Beer Characteristics

 

Knowing the basic characteristics of beer is vital to be able to talk about it to friends and customers alike. There are basic ways to talk about beer, communicating it’s appearance, aroma, flavor, mouthfeel, as well as alcohol content, bitterness, and color. These are generally referred to as quantitative parameters of beer character. This means each of the points I just mentioned can be quantified and listed for comparison. While some of the parameters are somewhat subjective, there are very specific tools for measuring color, alcohol content, and bitterness. In this post, we are going to look at all of these quantitative parameters of beer character. Let’s get started.

Beer Chacteristics

If you’ve read some of my previous posts on beer styles or my beer reviews, you know that the crux of a beer review is the specifics you experience when sampling the beer. The four basics are:

  1. Appearance
  2. Aroma
  3. Flavor and Mouthfeel
  4. Alcohol Content

These give the basic taste profile. There are a few more specific items here, and we’ll get to those in a minute. For now, let’s check out these parameters.  

1. Appearance

The first thing you experience when you get a beer is the appearance. You see the beer in the glass and take in how it looks. This is one of the reasons it is vital to use the proper glass for the beer. I don’t care how good a beer is, if it’s served to you in a red plastic cup, it won’t be appealing to you, or at least not as appealing as it could be. Don’t believe me? Try drinking a good Trappist Ale out of a kid’s cup and see how it makes you feel.

The appearance is marked by 5 key points. They are:

    • Glassware Used
    • Head and Head Retention
    • Lacing
    • Color
    • Clarity

We mentioned glassware already. Going from the top down, the next thing you should notice is the head the beer has formed in the glass. We’ve talked about this before, but generally a 1-inch head to start with is ideal, depending on the type of beer being served. From here, how long the head is retained should be noticed and noted. Next, the color of the beer is evident. We’ll cover that more in a minute, but for now, the color should be noted. Along with color comes clarity. There is no good or bad here, just like the other points, but depending on the beer style, a certain amount of clarity should be present. As the beer is drank, the remaining head should leave lacing in the glass. This shows how well the head is retained as well as how clean the glassware was and overall carbonation character of the beer.

These are some of the key points when talking about the appearance of beer. They can be used when taking tasting notes, or just remembered so you can experience beers in reference to one another.

2. Aroma

After you take in the appearance of the beer, aroma would be the next characteristic you should notice. Hold your once close to the surface of the beer, ideally inside the lip of a snifter or tulip glass. Take a deep breath in and notice all the aromas in the beer. There are a multitude of different aromas you can pic up from a beer. Ideally they all fall into these categories:

    • Fruity
    • Texture
    • Floral
    • Vegetal
    • Spicy
    • Heat-Induced
    • Biological 

Screen Shot 2012-12-27 at 1.16.16 PMCheck out this site for a Beer Aroma Wheel for some more specifics on very specific aromas. Once you take in the aroma, notice what is the strongest in the smell, but also pay attention to the smaller, unique aromas as well. Notice these now so you can compare them to the taste and finish of the beer, to see what is only in the aroma, and what carries through to the taste. You should be able to describe this based off of the basic aromas listed in the aroma wheel.  

Depending on what makes up the beer you have, both good and bad points, you will get unique aromas. For example, bacteria getting into a beer due to improper sanitation can lead to a sharp, vinegar smell. This is a sign of a bad beer, or of a sour beer that was intentionally made this way. Either way, this is why knowing aromas and how to describe them is important.

 

 3. Flavor and Mouthfeel

After smelling the beer and taking in the aroma, tasting the beer is the next logical step. A good, full drink is taken, swished in the mouth, and swallowed. Note the flavors and feeling the beer gave. Did it taste sweet, sour, bitter? Did it have a taste of green apples or of astringent? Can you taste roasted malt, coffee, toffee, or general maltiness? These are all things to think about when tasting. The way the beer feels in your mouth ties in with taste as well. Does it feel heavy or syrupy? Does it have a high carbonation or feel extra light on your palate? Does it leave a pucker feeling on your tongue like you sucked on a tea bag? Does it have a dry taste like a dry wine, or a refreshing light taste? These all have something to do with taste and mouthfeel. This post on Tastes In Beer goes into some more detail on this.

After the first initial taste, take a second drink, swish it around in your mouth, and exhale while the beer is still in your mouth. This can give a secondary aroma “smell” as well, as you force the aroma into your nose in the opposite direction. You can pick up on unique notes by doing this. Swallow the beer and notice the lasting taste in your mouth. This, paired with the taste as you swallowed, is the finish. Is it sweeter than the taste, or more bitter? Are there undesirable tastes left over or is it clean and light?

 

For both taste and aroma, the Beer Judge Certification Program is the best way to get specifics on describing a beer. 

4. Alcohol Content

Alcohol content here refers to two unique items. The first is a very measurable item, and the second is impression. Measuring alcohol content is done two ways. First, it is done by measuring the Alcohol By Volume(ABV). This is done by taking Original Gravity (OG)_ and Final Gravity (FG) readings when starting and finishing the fermentation process of beer. Quite often you will see the OG or FG listed on a beer’s label. With some simple math, the ABV is calculated. Larger breweries have lab equipment that measures this as well. The second method for defining alcohol content is Alcohol By Weight(ABW). This is a percentage of total mass of the liquid. ABW is about 4/5th of ABW. This is a general idea, though, as it depends on the concentration of alcohol, since 100% ABV will always be 100% ABW, but 3.2% ABW is about 4.0% ABV. The majority of breweries and alcohol producers in the United States use ABV in their listings, as it is what is commonly used.

The second idea here is the impression the alcohol leaves you with. Quite often a beer can be described as “boozy” if the alcohol is very noticeable in aroma or taste. Sometimes a stronger alcohol taste is used to balance out the sweetness of a beer, like Dogfish Head’s 120 Minute IPA, which is about 18% ABV. Other times, the alcohol taste or aroma can be overpowering and detract from the beer. Either way, noting the alcohol taste and aroma is useful here as well, especially if the beer in question is a high ABV with a very low alcohol taste. This is important to mention to your customer so he or she doesn’t drink too quickly.

 

With the impression characteristics out of the way, we can look at the characteristics of beer that we can put a number to. We mentioned ABV and ABW for alcohol content already, but there are two other big ones worth mentioning.  

International Bitterness Unit (IBU)

ibu-guideThe first (second) here is bitterness. Generally hops give beer it’s bitter quality, although it can come from some grains, like oats, as well as some other additives to beer.

The bitterness of beer is listed in International Bitterness Units, or IBUs. These serve as a way of putting beers into an order of sorts from least to most bitter, with highest bitterness beers having the highest numbers. For example,  a Scottish Ale like Oscar Blues Old Chub would be a low 25-37 IBUs, due to the lack of hop character in this style, while Stone’s Arrogant Bastard IPA is 83.5 IBUs. There is a definite difference in bitterness here, as denoted by the number. 

IBUs are useful when deciding on what beer to have first, as higher bitterness can wreck your palate, making it hard to taste less bitter beers after having a higher IBU one. The number itself is only useful for judging beers and choosing what to drink first, or in what order. Some people will ask the IBUs of a beer when they are already drinking it. This is useless information after you start drinking, as it’s already on your palate. Use this number for planning beers, or planning a brew.

Color (SRM)

The last characteristic here we can put a number on is color. We mentioned color above in reference to appearance. Color is somewhat subjective, but there is a scale to place beer into color categories. This is useful to see if a beer lines up correctly within it’s style, and to make sure it was brewed correctly. The system used here is the Standard Reference Method, or SRM. The SRM allows someone, including a BJCP judge, to quickly estimate the color of a beer. 

SRM_Beer_Color_Chart 

Once again, the BJCP is the best place to get this information from, but the chart shown above gives the idea of the 40 colors used in the SRM. For example, an American Pale Ale can be between 5-15 on the SRM chart to be within BJCP guidelines. You can print out a SRM chart to hold up to beers to record their color, or know the basics of what number is ideally where.

 

Well, that’s about it for this one! I know there’s a lot of information here, but remember, this information is what sets people apart from just liking beer to really understanding it and being able to be a source for good information. Once again I feel the need to post my disclaimer here.

Beer should be fun. Knowing more about it should make it more fun for you, since the people that made it knew all these things and made it with them all in mind. You being able to pick up on them should make you see how much of a craft making beer really is. Don’t use this knowledge to be a dick. 

Share with your friends, but understand that a lot of people out there don’t care about the SRM rating of a beer, or how many IBUs there are in that pale ale. Be a source of information when needed, but don’t over estimate the joy of silently enjoying a good beer too. 

Until next time,  

Cheers!