Dr. Morten Christian Meilgaard (1928-2009), was a Denmark born research chemist specialized in yeasts. He worked in America in the 1970s for Stroh brewery in Detroit, later bought by Miller until he retired in 1999. He is considered as the most prominent pioneer in SENSORY EVALUATION SCIENCE, and developed the complete beer tasting identification and description system, universally used in the field. So, what’s the beer flavor wheel and why is this interesting?
Download the full beer flavor wheel
The flavor wheel is a chart that classifies all the tasting components, not only FLAVORS, but also AROMAS and MOUTHFEEL, “good” and “bad” and everything in between. Some terms are a bit geeky – this article is explaining the most obscure ones.
Beer appreciation, by all means should always remain a FUN EXERCISE, and you will benefit from LEARNING HOW TO TASTE BEER LIKE A PROFESSIONAL: This will take you to an enhanced level of ENJOYMENT and a finer sense of appreciation. This will give you a more intimate KNOWLEDGE of the technical characteristics of beer, making you ultimately more confident and discerning about making your own quality brew.
So here are a few considerations on tasting beer like a passionate home brewer, before commenting on how to use the flavor wheel itself.
Setting the right conditions for the tasting
USE THE PROPER GLASS. The more complexity and richness you have, the more you need a tulip shape glass, preferably with a stem. More simple beers are perfectly enjoyable in a classic pint type glass. Also question of personal preference, after all. Needless to say, drinking from the bottle makes it very hard for the beer to express itself. Head retention is part of the tasting experience too.
SERVING TEMPERATURE. As a rule of thumb, most beers should be served between 40°F and 55°F. Lagers colder than ales. Please do not freeze your fine beer, it will block all the aromas and flavors.
TAKE THE TIME TO GO THROUGH THE BASIC TASTING STEPS.
Judging the APPEARANCE of the beer. Evaluate the clarity (brilliant to cloudy), the color (straw to black), and the head retention (pour to persistent).
Appreciating the AROMAS. Give the beer a bit of time to open up in the glass, gently swirl if needed. Try to assess the intensity, the balance, the precision (definition), the overall impression (quality, pleasure, or on the contrary flaws, off)
Appreciating the FLAVORS. Try to keep the beer on the palate for a few seconds. Determine if the flavors are consistent with the aromas observed previously. Do you recognize any familiar flavors – spice/ floral/ fruit/
Analyzing the MOUTHFEEL. Perceived all around your mouth, it reveals the body of the beer (light to full-bodied), the intensity, the freshness, the quality, the balance bitterness/ sweetness/ acidity/ alcohol, the finesse of the carbonation.
Noticing the FINISH. Is it lingering, complex, pleasant? Is it clean, dry, refreshing or leaves you with a sensation of heaviness – above all does it make you feel like having another sip?
OVERALL IMPRESSION. Is it a style you like, is it harmonious and give you a sense a quality – will you drink another one? As a home brewer, ask yourself what you would like to make differently if you had to replicate this style of beer.
The off-flavors and aromas
Most of those scientific terms pertain to flaws and off flavors. I am listing them with their “translation” here, by section on the wheel, identifiable in the different shades of green and blue on the chart. Those undesirable characteristics are the by-products of something gone wrong at some stage of the brewing process or storage.
When I taste beer, or wine or anything else … I always look for the flaws first. Hopefully nothing is too obvious or aggressive in that regard. In the beer flavor wheel, since it was designed by a chemist, we find lots of chemical definitions and descriptions we may not be familiar with.
PHENOLIC – “medicinal”
Bakelite – before plastic was invented, some kind of burnt and camphor-like characteristic
Chlorophenol – vinyl, medicinal iodine
Isodoform – band-aid, duct-tape
Caprylic – rancid
Isovaleric – sweaty, cheesy
Butryric – rancid butter
Diacetyl – butter flavor popcorn
Hydrogen Sulfide – overcooked egg
Autolysed – sulfur, burnt match
Dimethyl Sulfide – overcooked vegetable, cabbage
STALE – “anywhere between cardboard to mold”
The pleasant flavors and aromas
These desirable characteristics make up about two-thirds of the wheel, and range between the darker shades of green to the shades of purple. Excluding the red portions, which are relative to the mouthfeel and body of the beer (texture and intensity as opposed to all the flavors and aromas described on the rest of the wheel.
ESTERY – “floral and fruity aromas”. These are of course, desirable characteristics.
Geraniol – waxy, sweet rose
Phenylethanol – fresh, green, white flower
Acetaldehyde – green apple
Ethyl hexanoate – citrus
Ethyl Acetate – deeply fruity, yellow stone fruit, with a brandy note
Isoamyl Acetate – fruity, banana-like, exotic fruit
Aromas, right off the estery spectrum are too intense and aggressive, they will then become not so pleasant and be closer to artificial and plastic aromas, as identified by Morten Christian Meilgaard.
Some aromas and flavors are borderline and subjective
In the ACIDIC section of the wheel, you will find Sour and Acetic (Vinegar) – these could be identified as flaws. However, in certain beers, sour beers, such as the famous Belgian Gueuse and Lambic, these are desirable characteristics.
At the opposite of the spectrum, in the MAILLARD (caramelized, smoky) range of aromas and flavors, of course “burnt” or roasted is the characteristic quality of a Stout or Porter.
Training your palate
So, what’s the beer flavor wheel? Just a tool, a brilliant symbol to remember when tasting beer. Not words to memorize literally, rather a classification of WHAT TYPES OF AROMAS AND FLAVORS LOOK FOR.
LEARN TO RECOGNIZE: flaws, unintended characteristics, and on the contrary, ENJOY the qualities, the balance, style and finesse every time you taste beer. Ultimately, you want to come up with your own terms, descriptors and assessment. I hope this post has helped you to clarify some obscure scientific words used in the beer flavor wheel, and I hope you will HAVE FUN while training your palate.
Please leave a question or comment, or share some tasting experience.
Cheers, and to our health,