Beerginner: Understanding Beer’s Taste, Plus IPAs

beer in glass on table

Beerginner: Understanding Beer’s Taste, Plus IPAs

We all know that beer tastes delicious. We also know that one beer can taste totally different from another. Yet if all beer is made with the same basic ingredients why do the flavours differ so drastically? 

Understanding the flavours of beer and where they come from can mean the difference between a really great experience and a horrible one. We taste with more than just our mouths. Our eyes and our noses go a long way to changing our experience with a beer. Imagine you are at a baseball game and a foot long hotdog is passed down your row. You are probably salivating at all the amazing toppings and as it passes under your nose you can't deny the smell makes you want to buy one yourself. 

The same applies with beer. A bubbly, tall glass of beer with a thick creamy head sure looks perfect after a hot day in the garden while a rich, dark stout warms you in the dead of winter even before the first sip. The aromas of a fruit beer can be just as refreshing as the crispness of a bold IPA. 

Truth be told it is our taste buds that are the workhorses. There are different taste buds that pick up different sensations but I won't complicate things with science. Instead let's talk about how each ingredient plays a key role in the flavours of beer and how some of the terms you may hear thrown around actually apply. 

As we discussed in my earlier post, malt is the backbone of all beers. During the time that it goes from being barley in the field to mash in the brewery, it may go through stages of kilning or roasting that changes how it will taste in the final product. From very light to super dark you are going to taste things like bread, toffee, caramel, dark fruit, chocolate, coffee and everything in between.

Hops can create quite a spectrum of flavours. Depending on where they are grown you could get citrus, tropical fruit, herbal, floral, earthy and resiny (pine) flavours. When someone says that a beer tastes “hoppy” they are describing the actual flavour of the hops used. It can be a subtle hint or a big burst of flavour depending on the style. A term that people like to use a lot and with some inaccuracy around big hoppy beers is “bitter”. While hops are used to impart bitterness in beer you can still get some of that sensation from highly roasted malts.

Water and yeast can play a quiet yet equally important role in beer’s taste. Certain water sources can add a minerality to beer while yeasts imparts additional fruit or spicy notes. To further push the flavour threshold adjuncts and fruit additions can be added to beers to further complicate things. Trying to wrap your brain around everything you are tasting can be overwhelming yet rewarding. Take the time to discover the flavours you really enjoy and that in turn will help with your future beer successes.  With these few ingredients combined in a million different ways the variety of flavours available are endless. 

Coming up next I’m going to tackle beer and food pairing. I also start breaking down beer into more specific styles.

Check out my guide to IPAs below!

Cheers! 

Heather 

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