It’s T-T-T-Tasting Tuesday!! Today we’re dissecting the aromas we spent so much time carefully sniffing.
One thing that makes beer so enjoyable is the endless flavor combinations that are created by hops, malt, and yeast….plus all that other stuff brewers throw into beers (oysters anyone….?). Because of this combination of ingredients you’re never smelling just one thing, or one ingredient, when you take a whiff of beer. To make sense of what can be a really complex blend of aromas I follow in the steps of perfumers.
When creating a scent fragrance experts think in terms of three types of scent: top notes, base notes, and heart notes. They combine them to create a perfect blend. In perfume the categories have to do with how long the individual smells last but when it comes to beer I like to think of them as layers: Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary.
The primary note is the first thing that jumps out of the glass, the descriptor the whole aroma is built around. My example in the video was the spice of coriander, but other primary notes could be “roast” or “dank.” What they will not be is an ingredient, words like “hoppy” or “crystal malt” don’t really describe aroma.
Secondary notes are the scents you pick up after your initial sniff. They are present and important to the overall aroma but perhaps not the thing first registers in your mind. When I think secondary aroma, I think of the word “backbone.” I often hear the phrase in IPAs especially double IPAs: lots of tropical hops with a bready malt backbone. The bready-notes are essential to the aroma, but they are playing more of a background role.
Tertiary notes are definitely present but they aren’t at the core of the aroma. Sometimes they are off flavors like egg (H2S), sometimes they are more pleasant like “freshness” (cis-3-hexonol) or “tropical” (maybe ethyl butyrate) but these might dissipate quickly.
Aromas and Blind Tasting
Categorizing aroma notes this way is especially helpful when blind tasting. Once you’re sure of what is there it is easy to start narrowing down possibilities. Is the primary aroma of banana or clove? No. Then it’s probably not a German Weissbier.
Remember to work backward and sniff your sample to determine was is not there, it’s a more reliable way to double check what you’re sensing. It’s amazing what our brains will make up when we’re trying to make an aroma fit a style!