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If you have even been asked to describe a beer that you’re drinking, you might have stammered a little. Describing beer is hard, because what does beer taste like really? You can really say “toast and bananas” without sounding a little strange. Sometimes a beer tastes like flavors that you have never experienced, so it can be hard describing beer flavor and characteristics.
Consider this Flavor Guide your new home brewing best friend. It has everything you need to describe what beer tastes like while impressing your friends and family.
What Affects The Flavor of Beer?
The main contributor to the flavor of beer is the ingredients. There are four primary ingredients of beer: water, hops, grains, and yeast.
Without water, there would be no beer. 95% of beer is water, so the kind of water you choose will influence the flavor. This is why larger breweries tweak the chemical makeup of the water they use for their brews. As a home brewer or habitual beer drinker, you probably don’t have access to that kind of technology.
For starters, go with either filtered water or Reverse Osmosis water.
A video from Mr. Beer goes into detail about the effects of water on beer and the best options for you:
You know those bitter and floral scents you get from a beer? Those notes are the result of hops. Some hops are for adding bitterness to a beer, while others work to give the beer aroma.
Because smell and taste are so closely interlinked, the smell of hops is important. If you choose hops that smell horrible, there is a chance the beer is going to taste atrocious. Likewise, if you select hops that impart upon the beer a passion fruit flavor, you’ll also get notes of passion fruit on your tongue—even if there’s no fruit in the beer whatsoever.
Barley, wheat, oats, rye, and other grains have been used to make the malt for beer. Barley is the most popular because of a greater amount of enzymes, so it works better when brewing beer.
Raw or toasted, grains add depth to a beer, as well as the sugars needed for alcohol. Toasting is the preferred method for unlocking the starches; this also helps impart richer flavors on the beer. Raw grains are much less accessible and may not affect the taste of beer as much.
You might think that yeast is purely for alcohol, but it’s a defining ingredient. Did you know that you could brew two beers with the same water, grains, and hops but different strains of yeast and get two different kinds of beer? Hello, ales and lagers! Top-fermenting and bottom-fermenting yeast can alter the flavor of beer.
But there are also strains of yeast that can create more or less alcohol, too.
Flavor Guide: What Does Beer Taste Like?
What does beer taste like? If you don’t feel like carrying around a thesaurus in your back pocket, this guide is the next best thing for answering that question.
Some people dislike the bitterness of beer while others are drawn to such a flavor. Hops are the reason some beers are more bitter than others, but there are some recipes that include bitter herbs, fruits, and vegetables. Some examples include spruce, orange zest, or juniper.
When a beer is described as bitter, people may also say it’s acidic. This means that the beer is tangy or sharp, rather than mellow. Acidity in a beer is created during fermentation and is seen most in sour beers.
There is a kind of craft beer known as a sour that is distinctly tart. Usually, this is a result of using wild yeast during fermentation. Wild yeast is aptly named, because you never really know the outcome. Some wild yeasts produce incredibly acidic or sour beers while some make beer lighter and more fruity.
“Sweet” and “malty” are often synonymous. Malt produces starches and sugar to make the beer alcoholic. Then the yeast feeds on the sugars, and you get carbonation and some more flavor. Yet, the amount of leftover sugar can make one kind of brew more sweet than others. The more malt that remains in a beer once it has finished brewing, the sweeter that beer will taste.
People love throwing around this adjective, but what does hoppy beer taste like? Typically, a beer is described as hoppy when the addition of hops is obvious. This could mean a beer is bitter or aromatic (or both). Now, this may cause some confusion when you’re reading a review. Is the beer intensely bitter or fruity?
One way to figure out the kind of hoppy being discussed is to consider the style of beer. A West Coast OPA is known for its intense bitterness, as well as a citrus flavor, from the kind of hops used. Another example is a DIPA. Because it’s a Double India Pale Ale, you know it’s going to be bitter.
Ever wonder how porters and stouts leave a hint of chocolate on the tongue? Few beers contain actual chocolate, so that flavor has to come from somewhere. Interestingly, the chocolaty flavor comes from malt!
Once upon a time, the thought of a juicy or fruity beer was unthinkable. Think about the Purity Laws! But, alas, that time has come and gone, and brewers are getting creative. There are hops that lend fruity aromas to beer. Other beers may truly contain peach, berries, citrus, passion fruit, cherry and other fruits. This is popular in American wheat beers.
Yeast may also add a hint of fruitiness. Wheat beers, for instance, have a banana flavor for yeast. Belgian beers often end up with lemon, apple, or banana smells.
Malts can also play a role in the fruit flavors of a beer. In high ABV beers and barleywines, the malt will give the beer a fig or raisin taste. Dark Belgian beers, such as quads or dubbels, taste of plums.
Wheat beers are known for having a tinge of banana despite there being no real banana in the beer. What gives? Blame the yeast. One of the yeast strains used for German wheat beers is known to produce a banana flavor during fermentation. You may also see banana flavors partnered with clove and spice.
Citrus and hops go hand-in-hand. A hoppy beer will also have hints of citrus in it, because many strains of hops used in Pale Ales and IPAs smell like orange or grapefruit. Some examples include Admiral, Cascade, Amarillo, Citra, Nugget, and Simcoe hops.
When someone says a beer is malty, they are mainly referring to sweetness. Malt doesn’t have to just be “sweet”, though. Malty flavor profiles can also be described as caramel, bread, biscuit, toast, nuts, coffee, toffee, or even raspberries, cherries, or plums.
Bread, Cracker, or Biscuit
How old were you when you realized that beer and bread are made with the same ingredients? Excluding the hops, of course. Because of that, it’s no wonder that many beers taste like bread, crackers, or biscuits. Some Belgian beers, most German lagers, and malty British brews all tend to have some kind of bready element to them.
Bourbon or Whiskey
Barrel-aged beer tends to take on characteristics of the barrel, just like whiskey or bourbon. Case in point: stouts brewed in oak barrels. Whenever alcohol of any kind is aged in an oak barrel, it tends to have a boozy bourbon flavor.
Calling a beer clean implies that a beer is crisp, not sticky, and has a smooth finish. The flavors shouldn’t stick to your throat or cloy in your nostrils. An example of a clean beer is Budweiser or Coors.
While a beer can be clean and malty, it’s hard for a beer to be malty and dry. Here’s why: dry beers are the result of the yeast consuming a lot of the sugar content. So when a beer is dry, you won’t taste a lot of the malt or sweetness.
Dank or Earthy
There’s not many things you’d want to call dank, but when a beer is dank, it often means something good. This is because the brewer used earthy, woodsy hops that give a scent reminiscent of pine. Think Chinook or Columbus hops. You may often see stouts and porters described as earthy or dank, too.
A hoppy beer can also be floral, because of those aromatic hops. Next time you drink a European style of beer, take a whiff of the brew before chugging it. You’ll be transported to a flowery hillside in the Alps.
English, Belgian, and German beers are loved for their esters. What’s an ester? It’s a flavor that resembles juicier fruits, such as pears or even bananas. Esters occur naturally in beers, sometimes due to the strain or the stress.
While Belgian beers and wheat beers use esters to their benefit, too many esters in the beer could negatively impact the beer’s flavor.
What the heck is a phenol? And how does it affect what beer tastes like? Phenols are related to yeast. The amount of phenols present in a beer depends largely on the strain of yeast you use. If you taste cloves or spice in your beer, there is a good chance you’re tasting phenols. It’s often accompanied with banana. Try out a Belgian style beer if you’ve never had phenolic beer before.
Unfortunately, phenols can be too much of a good thing. In high amounts, phenols make beer taste medicinal, kind of like licking the sticky side of an adhesive bandage.
Sometimes barely is substituted with other grains, like rye. The end result? A different flavor of beer. Rye makes beer more dry but also smoother. In low alcoholic beers, rye malt is sweet, kind of like whiskey or vanilla. Many brewers have been mixing rye with other grains to change the richness of the malts they use.
Funky or Bretty
Sour or wild ales are aged with a kind of yeast called Brettanomyces. Sometimes, the sour beer isn’t as sour as you would assume, but it does have a funky flavor that isn’t off-putting. Few people can describe what a funky or bretty brew truly smells like. Some will say funky wild ales are a little like what you smell going into a barnyard or stable, but that’s not entirely correct.
You might liken the Bretty smell to leather or earth.
Malts are often toasted. What happens when you kiln those grains over a wood fire? During the toasting process, the malts take on some of the smokiness. Like smoking meat, you can change up the kind of wood to add in different scents and flavors. If you want a beer that tastes like pure campfire and bacon grease, try roasting your malt over an open flame.
Both traditional and modern beers are known for using spices. Take, for instance, Belgian witbier (white beer). Orange peel and coriander are frequently used when brewing witbier. You can also find many seasonal varieties using some favorite spice blends. Pumpkin spice, anyone?
If you’re looking to experiment with adding flavors to your home-brewed beer, the best way to start is with spices. There are so many kinds of herbs and spices out there that you can be as creative as you’d like.
We’re not just talking about white processed sugar. This implies anything that can be used as sugar, including honey, agave syrup, and maple syrup. Belgian beers have used sugar to add alcohol to brews while maintaining a lighter, dryer body.
Interestingly, sugar doesn’t sweeten beer. It dries it out. When you add sugar to your brew, you are feeding the yeast. This means that the yeast will continue eating the sugar, converting it to CO2 and alcohol. You’ll get a thin, boozy beer.
This isn’t just about wheat beer. Describing the taste of beer as wheat is implying that it has a light, almost nonexistent flavor. Wheat doesn’t do a lot of work on developing the flavors of beer; it makes an effort with texture and giving beer a fluffy head. This is why witbiers, weisse, and hefeweizens tend to be lighter in flavor but rounded out by a silky mouthfeel.
Wheat beers are often flavored with various strains of yeast. This is what separates a banana-flavored wheat beer from one that is tangy or spicy.
Different Styles of Beer and Their Flavors
What does beer taste like? Popular beer styles have their own beer flavor descriptions that can give you an idea of how one type should taste. Of course, these are generalizations. Some brands do things differently, coming up with surprising characteristics. However, these descriptions of what beer styles taste like will give you a good idea of what to expect when you make these beers yourself or order a pint at the bar.
What Does Ale Taste Like?
Generalizing what a single category of beer tastes like is kind of like asking what white wine tastes like. There are dozens of styles of white wine, just like there are many types of ale! Remember, most of the beers that people drink are ales. People generally have a better understanding of what an ale should taste like—full-bodied, heavier and darker than lagers.
Ales also brew faster than lagers, giving them more esters and, therefore, more sweetness.
What Does Lager Taste Like?
When you imagine a lager, you picture a crisp, clear beer that is light yellow or gold. Historically, lagers have had a cleaner flavor than ales, since the recipes were more clean-cut. However, brewers have started experimenting with lagers to see how they can change the taste of their brews. One example is an India Pale Lager, as opposed to an IPA.
Here are some other beer styles to consider:
Blond or light orange in color, pale ales can be well-balanced between sweetness and bitterness. That said, India Pale Ales, Imperial IPAs, and Double IPAs tend to be more alcoholic and bitter than regular pale ales.
An English Pale Ale will generally have caramel and bread flavors that are balanced out with a hint of bitterness. On the other hand, American Pale Ales emphasize the hops over the malt, so they are herbaceous and tropical.
Since there are many styles of wheat beer—Belgian, German, and American—it can be difficult to pinpoint which kind of wheat beer you will sip. The majority are brewed with wheat or a blend of wheat, which gives the beer a more complex flavor. You will notice notes of lemon, bread, and citrus.
Hefeweizen is one wheat beer that develops with bubblegum, clove, or banana flavors. Compared to some other kinds of beer, wheat beers are mild, refreshing, and less bitter. They are popular in summer.
Toast, biscuits, sugar cookies, dark fruit, figs, nuts, and caramel can all be used to describe amber ales. These beers focus on a sweet, malty flavor created from barely. The English version will be sweeter than the American one, which aims for more bitterness. Seeing a pattern yet?
Porters and Brown Ales
Both are similar in taste, though brown ales tend to be less intense than porters. However, both include malts that were roasted to the point that they take on a cacao nib or coffee flavor. This rich, chocolaty flavor can be a bit bitter, almost like dark chocolate or baking chocolate.
Think of a stout as a porter that’s been kicked in the rear. They have a vast range of bitterness and roasted flavors. For instance, an Irish stout tends to be dry and bitter but goes down easier. Conversely, a milk or sweet stout is like a liquid dessert.
This is a light beer in both look and flavor. German Pilsners are dry, crisp, and some may be slightly sweet. However, the hoppiness of German Pilsners tends to dominate the malt. Since Noble hops are used to make German Pilsners, you can expect this kind of beer to have a pronounced hoppy flavor.
What Makes Beer Taste Bad?
There are many off-putting flavors that can occur in beer, including rotten eggs, metallic, cheesy, sour, and the nightmarish eau de cat piss. Many of these are caused by compounds produced by the hops you include in a brew. For example, the catty smell in some beers is caused by p-menthene-8-thiol-3-one, which is produced during oxidation from contamination.
In fact, many off-flavors in beer happen because of bacteria. Be sure you are cleaning and sanitizing your hands and brewing equipment before making your home brew. Also, ensure your hops and other ingredients are stored in airtight containers. You want your hops, yeast, and grains to be as fresh as possible.
But here are some other reasons beer may taste foul:
Low Quality Ingredients
Bad batches of beer are often caused by poor quality ingredients. You already know that the quality of the ingredients mean everything when brewing beer. Spoiled grains or hops will have an unsavory effect on the beer. Unfortunately, when this happens, the beer won’t be salvageable. You will have to throw it out and make another batch.
Heavy Metal Contamination
One of the mistakes of a novice home brewer is not testing their water for heavy metals. If your water has a high concentration of iron or copper, it will cause a reaction as the beer brews. Metals can also be absorbed from the equipment that you use.
If you have a can of beer that tastes metallic, you can try opening it. Oxidation sometimes neutralizes the metal flavor. Wait for about 15 minutes then give the beer a try.
Drinking From a Can
Although it’s been found that there’s no real difference between drinking a beer out of a glass bottle or a metal can, a lot of people can smell the metal. When taste and smell combine, the experience can sometimes be off-putting. Want to nix the metallic flavor? Try pouring the beer from the can into a regular glass and wait for a few minutes before giving it a sip.
If it still tastes off, throw it away and try another.
Taste The Rainbow—Of Beer!
What does beer taste like? It can be hard to say, but most people can agree that beer is bitter. There isn’t a single kind of beer out there. The ingredients that the brewer chooses plays a huge role in the flavors that develop within the beer. If you’re a home brewer, it’s recommended that you play around with your hops, yeast, and malts. You may discover a whole new flavor combination that you have never experienced before.
FAQs About The Taste Of Beer
Beer is a difficult taste to describe, because there are so many kinds of beer out there! That said, the general consensus is that beer is bitter from the hops. The bitterness is tinged with some sweetness from the malts and maybe some fruity or tangy aromas. If you choose a lighter beer, such as a lager, the flavors are more delicate. Almost watery.
Generally, most people will be amazed that their first beer is bitter, almost to the point that their lips pucker. Beer is an acquired taste, kind of like coffee. While the first taste tends to be unpleasant, the rest of the pint will go down much easier. Once you are accustomed to the flavor of beer, you will be able to pick out the various flavors and aromas.
No, beer does not taste like pee. While it’s a common joke for people to say that beer tastes like piss, it’s not really true. Yes, there are some beers that taste like cat pee and even smell like it, but that’s considered an off-flavor and not really desirable. Normal beer should be bitter, with floral or fruity notes and some carbonation.