Imagine the flavour of lemon.
It’s a common fruit, one we’re likely familiar with, but what is the lemon that you taste in your mind when I say to imagine that flavour? Is it the softly floral scent of a whole unwaxed lemon, or a slice of fresh lemon, or perhaps a glass of cloudy lemonade? Lemon is both a clear singular descriptor, and something which can be made more specific––more accurate, more evocative, perhaps––with qualifiers.
In beer, I could pour you a Pilsner, an IPA, a Witbier, a Tripel and a Gueuze and you could find a lemon flavour in all of them, but in each of those beers the character may differ from bitter lemon peel, to sweet candied lemon, to tart lemon juice.
Using the descriptor lemon is true to all of those beers, but there’s trueness and then there’s specificity, and getting more detailed with flavour language is one way to create greater meaning in the way we communicate about beer.
FINDING SPECIFIC FLAVOURS
Some flavours are immediately obvious to us when we drink a beer, while other times we’re left swirling our glass trying to figure out exactly what it is we’re tasting, teased by something that’s literally on the tip of our nose and tongue but not quite revealing itself. To help find those flavours, we can take a systematic approach.
Let’s say you smell something ‘fruity’ in your beer. First, we need to work out the family of fruit––citrus, tropical, stone fruit, melon, berry––then once we’ve got that, we can try to narrow it down to a particular fruit: it’s citrus, and it’s lemon.
The outer ring on the Beer Flavour Wheel gets you to that point, but we give personality and meaning to flavour language when we go one step further.
Is the fruitiness like fresh fruit or not? If it is fresh, then…
What part of the fruit is it: peel, skin, zest, flesh, juice?
What’s the condition of the fruit: underripe, ripe/fresh, overripe, dried, pickled/fermented? Is it sweet, bitter, sour?
If relevant, can you identify a particular variety of that fruit? (Meyer lemon, for example, or Kesar mango, Bramley apple)
If it’s not like fresh fruit, then…
Could it be a herb, spice or plant with a shared flavour as the fruit? (for example, lemon is similar to lemon verbena, sorrel, sumac, and more).
Is it a candied version of the fruit, or more familiar as a fruit flavouring (think lemon Fanta compared to homemade lemonade)?
Has the fruit been cooked? If so, is it stewed, grilled, roasted or smoked? Has it been sweetened and turned into marmalade, jam or curd?
Has the fruit been combined, processed or cooked with other ingredients or flavours? Think lemon cake, lemon meringue, lemon crème brûlée (these combined flavours are important and we’ll look at them separately).
And does it remind you of anything in particular which is personal to you? (Is it Grandma’s homemade lemonade, the smell of lemon cookies baking, a lemon candy you loved as a kid)
Refining down to a level of specificity works beyond fruit. Coffee could be freshly roasted coffee beans, a freshly pulled shot of espresso which could either be tartly fruity or rich and chocolatey, it could be bitter and earthy leftover coffee grounds, dull instant coffee, or into combined flavours like mocha, latte, coffee cake, coffee syrup or coffee candy.
These combined, or processed, flavours are coffee plus something else and a lot of flavours which we recognise in beer are foodstuffs which are made of multiple ingredients, with things like candies, sodas, and sweet baked goods common flavour references. But when we talk about a beer tasting like coffee cake or lemon meringue pie, is that evocative description more useful than objective, singular descriptions? The answer comes down to the audience.
SINGULAR VS COMBINED FLAVOURS
If we drink a Belgian Quadrupel and pick out the flavour of apple strudel, then that’s a pleasingly evocative descriptor, but does apple strudel work better than separating those flavours and saying cinnamon, raisin, brown sugar, baked apple and sweet pastry?
Part of my enjoyment of finding and understanding flavour comes from catching those unusual and evocative qualities. I love it when something unexpected comes out the glass. It’s like a passing smile from someone I haven’t seen in years, and that brief recognition is rewarding––it makes me realise that I can taste stuff in my beer, and that makes me personally engage more with the beer. But my taste of apple strudel could be someone else’s oatmeal cinnamon cookie or toasted teacake, or to others it could just be dried fruit and spice.
If we’re a brewer running sensory analysis on that Belgian Quadrupel, where subjective descriptions (like apple strudel) can be hard to define or judge in a meaningful way, then we might want to break down flavour into more singular and objective terms, like cinnamon, brown sugar and raisin. That can help to see specific qualities in beer, and learn when they are or are not present.
When the brewer has finished their tasting and heads to the taproom or to lead a brewery tour, they can use the evocative description to make the beer sound deliciously appealing. Writers and marketers might also want to use that same colourful language to create a sense of what the beer might give to the drinker, and whether the drinker might want to buy that or not. That’s ultimately the goal of beer language communication: to accurately describe a beer so that someone else can understand it, and most often that means giving the drinker the information they want to know whether they should buy it or not.
MAKING FLAVOUR MEAN SOMETHING
We can be flexible with how we use flavour language, from singular and simple to combined and evocative, but it’s important that the language is appropriate to the audience and that it’s accurate. This part is important.
We can be as evocative as we want, but if it’s inaccurate to the beer then the drinker may have a negative experience of it. If the brewer of the Belgian Quadrupel passes their beer around and talks about the refreshing lemonade flavour in it, then that’s not going to match the objective flavour experience of a strong, rich, dark ale. The best flavour language conveys a great and true description of a beer, which a wide range of people can understand.
When we look at the Beer Flavour Wheels, we see a base lexicon of beer flavour terms. It’s impossible––unrealistic, unhelpful––to put down every flavour we might find in beer, especially when we start considering combined flavours, which is why the outer wheel is a general list of (mostly) source-based flavours and we encourage the drinker to refine those flavours into something more specific and personal.
Flavour only means something to us when we understand it, experience it, or have a personal connection to it. Any flavour description which is accurate and also gives the drinker a true experience, is going to be a good one, whether we keep it general (a lemony Pilsner) or make it evocatively specific (like a lemon tart, fresh from the oven).
The Beer Flavour Wheels guide us towards flavours, but it’s up to us as the drinkers to find our own specific flavour descriptions.