The “How to taste beer” series explores the four steps of the beer tasting process and what each step can tell us about beer’s flavour and texture. New to the series? Start here.
The final step of the 4-part process of beer tasting is to assess our beer’s texture or mouthfeel.
Some beers feel light and spritzy, while others are fuller with a creamy body.
These sensations are detected by a nerve in our face called the trigeminal nerve – it picks up on the “feel” of a beer and sends those signals to our brain.
Read on to learn about some of the different sensations we can detect in beer and their sources.
Body is the sense of density or weight on the tongue. Think about the weight on your tongue of a sip of water compared to a sip of milk. The milk is fuller and richer and would be described as having more body to it than the water.
Beers can be assessed in a similar way. Some beers are very light in body, like an American light lager, while others are fuller and heavier, like an oatmeal stout.
A beer’s body is largely determined by the amount of protein it contains. Grains like wheat and oats have more protein than barley, so beers containing those grains – like a German wheat beer or New England IPA – are said to have a fuller body.
(Fun fact: these proteins also help to support a beer’s head of foam, too.)
But body can also come from any unfermented, or residual, sugars or starches in a beer. So stronger, sweeter styles, like doppelbock, will have a heavier, richer body even without any of those higher protein grains.
During fermentation, yeast processes sugar from malted barley into alcohol and carbon dioxide, the booze and bubbles in our beer. That carbon dioxide gas dissolves into the liquid, giving our beer its carbonation.
The expected level of carbonation in beer varies by style.
Some styles have a very high level of carbonation, like in a glass of champagne. This type of carbonation can be described as prickly, as it almost tickles the tongue when the bubbles burst. If you like that spritzy, refreshing mouthfeel, look out for styles like the Belgian golden strong ale.
Other beer styles, particularly those served on cask, like a best bitter, have a lower level of carbonation by design.
Carbonation is measured in volumes of CO2 in the US or grams per litre in Europe.
A typical ale might have 1.5 to 2.5 volumes of CO2, while a typical lager is slightly more carbonated at 2.2 to 2.7 volumes. But, what do volumes of CO2 really mean?
For an average beer with 2 volumes of CO2, this means that for every single bottle of beer there are approximately 2 bottles-worth of CO2 gas compressed into the container with the liquid.
Cask beers are very lightly carbonated, as the wooden serving vessels they were historically served from couldn’t hold much pressure. So they typically contain around 1 volume of CO2.
But more highly carbonated beer styles, like the Belgian golden strong ale we mentioned, can have up to 4 volumes of CO2. This high carbonation gives the beer a crisp, refreshing and dry finish.
You may be familiar with tannins from red wine or black tea. These plant-based compounds can contribute an astringency, or mouth-drying sensation, to the beverages they’re found in.
The hop plant, the ingredient that gives beer its bitterness, can also give beer an astringent mouthfeel when used in very high quantities, in styles like the double IPA, for example.
Astringency is often perceived late in beer and feels like a “drying” sensation on the palate or a slight bite.
Related to body, creaminess is often described as an “oily” sensation in beer. It comes from the use of grains like wheat, oats, or rye.
These grains, in addition to their higher protein levels, also contain complex carbohydrates that change a beer’s texture.
You’ll find this creaminess in styles like the oatmeal stout, German wheat beer, or a rye IPA.
Have you ever sipped on a strong cocktail and picked up on a slight warming sensation?
That same alcohol warmth can be detected in beers over 7% alcohol by volume, but it should never be hot or solventy.
It helps give strong beer styles, like Imperial Stout, American Barleywine, and other winter warmers, their cold weather appeal.
Now’s also the time to think about the finish of your beer. What flavours from the beer are still present on your palate and how long did they stick around for?
A taste of beer has a beginning, middle and an end. So be sure to take the time to assess each part.
Mouthfeel is only one aspect of beer tasting, but can be a really important part of determining a beer’s overall character.
It’s why stronger, richer beers like barleywine and doppelbock become more popular in the winter – they’ve got a fuller body and slight alcohol warmth, so are great to sip on during a cold, dark evening.
On the other hand, light lagers and spritzy Belgian wheat beers are very popular in summer because of their light body and crisp, thirst quenching finish.
Hopefully you’re starting to believe me that there really is a beer style out there for everyone!
Now that you know how to taste beer, are you ready to learn what it’s made from? If so, head on over to here to start the “What is beer made from” series.
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