Struggling to finish three articles this week, one of which is about beer defects, I figured I’d make that the topic for my seventh Top 10 list. To me, the curious thing about defects and identifying them for judging purposes is that everyone’s palates are different to some degree. Each person’s tolerances for different flavors and aromas vary wildly, making consensus very difficult, in some cases impossible. For example, I have a very high tolerance for diacetyl. For me to get that butterscotch or buttery character it has to be very concentrated. Other people I taste with regularly are very sensitive to it, making for lively discussions whenever a beer has marked levels of diacetyl. For that matter, some people really like the buttery character of diacetyl so for them it’s not a defect at all, but a desirable quality. Certainly, it worked for Redhook ESB. And of course, there are a few styles for which low levels are acceptable and even desirable. So who’s to say at what level it’s good or bad. While there are standards that have been agreed upon somewhat, the reality is that they can only be a guideline because of the variation in people’s personal palates. So while one might be tempted to believe that all defects are equal, in my experience that’s simply not true at all. Anyway, here’s List #7:
Top 10 Least Favorite Defects
|Vanilla I don’t dislike vanilla per se, just when it’s overdone. That’s a fine line to be sure, but I’m pretty sensitive to vanilla so even a little goes a long way for me. Many barrel aged beers take on that vanillan character and often times it’s too much as far as I’m concerned. The vanilla only works when it’s subtle and restrained.|
|Catty People who I taste with regularly can usually predict my reaction to certain beers, so averse is my initial reaction to beers with cattiness — which I generally refer to as cat piss. I can appreciate the character in well-hopped beer, but it only works for me if the balance is there. Often, this is less a defect and more the choice of a particular hop or hops that imparts this character. Too much cat, and I scat.|
|Cardboard Ugh, wet cardboard or paper, whether from age or oxidation, is hard to swallow. I can’t stand the smell when it’s actually wet paper, much less when it’s in my beer.|
|Plastic I’m pretty tolerant here, so a beer has to be very phenolic for me to pick up on it, so by the time I do, it’s probably bad. Here, I’m referring to the phenolics that comes from the water used which gives it a very plastic, artificial taste.|
|Vinegar I know people like vinegar on their fish and chips, but I’m not one of those people. I don’t like vinegar in anything. I don’t even like pickles to be even touching my food, that’s how much I hate vinegar. Of course, I had a traumatic incident in kindergarten involving a pickle, so my bias is probably not normal. Don’t ask me for the details if you’re planning on eating within an hour of hearing the story. It’s sort of like swimming after a meal.|
|Cabbage I can’t stand eating cabbage, so I’m no fan of it in my beer, either. Plus, the idea of the bacteria contamination that usually causes Dimethylsulfide (or DMS) makes me queasy just thinking about it.|
|Medicinal The band-aid or diaper aromas and flavor, the Chlorophenols of the phenolics family, aren’t always bad, but when they are too strong, boy they’re hard to overlook. It’s their artificial quality that I just can’t abide.|
|Solvent This can also be described as acetone or laquer thinner, and makes me queasy just thinking about that smell, let alone when faced with it. Finding this strongly in the nose makes it hard to even take a sip of it. I once accidentally swallowed a small amount of gasoline when I was in my early teens — which I don’t recommend. That’s what a beer that’s overly solventlike reminds me of; yuck.|
|Sulfur Who likes the smell of rotten eggs? Anyone? Bueller, Bueller? A sign of a serious problem of contamination, this is one of those pour-it-down-the-drain beers that usually leaves me wondering how it made it into the bottle in the first place.|
|Skunky While arguably not as bad as some of the more process defects, lightstruck makes the top spot for me because it’s a problem that’s so easily fixed. All it would take to remove this problem is to use a can or a brown bottle, but marketing concerns are more important for those companies that continue to use clear and green glass. You just have to shake your head at the idiocy.|
You already know why diacetyl didn’t make my list. What makes yours?
Also, if you have any ideas for future Top 10 lists you’d like to see, drop me a line.
I agree with most of your entries. I can’t order my list from 1 – 10, but I’ll split it into big deal/not a big deal.
Not a big deal:
Cardboard/oxidized (when it’s bad-testing, not sherry-like, oxidation)
Catty (when it’s bad cat piss – some cat piss flavors can be good)
Creamed corn/Cabbage – always disgusting
Solvent – hangover beer
Hot alcohol / fusels – may fit into solvent, but I think solvent flavors can be caused by infection, whereas fusels come from mistreating the yeast.
Super sharp grapefruit flavors – not the typical Cascade flavors, but some sort of interaction between yeast and hops (I think). I had a pint of Le Freak that had that problem, and that I couldn’t finish. I also brewed a double IPA and an IPA with the same problem. I know some people love it, though.
Diacetyl – when it’s not wanted. I love Fullers ESB, though, and that’s got some diacetyl.
Unbalanced hops – Pliny the Elder is a delicious hop bomb, don’t get me wrong. But some uber-hopped beers are just painful, and seem more about the manliness of drinking such unpalatable beer, rather than the variety and beauty of the hops. I don’t think that falls under catty, since that’s a specific set of hop types.
John E Fresh says
“Catty (when it’s bad cat piss – some cat piss flavors can be good)”
That is classic man!!! Made my day!
Here is a vote for diacetal. Once a brewer from an East bay establishment approached me and blatantly criticized one of my favorite brewpubs in San Francisco. Too bad that I totally disagreed with him.
Acetaldhyde is the one I can’t stand. Excessive pumpkin seed aroma and flavor (some call it green apple seed)ruins a beer for me.
Don’t much like soy sauce flavor in oxidized dark beers either.
I can handle D in small doses, but if it’s a serious brewing technical defect, then I’ll send the beer back. But in a Fullers ESB, no problem!
Graininess/oxidation I like in bigger beers when it blends in with other flavors and softens the alcohol.
Nathan Smith says
Forgetting for a moment about the ones don’t belong at all…
– Sharp, harsh, phenolics from wild yeast. Not the nice spicy ones you might get from WLP550. Or, phenolics at all in a style that doesn’t call for them. Smoky phenolics almost always.
– Diesel fuel/burnt electric wire quality of aggressively hopped beers from hops with a high myrcene content (such as Amarillo). This one plays badly with even moderate ester character. Imagine drinking a beer & huffing diesel exhaust from 880/101,etc.
– Detectable levels of Diacetyl and an aggressive American citrus hop character. The flavors can clash very quickly. This problem becomes even more amplified if there are already significant quantities of big crystal malt present: butterscotch. Low to moderate levels of diacetyl in a nice low hopped Scotttish style Ale or a low hopped stout can add some nice flavor and mouthfeel though.
– Young brett/lacto/pedio beer: Enteric, smoky, cigar-like flavors destroys anything else that might be going on.
Stephen Beaumont says
Call me Bueller, Jay, but sometimes a little sulfur can be a wonderful thing. Drinking cask Bass or Pedigree in Burton-on-Trent — back when the former was still brewed there — was an experience in sulfur appreciation. Even when it’s fresh in the bottle, Pedigree can have a most enjoyable and appetizing note of “lit match.”
Marie D says
I second Mitch on the “soy sauce” comment. For whatever reason I feel that particular flavor has been popping up more and more, and it does not appeal to me.
Bueller, no worries. You’re right – in small amounts in can work well. The smell produced by a lit match can be quite pleasant I’ve found, an egg gone bad, not so much.
Lew Bryson says
You got a high D threshold too? Wonder if we really DO have a high threshold, or it’s just that everybody else is too damned whiney about it…
michael Reinhardt says
I agree that many of these are terrible defects. It is ironic that in Lager making that some brewers hate sulphur or skunk and others essentially require it to be above a certain threshold. It certainly can be a sign of bacterial contamination but not exclusively. I know I was a little concerned when I brewed a Lager and I could smell Sulphur (Lager yeasts being notorious for producing sulphur compounds) through the airlock. It subsided after the yeast cleaned it back up. So, the sulphur could be a sign of a lack of maturation. And you can’t discount that some people are aiming for that, but I’ve never seen it simply as iron clad proof that bacterial contamination has occurred. Of course, these thought are not simple my own. Bamforth expatiates on this in his book “Tapping into the Science and Art of Hombrewing.” I guess, everything in its right place. If I get a beer that isn’t a lager that has these qualities I’m sending or taking it back. With Lagers I’m a little more understanding. After all, the brewer might be going for a little sulphur. I drank Sierra Nevada Pale Ale not too long ago and it had skunked. I didn’t exactly hate it but it was certainly out of place. I agree about the quick remedy being to put beer in brown bottles to avoid light striking. Those same breweries can use inhibitors to resist light striking.
I can say that I really hate when fruit is added to beer. I’m not talking a Lambic or a something that was put in there during wort cooking or fermenting. I’m thinking specifically of beers that add fruit juice after fermentation has completed. Examples that I’m talking about include Leinenkugel’s Berry Weisse and Blue Dog. They are way out of balance and cloying. Along the same lines, I wrote an article about putting Citrus in beers (especially wheat beer). Absolutely hate it when people do this De Facto.
I used to hate sulfur. Then a local brewpub started making lagers that were sulfury when fresh. At first, I’d go in, and the brewer would say “Spencer, you want to wait a couple of weeks before trying the Pilsner” (or whatever beer was freshly brewed.) But, eventually I came to appreciate it, and now find a hint of sulfur (burnt match or SO2, not rotten egg, which is H2S) adds interest to the beer’s aroma.
My bugaboo is acetaldehyde. I’ll send back a beer with high acetaldehyde, and will suffer through one that is otherwise good if it has low, but detectable acetaldehyde. I just can’t stand the stuff.