I’m sure it’s happened to you once or twice before: you’re sitting at a lovely worn-in bar with your go-to beer and some bar snacks. You take a sip and wince–why does your familiar beer taste…funny? Or maybe you’re at home, cracking cans for friends–and off-flavors creep in. Why, and how? And how do you, loyal consumer, prevent this unwanted occurrence? While there are a multitude of potential reasons any beer produced has the taste it has for better and for worse, a few major culprits dominate certain off-flavors of packaged beer. You may not be able to determine what constitutes these issues in beer you’ve never had before–but you may easily know something is awry with brands you drink regularly and have a taste memory for. So let’s think briefly about where issues can arise, starting in the brewery itself. We’ll save off-flavors from the brewing process for another day and instead talk about one area alone: packaging.
The main factor that contributes to off-flavors during packaging is the presence of oxygen. Yes, oxygen is our friend in air, but too much of it in beer or any packaged good for that matter is a bully. Oxidation is a process that alters the chemical composition of a substance. You already know how this works for say, iron exposed to the oxygen in air or in water. Similar things happen to cut apples as they’re exposed to the environment. We constantly hear about the benefits of certain
foods that contain antioxidants and while I’m no dietitian and won’t advice you on a properly balanced eating plan, I do know that these foods keep well and resist chemical changes over time–oxidation in particular. Oxygen is a chemical that gains friends: in other words, it reacts easily with many substances. In beer oxidation can mean the perception of a whole slew of flavors you definitely don’t like: wet cardboard, for instance. Oxidation generally makes for stale, dull beers. Too much oxygen can also reduce shelf-life especially for hoppier styles. Dry-hopped beers quickly lose their aroma and hop presence. It’s worth noting, however, that some oxidative flavors are desirable for particular styles such as heavily aged beers with darker malts like barleywine. Flavors in those styles are often called “sherry-like” (for their similarities to aged sherries) and can be outstanding beverages. Other products that rely on some of these oxidative flavors include some fermented soy sauces, aged spirits and vinegars. You get the picture.
Breweries take great pains to control as much as they can and reduce oxygen pickup during packaging, keeping headspace in cans and bottles standardized (and minimized), displacing or purging any vessel of air with gas (usually CO2–although wineries sometimes use an inert gas like argon). Many especially larger or packaging-focused breweries have extensive practices in testing, analyzing and correcting their packaging routine. But smaller businesses may not have the resources, knowledge, labor or tools to analyze their product thoroughly. They may not own their packaging machines, relying instead on mobile canning or bottling companies. These are a lifesaver to a lot of space-cramped or cash-flow restricted breweries, but generally do not allow for as much control and specification as an in-house packaging team would. Company technicians and operators already know the product and their machines and should be knowledgeable enough to work on fine-tuning potential problems along the way, taking quality control checks, etc. There are a number of other areas within the brewery that could introduce oxygen to beer, but once again, packaging is by far the most important.
How do you really know if your can of beer was poorly packaged? Well, if you can, go drink the same beer on tap at the source to compare. Chances are it’s also fresher, so bear that possible difference in mind. If you’re really motivated, buy a package of canned beer at the brewery itself. Ideally the brewery will have kept in a more carefully controlled environment with faster rotation of product so you will be able to identify if was an issue related to packaging or something else entirely. On that note, tune in for next post’s topic: storage.
We’re approaching the specialty bottle release season for breweries across the country–from glossy wax-dipped barrel-aged stouts to spiced seasonal strong ales and big barleywines in boxes, it seems everyone is putting out something interesting and shiny. At this point in the industry, aged beer in one or more of its various styles has become practically expected for new breweries. Home cellar collectors have become a larger and larger part of a higher-spending customer base, launching social networks to enable trading, standing for long drizzly hours in lines for limited releases and attending festival after festival. Aged strong ales are not exactly a new concept, but many of today’s breweries are approaching barreling and blending is with huge levels of excitement and innovation. With American craft’s glorious mishmash of inspiration and global focus, who wouldn’t be excited?
Today we’re taking a good look at barleywine. First, the basics: to be technical, there are two main types: American and English. The ever-helpful and definitive list of styles according to the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) helps distinguish between the two:
“Although often a hoppy beer, the English Barleywine places less emphasis on hop character than the American Barleywine and features English hops. English versions can be darker, maltier, fruitier, and feature richer specialty malt flavors than American Barleywines.”
The BJCP also touches on similarities between American Barleywines and Imperial IPAs. Barleywines set the emphasis on malt over hops, however, and very much unlike Imperial IPAs, are best consumed after aging. Beers like Dogfish Head’s 120 Minute IPA make this differentiation difficult though, blurring the division between styles. English barleywines are typically fermented with a flavorful ale yeast that can impart mild fruity qualities in the finished product, while American barleywines may choose a more transparent yeast. Both English and American barleywines are usually between 8 and 12% alcohol by volume and are almost always aged months or years before release.
Despite differences, we can obviously trace the history of American barleywine back to the UK. Although the style was in existence far earlier, it wasn’t until Bass Brewery released its No. 1 Barley Wine in 1903 that it became distinctively notated as separate from other terms for the style such as strong ales or stingos. Various interpretations of barleywine existed in the UK at that time, but most of our contemporary cues, like the name itself, seem to have come from Burton’s barleywines. These were fairly sweet and utilized a great deal of hops throughout the brewing process, including dry-hopping in the barrels. The higher rate of hopping served (and still serves in today’s concoctions) to balance the sweetness of the finished product as well as to help preserve it during aging. Burton’s barleywines would have been hopped with East Kent Golding hops. These are considered a nearly-noble variety and impart a warm orange marmalade-like flavor to beer. You’d recognize the same flavors in many English Bitters and ESBs. Contemporary English barleywines still use Goldings hops, though other continental hops like Fuggle are also often used.
The earliest American-released barleywines are quite evidently fashioned after their UK counterparts but with consideration for American palates and local ingredients. California’s Anchor Brewing released the first branded American barleywine in 1975 and it may have been the first in the nation. Craft pioneer Sierra Nevada followed up with its own take in 1983. Both beers feature Cascade hops, a classically West Coast hop flavor which is now widely used all over the world. The hop choice likely opened the door for new generations of breweries to experiment with bold and new hopping regimes in barleywine. Stone Brewing, for example is releasing a barleywine this year called Old Guardian which is dry-hopped with new hop Pekko, a varietal from Washington state that has fruity, orange, lemon and mint-like flavors.
Because of its long lead-time and the quantity of ingredients used, barleywines are presented and sold as a specialty product, usually labeled with vintages like wine. These aren’t, after all, your everyday post-work drinking beers! As for where to start tasting, the selection is vast. You don’t have to go very far, especially during the holiday season in order to find a great array. If you have the space and the patience, I recommend buying two bottles of one vintage: one for drinking now, and one for later–six months, a year, or two or more. Most barleywine is appropriate for aging, and it’s fascinating to taste the change in flavors over time. Oxidative processes can actually add complexity, and the boozy alcohol taste in many barleywines will fall to the background or mellow to a smoother sipper. Store these bottle upright in a cool and dry space (out of sight, for the impatient), chilling them only moderately before drinking with a friend or two around a crackling fire or plentiful feast for best enjoyment. Keeping these beers yourself is after all part of the fun of the process-merely by deciding when to open the bottle can mean huge differences in flavors. Experiment away!
So, we’ve been over this before: you like beer. Or are well on your way to doing so. While you may be a rare individual who drinks and enjoys anything set in front of you because it’s well, beer, the rest of us typically have preferences and particular tastes. Or, aren’t in college anymore. Truthfully though, everybody does have preferences. Until the current craft beer explosion, people were a bit limited in phrasing, though: there used to be self-proclaimed “dark beer” drinkers, loyalty-brand enthusiasts, maybe foreign style specialists. Now we have so many options it’s often dizzying trying to assess what they all are not to mention considering carefully if you will enjoy drinking them. As a bartender I’m very used to seeing that flattened look of dismay and desire on a customer’s face who is wading through the choices. Variety is what we want, but sometimes it’s overwhelming. A little guidance without judgment is really helpful. Let’s break down some categories and statements I hear from bar-goers and help you (or help you help a friend) find something to love and imbibe.
A lot of drinkers especially on the west coast, land of IBUs, are currently experiencing IPA fatigue. Every other tap or six-pack out there seems to be an IPA, and I’m not even really exaggerating. Not liking every IPA thankfully doesn’t mean you don’t like hops, bitter flavors and IBUs. Try an English-style ale from abroad or from Seattle’s own Machine House Brewery that’s been hopped with Goldings hops late in the brewing process and you’ll experience a flavorful, marmalade-like goodness that is yes, hoppy. Try a crisp, dry German style beer like Chuckanut Brewing‘s Altbier brewed with spicy hops and you’ll also be drinking a hop-forward beer. And even within IPA territory there are different versions of hoppy. “What’s the best IPA you have?” I hear the question all the time and, knowing that “best” varies with taste, typically ask a few follow-up questions. “Do you like piney and earthy, citrusy, or tropical fruit flavors better?” “Do you like a sweeter malt backbone, or are you looking for an attenuated, dry finish?” Unpacking “bitter and hoppy” into individual flavors and supporting characteristics is key to enjoying and understanding a lot of beers.
While Guinness and dry stouts remain staples in parts of Europe and other areas of the world, porters and stouts are not nearly as prevalent here in the Western US. I encounter a number of customers who say they only drink “the dark stuff” though, so it’s absolutely not a minority of preferences to undermine. My job satisfying those customers gets easier in the fall and winter with the release of holiday ales and darker beers of many types, but there’s so much to dissect in this category as well. Somehow many drinkers, especially women, are under the impression that darker beers are more heavy or “filling” than other styles. The chocolatey-roasty flavors can be very strong on the palate, and there are a lot of sweet stouts out there. But it’s not a true statement across the board. Dark lagers like Uinta Brewing‘s Baba Black Lager for example, are often quite dry, light and refreshing. Black IPAs are often bright and hoppy–take Seattle’s Pike Brewing’s Octopus Ink IPA for a great sample. Judging the book by the cover, in this case, won’t always get you the best beer.
“Light” beer is the easiest place to start from, in my opinion. If you or your grandfather, say, are only accustomed to the lawnmower-type, tailgating kind of deliciously quaffable beer styles, the world is waiting for you to branch out, even if just a little. America’s light lagers were after all originally crafted after a number of classic European styles. It’s not a huge step to try a Weissbier, a Märzen, a Kölsch. Or maybe a Saison, a Belgian Witbier, an Amber ale. The trick is to take baby steps, embrace familiarity along the way, and enjoy complexity when you find it. Don’t let others judge you on your path to deliciousness.
This is the tip of the iceberg here-with almost every style of beer there are subsets of flavors and emphases, roads to go down. If you’re game, try everything with an open mind, or just ask a trusted barkeep to guide you forward to the winning pint.