BEER CLINIC :: The Beer Doctor Makes a House Call

by Dr. Carol Westbrook on March 15, 2011

It was late February and I was on a road trip to visit my friends in Youngstown, Ohio. Since Akron is directly on the way, I had no excuse. It was time to finally meet my editor, with whom I had only a virtual acquaintance. I was greeted by Harvey and his wife Dolli, and we were friends immediately. The Golds live in a converted old schoolhouse, filled with unusual antiques and unique artifacts from around the world. A perfect place for a lesson on the unique flavors of the worlds’ beers.

Because Harvey was making such good progress in his appreciation of beer, I realized he was ready for an advanced beer class. It was time for Beer 201: The Flavors of Beer. I brought along some beer making ingredients and a few bottles of my homebrew. (Note: if you would like to follow along with the lesson and experience these tastes, you can purchase these ingredients for under $20 from an online homebrewer supplier, such as Midwest SuppliesRebel Brewer,  or Grape and Granary.)

Figure 1

We started class with the most subtle of beer flavors—the malts. To beer, malts are the bread on which you spread your butter (hops). The taste is subtle but unmistakable. We tasted six varieties of dried malted barley.  Dried malted barley looks a lot like grass seed, only a bit plumper (Figure 1). Chew on a few grains and…surprise! You expect a bland raw cereal taste, but instead it is extremely sweet and crunchy, like honey granola. That’s because the bland, grain starches in barley are converted into sweet sugar—maltose—when the grain is sprouted (malted).  The sprouted grain is then dried and is ready to use for brewing. The sugars are all used up in the brewing process, but the bread/grain flavor remains.

We tasted our first malt, and Harvey exclaimed “why that tastes like a Dunkel!” And he was correct. This was Munich malt (Figure 2), a common ingredient of German beers including Bocks and Octoberfest beers. It is lightly kiln-dried, giving a slight toasted flavor, imparting a dark gold color to the beer.

Figure 2

Gambrinus honey malt was next. This is a light untoasted malt. It has a exquisitely sweet honey flavor and is very smooth. Next, two Belgians: Belgian biscuit malt is used in European beers which imparts a bread-like taste and a red-brown color, while Belgian aromatic has solid malt flavor and a strong malt aroma. Finally, we tasted two dark malts, which are heavily kiln-roasted to a dark brown (chocolate malt) or espresso black (black patent malt). See Figure 1, comparing light and dark malts. Dark malts contain little or no residual sugar, so they are used for flavoring and color, not for fermentation. You can taste them in stouts and porters. And yes, chocolate malt does have a faint chocolate taste.

Next lesson, hops. When people say they don’t like beer, they usually mean they don’t like the flavor of strong hops. Hops can very bitter and overpowering but there are also mild varieties with exquisite flavor, and everything in between. Hops are the dried, fragrant flowers of the hop plant. For the homebrewer, these are available in compressed pellets that are added to the brewpot as needed (Figure 3).

Figure 3

I brought a selection of hops to taste, or rather to smell.  We began with Cascade and Centennial hops. One whiff and you immediately recognize the taste of an American IPA. Cascade, and its brother, Centennial, were developed in the United States and represent the predominant—and I would say overused—flavors in most American-style ales. The taste is described as floral, spicy and citrus.

At the opposite end of the spectrum are Fuggles and Kent Golding, used in mild English bitters. Dolli described the flavor as fresh-cut grass, and she was correct. The descriptions are mild, grassy, woody (Fuggles) or pleasant, soft, earthy (Kent Goldings).

Without going into detail about alpha and beta hop acids, suffice it to say that some of these hops are used for bittering, some for flavoring, and some strictly for aroma. Liberty is an aroma hop developed in the U.S. as a substitute for the classic German hop, Hallertauer Mittelfrüh, probably because it was easier to pronounce.  It has a mild but lingering aroma.

There are other flavors used in beer, but almost always in addition to hops. Coriander is a frequent addition to Belgian beers, as is orange peel, which we sampled in this lesson. Other flavors include fruit (Belgian lambics), sweet spice (Christmas ale and pumpkin ale), coffee (coffee ale), lactose or milk sugar (milk stout).

Dr. Westbrook sharing the flavors of beer.

On to yeasts. What do yeasts eat? Sugars. We tasted dried malt extract, DME, a brewing ingredient extracted from malts and added directly to the brew pot. It is a pale yellow powder, intensely sweet, reminiscent of the centers of malted milk balls (which is precisely what it is). Belgian Candi Sugar, also used for brewing, is crystallized pure beet sugar (table sugar), in the form of rock candy.  Like a lot of adults, yeasts can’t digest lactose, or milk sugar, so it can be used as a sweetener.

What can you say about yeasts? There is an endless variety of strains that produce everything from beer and wine to cider, whiskey, vinegar, bread, cheese, penicillin. There are hundreds of yeast strains for beer brewing alone! Yeasts break down the basic components of the brew mash and convert them to alcohol and carbon dioxide, but also produce a small amount of complex molecular compounds. These trace compounds impart distinctive flavors that are hard to describe and cannot be tasted directly. The best way to appreciate the yeast in a beer is to taste it. I focused on Belgian yeasts, which produce a distinctive, almost medicinal flavor. Belgian beers are an acquired taste—too easily acquired, and frequently addictive.

I brought two homebrews made with Belgian yeasts. One, a light Abbey Ale , similar to Leffe, was made with biscuit malts and was lightly hopped with Styrian Golding hops. But it has a strong flavor from the yeast, a Wyeast Belgian Abbey #1762. Compare the taste to a mild beer, such as a English bitter or a light lager, and you can spot the flavor immediately. The other homebrew I brought was a “clone” (copy) of Trippel Karmeliet, also a Belgian, brewed with light malts and hops, and Wyeast Belgian Abbey Ale #1214. The beer is spiced with coriander, but you can tastes the Belgian yeast flavor as well.

Dr. Carol Westbrook & Harvey Gold

We ended our lesson with a visit to the Golds’ favorite local diner, Gasoline Alley. We had huge salads and the best Reuben sandwich west of New York. I would have paired these strong flavors with a strong Belgian or a barleywine, but alas, I was on a road trip. No beer for the Beer Doctor, this time.

Ed: Dr. Carol Westbrook is a medical oncologist. She received an M.D. and a Ph.D. (biochemistry) from the University of Chicago, and spent 20 years in academic medicine, teaching and doing cancer research. Dr. Westbrook is also an amateur brewer and a contributor to this column.


{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Kathleen Burch March 11, 2011 at 12:37 pm

Wow. Complicated, but it sounds like you are having a lot of fun with this new avocation. Look forward to samples.

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Dolli Quattrocchi Gold March 11, 2011 at 11:59 pm

Carol, We were so happy that you stopped by–it was a real treat. I’m still telling everyone about our beer lesson…in fact, when we returned to Church Brew Works to shoot more footage, I could clearly identify the aroma of BARLEY when I walked in, instead of just remarking that the room “smelled like beer.” Thanks so much — we’re already looking forward to your next visit. Cheers!

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Jacky March 14, 2011 at 5:18 pm

I just had a tour of the Goose Island Brewery where they went over some of the same information, but in less detail. I wonder if there are any craft beers being made that imitate some of the classic beer tases of the Midwest from 100 years ago? Do you think the Berghoff brew was typical of these old recipes?

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Carol March 14, 2011 at 10:10 pm

Thanks for a good question, Jacky. I poked around the internet a bit, and learned, as I expected, that most American-brewed beers at the turn of the century were lagers reflecting a German heritage. Ingredients: two-row European barley and mild hops. If our grandfathers were living in the US then, they would have been drinking pre-Prohibition beers out of Stubbies (squat bottles), or from pails filled on draft at their local tap. The style is being revived today. Legacy Beer in Reading PA resurrected Reading Beer; Detroit produces Motown Lager; Craftsman in CA makes a 1903 lager. Budweiser Select is also in this style. And of course, Yuengling is still making the same beer in PA. Here’s the link: http://www.imbibemagazine.com/Old-Style-American-Lagers

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Carol March 14, 2011 at 10:17 pm

Continuing the story… to answer your quesiton about Berghoff beer, I think it’s entirely possible that this beer is similar to an old-style lager or pilsner. Berghoff beer is made by the Huber Brewing company in Monroe Wisconsin, and has been brewing beer since 1845. It’s the oldest continuously operating brewery in the Midwest, and second oldest in the US and, since it’s in Wisconsin, so I’d guess they are continuing to use their old tried and true recipes.

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Richard March 15, 2011 at 3:53 am

Thank you Carol for giving us details on some of the ingredients that go into our beloved beer. I plan on obtaining samples of malts, hops and yeasts to experience the tastes and scents myself. All of your information helps me confirm why Beer is better than Wine …. human feet are conspicuously absent from beer making !

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John Springsteen March 16, 2011 at 10:47 am

Excellent work Carol. We need more folks out there preaching the gospel of home brewing. I will attest to the fact that brewing a batch a beer that turns out well provides an unparalleled sense of joy and satisfaction. I am impressed by the amount of general information and great deal of detail that you were able provide in such a concise article. Slainte!

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Fred Tasker March 27, 2011 at 7:19 pm

Carol, this is very educational. When I had lunch at Tony’s dive in Lake Odessa, Mich., as a school kid, I always wondered what a malted milk was. So you’re saying it has actual malt in it? Sprouted, dried, finely ground wheat or barley? Not toasted, I presume? It really is a good flavor.
Keep up the great work.

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