This week I attended an informal class on tasting off flavors in beer at Eagle Rock Brewery. The class was targeted at home brewers who want to improve their beer by improving their palates so they can detect the (often very subtle) off-flavors caused by any number of errors in the brewing process. There were around 30 people in attendance, and the evening was a great learning experience and a great mixer for local beer fans.
The event was led by nationally ranked beer judge Jeff Koehler who helped the 30 of us through the process of tasting and identifying 12 common off-flavors found in home brewed and commercial beer. These off flavors ranged from cooked cabbage and green apple to “baby vomit” and vanilla-sweetness. Each student received a glass of good ol’ Coors (“The Banquet Beer”) to use as our base-line sample. Then in each of the 12 coming rounds of tasting a small sample of Coors, doctored with an offending flavor, was distributed to each attendee. We smelled and tasted the sample, compared it to the base-line beer, and talked through what flavors we were able to discern with our table and then with the whole group. Jeff led us along and provided hints and tips when we needed them, and after we had talked about our sensory perceptions he would explain what the “text-book” definition of the flavor was and what caused it.
A great number of things can go wrong when brewing beer. Errors in recipe formulation possibly lead to an over bittered beer. Poor sanitation practices can cause bacterial or wild yeast infections and lead to a great number of weird flavors and smells from clove to steer manure. Miscues in brewing or fermentation, improper storage and handling, or sub-par ingredients can all negatively impact a beer. Sometimes the results are obvious and unpleasant, while other times the off-flavors are very subtle and even desirable in certain styles of beer.
The ability to perceive, and identify, these off flavors is extremely useful as a brewer (home or otherwise) as it allows you to troubleshoot faults in your process and ascertain ways to improve your product. Additionally, sitting around with 30 other beer-lovers and determining that a sample tastes not unlike a wet pool toy is a lot of fun, and it was only slightly less fun when the sampled tasted not unlike a mouldered jockstrap. We got some nice reference materials to take home with us and a new appreciation for the difficulties in discerning the subtle and varied flavors in our beers.
I would recommend the follow-up to this class that Eagle Rock Brewing will be offering soon as Jeff was a knowledgable and approachable instructor. Of course, the guys from Eagle Rock Brewing were cool and fun to hang with for the evening, and I want to thank them for putting together a great class and for being such a valuable resource to the craft beer community in Los Angeles!
Update: the follow-up class has been announced and it is now open for registration! The class takes place Wednesday August 7th at 7pm, and it costs $30. You can register on the Eagle Rock Brewery events page.