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What Does Beer Taste Like?

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One of my favorite things to do in recent months has been hosting beer tastings with a few friends. It’s cheaper than the bar, the selection is as good as you want it to be, and it’s a lot easier to talk to everyone (about the beer you’re drinking.)

Of course, being the intrepid blogger that I am, I’ll sometimes jot down a few notes and take pictures so I can do a review. I also like the chance to get other people’s thoughts on different flavors, though I’ve noticed, lots of times, people say they don’t know how to describe the things they’re tasting.

And not that you have to!

Many people drink beer on a regular basis without discussing it like some kind of fancy-ass snob; it takes a special kind of dorkiness to talk about what you’re drinking in such specific terms.

But sometimes — maybe with a beer that tastes like nothing you’ve had before — you want to put it into words. So here is a glossary of terms used to describe the many possible flavors and characteristics of beer. (I am leaving “off-flavors” out of this list, as that’s a subject for a whole other article, and hopefully not something your average beer drinker will encounter.)

Feel free to pull this handy guide up the next time you are drinking, describe what you are drinking in detail to all of your friends, and sound like a jackass.

Glossary of Beer Flavors / Descriptions:


Frequency: Sour beers
Result Of: Fermentation (generally)
See Also: Sour; Tart

Acidity generally accompanies sourness in beer, but the term implies a sharp, tangy character without necessarily having the flavor connotations of ‘sourness.’


Frequency: High ABV beers
Result Of: High ABV
See Also: Bourbon/Whiskey

Beer is generally low enough ABV that actual alcohol flavors should be hidden. Of course, the higher the ABV, the more chance you’ll taste the alcohol, but skillful brewers can mask it up to a certain point. Alcohol taste is generally considered an unwanted character; however, certain beers such as bourbon barrel aged beers may feature a specific boozy flavor as an integral part of the flavor.


Frequency: Wheat beers
Result Of: Yeast; Fermentation
See Also: Spicy / Clove; Phenols; Wheat

German wheat beers commonly feature a strong banana-like flavor without any actual fruit added to the beer. This is a result of the particular yeast strains used, which produce a yeasty banana character during fermentation.


Frequency: Major flavor component; common in IPAs, pale ales
Result Of: Hops (generally)
See Also: Hoppy

Hops impart bitterness, and hops are one of the main ingredients of beer, therefore bitterness is one of the main flavor components of beer. Bitterness can be either harsh or smooth, depending on the hop varieties used for bittering. However, bitterness can be distinct from “hoppiness” — a beer can have strong hoppy flavors and aromas without tasting particularly bitter, or vice versa.

Bourbon / Whiskey

Frequency: Barrel-aged beers, typically stouts
Result Of: Barrel Aging
See Also: Alcohol

A bourbon flavor in beer — most often in imperial stouts — is typically the result of aging in actual bourbon / whiskey barrels. Aging with any sort of oak may create suggestions of bourbon flavor.

Bread / Biscuit / Cracker

Frequency: Malt-focused beers
Result Of: Malts
See Also: Malt

Since beer is generally made out of the same ingredients as bread — with the exception / addition of hops — many beers can taste bready, depending on the grain bill (different grains contribute different flavors). Such bread-like flavors are common in lagers (particularly German lagers), some Belgian styles, as well as malty British beers.


Frequency: Sour / wild beer
Result of: Brettanomyces Yeast
See Also: Funky; Sour; Dry

Brettanomyces, often referred to as Brett, is a kind of “wild” yeast, and therefore a fermentation agent rather than a flavor component. However, Brett has such unique characteristics that it is often used as an adjective — i.e. “this beer smells very Bretty.” This is often synonymous with the term “funk.”


Frequency: Malty beers
Result Of: Malts
See Also: Malt; Sweet

A common flavor derived from certain malts. Caramel malts tend to impart a richer, sticky sort of sweetness.

Cider / Apple

Frequency: Mostly Belgian beers; sour beers
Result Of: Yeast (generally)
See Also: Fruit, Tart

Many Belgian beers offer hints of cider or apple due to a simple, light malt base and the tart fruity flavors created by Belgian yeast. Many sour beers will have a tart apple flavor, enhanced by their inherently dry, acidic character.


Frequency: Hoppy beers
Result Of: Hops
See Also: Hoppy

Citrus is perhaps the most common description of many American hop varieties, particularly West Coast hops. Pale Ales and IPAs will be commonly described as citrusy.


Frequency: Dark beers
Result Of: Dark malts; chocolate
See Also: Coffee, Roasty; Malt

Chocolate is a common characteristic for stouts and porters. Suggestions of chocolate can be produced by dark malts alone, but beers with chocolate in the name (i.e. Rogue Chocolate Stout, Young’s Double Chocolate) generally use actual chocolate or chocolate flavoring to enhance this flavor.


Frequency: n/a
Result Of: Yeast; Malts
See Also: Dry, Sweet, Malt

“Clean” falls into a group of terms used to describe both how sweet and how rich a beer is. Clean implies that a beer is not rich or sticky; that it finishes clean. However, a beer can be both malty and clean — having clear, sweet, malt flavors without being sticky or cloying.


Frequency: Stouts and porters
Result Of: Coffee; Dark Malts
See Also: Chocolate, Roasty; Malt

A hint of coffee flavor is common for stouts and porters. Suggestions of coffee can be produced by dark malts alone, but “coffee stouts” are a common sub-style brewed with actual coffee. This will generally be made clear by the name of the beer.

Dank / Earthy

Frequency: IPAs, possibly others
Result Of: Hops (mostly)
See Also: Hoppy; Pine; Roasty

Certain hops, like Columbus and Chinook, will give beer a character that can only really be described as “dank,” but not in an unpleasant way. IPAs with such hops will have a bold woodsy, earthy character. Darker beers like porters and stouts sometimes lean toward a “dank” character as well.


Frequency: n/a
Result Of: Fermentation
See Also: Clean; Sweet; Rich; Bitter

Dry is used to mean the opposite of sweet. A beer can be both malty and clean, but it is difficult for a beer to be both very malty and also dry. Dryness can be achieved when the yeast eats (attenuates) more of the sugar content of a beer, or, for a somewhat different effect, by masking residual sweetness with bitter hops.


Frequency: English, German, Belgian beers
Result Of: Yeast; Fermentation
See Also: Spicy / Clove; Phenols

A flavor resembling light fruit, often banana, or pear. Esters are created by yeast, sometimes due to stress, sometimes simply as a result of the yeast strain chosen. Esters are a signature of many styles, particularly wheat beers — hefeweizens, wits, weisse — as well as many Belgian styles. English yeast can create fruity flavors, though less distinct than the banana-like character of European strains. Most yeast will create esters under stress, though in many styles this would be considered a flaw.


Frequency: Hop-forward beers
Result Of: Hops
See Also: Hoppy

A common hop characteristic, particularly in European hops / styles.


Frequency: Sour / wild ales
Result Of: Yeast
See Also: Brett; Sour

A major flavor in sour beers, or beers aged with Brettanomyces (i.e. Orval.) A beer can be funky without being fully sour. “Funky” is a wild, living, natural smell; not really comparable to anything else I’ve ever smelled or tasted. Some people also use the word “barnyard” or “farmhouse” to denote this ripe, earthy, leathery quality.


Frequency: n/a
Result Of: Fruit; Yeast; Hops; Malt
See Also: Banana; Apple / Cider; Esters; Hoppy

Fruitiness in beer can be the result of a number of things — really, the only ingredient used in beer that won’t sometimes impart a fruity flavor is water.

  • Actual fruit used in the brewing process. This trend is particularly common with American wheat beers.
  • Many hop varieties impart fruity flavors, such as grapefruit, citrus, mango, passionfruit, lemon, and orange.
  • Yeast can also create suggestions of fruit, particularly in wheat beers (banana), Belgian beers (apple; lemon; banana), and sour beers (apple; mango; lemon, limoncello.)
  • Finally, certain malts create dark fruit-like flavors. Barleywines and other high-ABV beers may have a sweet raisin/fig flavor, while darker Belgian beers, like dubbels and quads, may have plum-like flavors.


Frequency: Major flavor component; common in IPAs, pale ales, et al
Result Of: Hops
See Also: Bitterness; Fruit

One of the major characteristics and key ingredients of beer. Hops, depending on the variety, can impart dozens of different flavors and aromas. Common hop characteristics include: grapefruit and citrus, floral, pine, spicy, earthy, dank, mango, passionfruit, lemon, orange, and more. Hops impart bitterness; how much and how aggressive depends on usage. For a complete list of hop characteristics, check out Bear Flavored’s hop variety guide.


Frequency: Oak-aged beers
Result Of: Oak-aging
See Also: Bourbon / Whiskey

Oak flavor can vary depending on type of oak (its country of origin), how toasted the oak is, how exactly the beer is oaked (chips, cubes, barrels, etc.), and for how long. Other than a oaky/woody/toasty flavor, oak can impart hints of vanilla, roasted coffee, sweetness, spice, and a fuller mouthfeel. Aging in oak barrels that formerly held held other liquors or wine will impart those flavors as well.


Frequency: Primary ingredient; major flavor component
Result Of: Malts
See Also: Sweet; Roasty

Malt flavors can vary depending on the grains used and how roasted those grains were, but saying a beer tastes “malty” generally implies some combination of: sweet, bready, nutty, caramel, and dark fruits like figs or raisins. As far as overall percentages of ingredients, malt (grain — like you would use for making bread, more or less) is by far the primary ingredient in beer.

Malt, once mashed with water, contributes sugar for the yeast to eat and turn into alcohol. (The amount of sugar that remains unconsumed by yeast after fermentation determines how sweet a beer will taste.) Therefore some malt flavor is present in nearly every beer, but it can be diminished or insignificant in some — light, super-hoppy IPAs, for example, or super dry sour beers.

Other styles are composed of almost nothing but malty flavors: think Scottish ales, strong ales, barleywines, Oktoberfests, dunkels, and many German lagers. While “malty” implies some degree of sweetness, as malts are responsible for contributing sugar in the first place, a beer can retain clean malt flavors without tasting rich, or overly sweet. Various malts can create varying flavors, some of which will taste sweeter than others regardless of residual sugar content.


Frequency: Belgian beers
Result Of: Yeast; Fermentation
See Also: Esters; Spicy / Clove

Phenols are produced by yeast, and can thus vary depending on yeast stress or yeast strain, but in general come across as a spicy, clove-like flavor, and may accompany a fruit-like banana flavor. Phenols are common in many Belgian styles. More extreme phenolic flavors, or phenolic flavors in most other styles, are considered an off-flavor. In high concentrations, phenols can create an undesirable Band-Aid, solvent, or medicinal flavor.


Frequency: Hoppy beers
Result Of: Hops
See Also: Hoppy

A common hop characteristic.


Frequency: Dark beers
Result Of: Roasted malts
See Also: Chocolate: Coffee; Malt

A dark, bitter, toasty flavor. Can be mellower, like chocolate or dark bread, or harsher, like black coffee. Particularly common in stouts.


Frequency: Beers with rye are usually labeled as such, i.e. “rye IPA.”
Result Of: Rye malt
See Also: Malt

Rye malt imparts a silky, dry character to beer. If used as a large percentage of the grain bill, it may create a spicy flavor, like in rye bread. In malty, low ABV beers, I’ve found rye can create a sweet, almost vanilla/oak character when used in lower percentages. A versatile ingredient that blends well with the bitterness of hops and the richness of standard malts.


Frequency: Beers labeled as smoked beers
Result Of: Malt
See Also: n/a

Smoked malt is any type of malt kilned over a wood fire — the malt absorbs some of the flavors/smoke from the wood. Various types of wood can impart different characters, but all will taste “smokey” — like the beer was brewed over a campfire. Intensely smokey beers can be almost bacon-like in flavor.


Frequency: Depends on style
Result Of: Spices
See Also: Spicy / Clove

Just about any spice can be (and probably has been) used in brewing. Some styles incorporate spices traditionally, such as Belgian wit beers, which frequently use coriander and orange peel in the brew. Spices are also common in winter warmers and pumpkin beers. Adding spices is perhaps one of the most common (and easiest) methods of experimentation for brewers, so there is no real limit to which spices can be used, or in what beer.

Spicy / Clove

Frequency: Belgian beers
Result Of: Yeast; Fermentation
See Also: Phenols; Spice(s)

Many Belgian beers have a spicy / clove character due to the phenols produced by Belgian yeast, without any actual spices added to the brew.


Frequency: Lambics, wild ales, Berliner Weisse, et al.
Result Of: Yeast; Bacteria
See Also: Acidic; Brett; Dry; Tart

Sour beer — generally considered its own styles these days, with multiple sub-styles — is beer that has undergone a unique fermentation process involving yeast and bacteria different from those typically used in brewing. Sourness, or acidity, is a mouth-puckering flavor enhanced by the fact that these beers are typically bone-dry. Very little malt character remains in most sour beers; comparisons can be made to kombucha or even extremely dry white wine. Fermentation and dryness will bring out subtle fruity flavors, while some sour styles (like fruit lambics) will use actual fruit to compliment the beer’s ripe, tart flavors. Nonetheless, sourness is a process and can therefore be found to different degrees in different beers; varying fermentation techniques will also result in varying types of sour flavors. Beers brewed with a sour mash, for example, tend to be less bitingly acidic, and less complex.

Sugars (various)

Frequency: n/a
Result Of: Sugars/adjuncts
See Also: Sweet; Dry; Spices

Any number of specialty sugars can be used in brewing, and most will contribute their own particular flavors. Honey and maple syrup are common additions. Belgian beers traditionally use candi-sugars to achieve a high ABV while retaining a light, drinkable body. Sugar paradoxically dries out a beer rather than sweetening it, as one might expect — this is because most sugars are nearly 100% fermentable by yeast, which means the entire addition will be converted to alcohol and CO2, rather than sweetness. This also has the affect of giving the beer a thinner body.


Frequency: n/a
Result Of: Fermentation; Malts
See Also: Clean; Dry; Malt

Sweetness generally implies a profile both high in residual sugar and rich malts. The maltier the beer, the sweeter it is likely to be. Some styles, such as imperial stouts and barleywines, are inherently sweet due to the massive amounts of malt required to create them. However, sweetness can be masked by various factors, such as hops or fermentation (highly attenuative yeast), allowing for a beer that tastes malty but not overly rich.


Frequency: Dry, light styles; sour beer
Result Of: Fermentation
See Also: Acidic; Dry; Sour

Tartness is closely associated with dry, sour and acidic flavors; sharp; like under-ripe fruit or green apples.


Frequency: Wheat beers
Result Of: Wheat
See Also: Banana; Malt; Phenols; Spicy/Clove

Wheat beers are a style unto themselves, and thus a beer featuring wheat will generally be labelled as such. Wheat does not have much flavor of its own; it contributes more to the body of a beer, giving it a silky, smooth feel, and due to the amount of protein in wheat, it creates a thick, fluffy head. Flavor-wise, it may add a light (but full-tasting) sweetness and slight tangy-ness. However, the prominent flavors in most wheat beers (hefeweizens, wit, weisse, etc) come primarily from the unique yeast strains used (see also: phenols; spicy/clove.)

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