Sensory School: All Hail Aroma

We’re all familiar with what it’s like to eat something when you have a stuffy nose — you can’t really get much flavor out of anything, and the joy is pretty much taken out of any meal. Likewise, when you’re diving into a decadent meal at a fancypants restaurant and someone walks by doused in bad cologne, your appetizer suddenly seems to take on notes of locker room.

This is because the full flavor of what we consume is a combination of taste (what we sense in our mouth) and aroma (what we detect with our nose). If you’ve never tried eating with your nose plugged, take a minute, step away from the computer, pour yourself a flavorful craft beer, and try doing it.

To appreciate and understand the importance of aroma in your sensory experience of beer, we’ve placed four “homework” items throughout this post that will help you appreciate the ingredients, presentation, and descriptors for all things beer aroma.

Remember, the human tongue can only detect a set of tastes: sweet, salty, bitter, sour and the recently super hip sensation of umami. The rest of the flavor experience is thanks to aroma! We’ve found infographic-wheels-a-plenty to illustrate the many ways to describe aroma, but to understand how it hits your face and brain, check out the diagram below and this great animation that explains it.

(click for larger image)

What’s the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about the aroma of beer? Hopefully not a musty frat house. Maltiness? Booziness? For lots of us, we immediately think of hops. These precious little green cones pack a good deal of flavor into certain styles of beers. HopUnion has an interactive hop aroma wheel featuring a huge list of hop varieties that fit a particular descriptor.

(click to use wheel)

But hops are just a tip of the icebeerg. Another basic ingredient that boasts delicious aroma is malt. For example, there are tons of English and German beers styles that are literally defined by having a big malty nose. As we learned in our appearance blog, the aroma of certain beer styles is so important in some brewing traditions that special means of pouring a beer are part of the drinking culture. The presentation of many of these beers actually requires purposely pouring a larger head so that the full aroma, and therefore the full flavor, of a beer can be enjoyed.

Yeast can’t be overlooked by any means. These little living buggers can alter the flavor of the same exact combination of water, malt, and hops. Remember the Weissebier pour? One final step of it involves rolling the bottle to remove residual yeast left behind after pouring, then dumping it back into the beer. Without this characteristic yeast, a number of German wheat beers just aren’t what they are supposed to be. Those delicious-sounding farmy smells (Mmmmm, horse blanket) that you’ve probably heard people spout about are thanks to yeasts and bacteria. Put down the mouse and take a trip to the White Labs Tasting Room in San Diego right now and smell some flights of beers made with different yeast strains. It’s fascinating stuff!

We also learned how glassware is important for presentation, but there is soooooo much function behind the form! A beer tastes much better when poured into proper glassware because you can actually allow a proper head to form on the beer, letting you to access the aromas that would otherwise be locked into the beer. We’ve all seen this kind of thing happen when a couple beer geeks (or ourselves) sit down to taste a craft beer …

… but it really is done with good reason. During the Beer Bloggers Conference last summer, Jim Koch poured us a sample of his Utopia series while he explained his barrel program a bit. He passed around one vessel that was filled to the top with the beer, then one that was filled only an inch or so, then asked everyone to only smell them and compare the two.

One was blooming with layers upon layers of different odors of woods, sugars, malts, tobacco, earth, liqueurs, and dark fruits. The other smelled mostly like a little boozy heat. What seemed like two, entirely different beers, was actually one. His point was that the proper vessel and pour size can completely change your experience, simply because you are allowing yourself to access the full aroma. Now you have another must-try experiment to add to your homework.

As we discussed in our first sensory blog, knowing the words to describe all those beautiful aromas will help you grow your love (and enjoyment) of craft beer. There are lots of sensory wheels out there to describe flavor, but we found this one that’s specific to aroma to be pretty helpful.

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If you want to go back to school and get real nerdy, you might also like the Brettanomyces aroma wheel from UC Davis almost as much as we enjoyed reading that entire Reddit thread. Mmmm, pencil shavings, white glue, boiled cabbage, and sewer gas. Make an opportunity to open and share some of your Bretted beers while using their wheel and see which unusual aromas you can add to your beer vocabulary.

Some more links you might enjoy on aroma:

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