If you’ve followed along on every Tasting Tuesday, you’ve gone through all of the sniffs and took your very first sip of beer. That first real taste is used to compare the flavor of the beer to the aroma. Following that, there are two more specific sips I take every time I get down to seriously tasting: the “body sip,” and the “aftertaste sip.”
Today, we’re talking mouthfeel!
The Elements of Mouthfeel
Body is an important element of the mouthfeel of beer. It’s an expression of how heavy, light, sticky, or slick the beer feels on the palate. Although it’s not the same as carbonation it can be hard to separate the two so I take a special sip to focus on those aspects of the beer.
Carbonation is usually the first element of mouthfeel you’ll notice because all those bubbles get to dancing on your tongue and really make you FEEL something.
And though carbonation is always made of bubbles, the type and impact of those bubbles can be very different. First, think of the size of the bubbles and how they feel on your tongue, are they small tingling champagne like bubbles or big rough soda-pop like bubbles? Assess this difference as soon as the beer comes into your mouth because carbonation can dissipate quickly. For a good idea of the bubble spectrum you can try San Pellegrino, a very soft sparkling water, next to La Croix which has big rough carbonation.
In beer this difference in bubble size can be affected by the type of gases creating the carbonation. The more Nitrogen in a gas blend the tighter and smaller the bubbles will be, giving the beer an overall smoother impact. The more CO2 the bigger and chunkier the bubbles. This has to do with how quickly the gas leaves solution both as the beer is poured, and when it is in your mouth.
Nitrogen is less soluble in liquid solutions than CO2. The gas must be forced into solution using a restrictor plate (for draft beer) or a widget (for packaged beer). Once it is in solution nitrogen can only exist in tiny bubbles, because anything bigger would leave solution. These bubbles rise to the top of the beer (Nitrogen is lighter than CO2) and then tend to stay intact because most of the air surrounding them (aka the air in our atmosphere) is also made from nitrogen. It’s these teeny tiny bubbles and the fact that the rest of the beer is mostly devoid of gas that gives nitro beers their signature silky mouthfeel.
Speaking of silky, next let’s get into body. The body of a beer is separate from the carbonation though it can be hard to distinguish. The body has to do with how thin, slick, thick, or chewy a beer feels in your mouth, does it feel more like water? or more like melted ice cream?
Exercises for Studying Body and Mouthfeel
A good experiment to practice assessing body is to get skim milk, whole milk, and heavy cream and taste them (or really feel them!) side by side. All of the milks are made from the same ingredients and have generally the same flavor but they have increasing levels of heaviness and density due to the fat content. In beer, it’s not fat that is building the body but instead proteins and dextrins from the ingredients the brewer chooses to use in the beer. A brewer can increase levels of protein by adding adjuncts like flaked wheat or flaked oats, they can increase dextrins from ingredients like dextrin malt or unfermentable sugars like lactose. However, if lighter body is the goal a brewer can thin the body of a beer by adding pure sugar to the mash or the fermenter. It will ferment into pure alcohol leaving behind no protein, dextrins…or anything else.
To perform the perfect “body sip” you need to lose some carbonation in your mouth. Follow these steps: take a sip, immediately assess the carbonation. Then, hold the beer in your mouth for a few seconds as the gas comes out of solution (this is the beer becoming flat). Finally, swish the beer around your mouth and assess the body before swallowing.
If you’re into breaking down beer flavor check out my 40-page e-book that explores the most common flavor active compounds in beer.
A note: I sometimes see “creaminess” as a separate element from body and carbonation but unless you’re studying for a specific test (cough itscicerone cough) I don’t think it’s helpful to think of it as its own category. Nitrogen gas can increase creaminess as can having more protein left over from adjuncts like wheat and oats. Sometimes flavors can increase the perception of creaminess, like vanilla which we are used to experiencing in creamy desserts.