I love the flavour of beer, and a big part of my job to describe it, where I always want to be as accurate as possible, but also make it as relevant as possible to the audience. The trouble is that it can be difficult to find the right words and the best descriptors, or to even understand where certain qualities are coming from in your beer. So I challenged myself to develop the best flavour language wheel that I could.
I’D DONE THIS BEFORE…
In 2012, while becoming more and more interested in beer, I searched for resources to help me try and improve my flavour language, but there wasn’t much around, and I thought the original beer flavour wheel developed in the 1970s was too technical and too focused on finding faults in mainstream lagers. I wanted something which looked to find the great flavours in the great variety of beers I was drinking.
So I decided to try and design myself a new beer flavour wheel. I spent weeks working on it, trying to find all the right terms and laying them out in a coherent way. It turned out pretty well but beyond it going in a book, I never did anything more with. Then in 2020, I looked
back over it again and I thought: I can make that better.
In the intervening years since drawing the first wheel, the beers we drink and the language we use has evolved a lot. New styles, new ingredients, different processes, new slang and lingo, and more social media have all changed the way we communicate about beer (for example: a DDH IPA with juicy guava, vanilla and creamy coconut aromas). It was time to design some new wheels. A BLANK PAGE The new wheels started with a blank page. I thought that this had to be something new, not just a reworking of the old wheel. That page became pages, which were soon sprawling, scribbled list of flavour terms, of herbs, spices and plants, of all the fruits I could find, all the baked flavours I could imagine in a beer, all the conditions or qualities I could think of (ripeness, the part of the fruit, the depth of any cooked flavours). I read many beer books and books about flavour, countless online reviews, I learnt more brewing science to find out what flavours could come from different processes and ingredients. I checked all the existing flavour material from across the beer industry and into wine, whisky and coffee. I spoke with beer educators and experts around the world to try and understand other cultures and palates. And I really focused on improving my own beer tasting notes while also smelling and eating as many different things as I could. That information gathering resulted in a master list of flavours, but it was a jumbled mess with hundreds of words, and it needed some form.
I used spreadsheets to narrow down the terms and collect them together in what I thought were the most logical ways based on flavour categories and their origins, whether ingredients, process or maturation, or a negative character (i.e. Hop–Citrus, Malt–Roasted, Fermentation–Esters). Choosing the most common universal terms which brewers use and drinkers understand was balanced against a need to be thorough and accurate for a global audience, while also concise, which meant cutting a lot of harder-to-distinguish terms or flavours which are more specific to certain cultures (like different tropical fruits for South America or South East Asia––localised beer flavour wheels can come next, while more specific terms are down to the individual to develop for themselves––read more about that here). The spreadsheets changed daily, terms moving from one place to the next, being replaced and then replaced again. After a few months, I had the basis of six wheels and now I needed help. First I worked with Andrew Henderson who designed the wheels and put together an initial version of the Beer Flavour Wheel and Hop Wheel (which went in a couple of books––Beer & Veg and The New Craft Beer World), before redoing them all and creating newer ones. I contacted Yakima Chief Hops, Crisp Malt and Lallemand Brewing Yeast to make sure all the terms were accurate and relevant. I sent versions to friends and beer experts for feedback.
The designs changed constantly (see images above for some draft developments). It was only when they were created that I could properly visualise their flow, which led to many iterations and updates, shifting sections around, adding and removing terms, changing colours. Eventually they all came together, though even the day before sending them to print I was tweaking terms. THE SIX NEW BEER FLAVOUR WHEELS The complete set of six wheels includes a lexicon each for Hops, Malt and Fermentation & Maturation, a wheel for Hop varieties and Malt varieties, and a general Beer Flavour Wheel which also includes terms for drinking assessment. The wheels are designed to be flavour resources which work across all the beer industry, from the curious drinker at home, to bar staff looking to improve how they communicate to customers, and to the head of a brewery’s sensory panel. While the ingredient variety wheels also help understand what different varieties can give to beer and can be a tool for brewers looking to work out what hop or grain to use in a recipe.
What started out years ago as a tool to help my own flavour language has become something which I hope can help many more people talk, think and write about beer. By using a shared language we can help to make sure that we’re communicating about beer in the best possible way, ultimately helping everyone choose the beer they most want to drink.