Brewing with the Aurochs: What's That Smell: Aroma and Beer

At Aurochs each batch of our naturally gluten-free beer is unique. Special care is taken to properly taste and document subtle flavor differences after each batch so that we can refine our beer and our brewing processes. Although senses vary by individual, it is estimated that smell accounts for 75% of flavor. As you may recall from our previous post, flavor actually consists of two senses: taste and aroma. For a quick refresher on taste–the human tongue can detect five distinct tastes: sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami. Well…that’s pretty good, but your olfactory system (i.e. sense of smell) is not impressed.

The human olfactory system can literally detect hundreds of distinct smells, which clearly means that our sense of smell is pretty important. In fact, it’s so important that the neurons of the olfactory system are the only human sense that connects directly to the forebrain. So how does the sense of smell play into the flavor of beer? Take a minute and think about the flavors you associate your favorite beers:  floral, bready and hoppy for an IPA;  chocolately, coffee-like or roasty for a stout;  or cloves and bananas for a hefeweizen. Not one of those flavors can be described simply “sweet, salty, sour, bitter or umami”. That’s because the aroma complements those tastes to create the flavors we love.

Since aroma is a key part of the flavor of your beer, let’s learn how to really unlock and enjoy the beer aromas. Proper beer tasting protocol, if you want to impress your friends (or look like a snob next time you visit your local bar), calls for swishing your beer around in your glass to release the aroma, then holding the glass up to your nose (really get it in there) and sniffing before ever taking a sip. You should inhale a few times, in quick sniffs, through your nose.  Then open your mouth and do the same (your nose and mouth are connected).

Choosing the proper glassware can also help to enhance the aroma of your beer. Glasses with a top that tapers inward, like a snifter or weizen glass, are better for trapping the aroma of the beer within your glass. The standard U.S. pint glass is actually one of the worst, because it tapers outwards, which is bad for head retention and lets the aromas escape.

Some aromas are fleeting, especially those based on sulfur, so begin smelling within the first few moments after the pour. Aromas are dynamic through time. Smell periodically. After the each trial, reset your receptors by smelling the back of your hand or a contrast like coffee beans. Look for hop aromas. Adjectives to describe hop aromas include herbal, pine, floral, resin and spice. As brewers, we pay special attention for odors that are attributed to defects in the beer. If you are a homebrewer, a complete list of possible defective odors and their causes are listed here.

So, next time you’re enjoying one of your favorite brews, pay special attention to the aroma. Try holding your nose and taking a sip–it’ll taste pretty bland. Now try swishing the beer around in your glass and really smelling it, as we talked about above. You’ll notice a huge difference.  Paying attention to the subtle aromas in your beer will really help you to appreciate the complexity of the flavors and enjoy it even more (if that’s possible).

What are some of your favorite beer flavors? How many of those are actually aromas? Let us know by posting a comment below!