientist, and beers like the one in my glass that day only seem to prove both ends of the equation.  Taste and flavor is only part of the story, and as it turns out, owe a lot to the smells and aromas worked into good beer.  And yes, just as there are red and white wine glasses, there are glasses designed to help bring out a beer’s aroma as well.  Some beer styles do perhaps exhibit more complex aromas than others – Pale Ales, India Pale Ales, most Belgian styles, and generally “hoppier” beers are some good examples.  But the next time you have a good beer in your hand, go ahead, hover that nose over it and enjoy.  While you do, think about a wine only fan that you might know too, and how they might wrinkle theirs at the idea.  You and I will keep how much we enjoy the aromas to ourselves.


~ by thebeerroad on April 7, 2011.

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