Figuring Out Off Flavors

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It was once said by a very wise person that no one is ever wrong when they taste a beer. Everyone tastes beer differently. Someone’s flavor masterpiece is another person’s drain pour — that’s just the fact of genetics and sensory science.

There has been a general agreement amongst brewers over a class of flavors that indicate that something went wrong with the brewing process or fermentation, however — most beer people know them as off-flavors. Getting to know and recognize off-flavors is somewhat difficult for the average homebrewer without significant monetary resources, but it’s definitely not impossible. With some guidance, even the casual beer geek can set up an affordable off-flavors tasting panel with friends. Let’s talk about some sensory basics first before getting into the nitty-gritty of off-flavors.

Sensory Basics

There are some bigger breweries out there that can use expensive pieces of equipment to precisely measure attributes of off-flavors in their beer. However, most craft and homebreweries have to utilize the most precise, cheap, and fickle instrument of all — the human palate. It’s a fact that we humans can detect thousands of flavor and aromatic chemical compounds to such a degree that the fanciest gas chromatograph with mass spectrometry can’t hold a candle to our ability to detect off-flavors. The only thing that gets in our way is bias.

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