Reviews, Commentary and Opinions on Midwest Craft Beer and Microbreweries

September 8, 2008

Beer 201:

Beer, My Sweet

Explore what exactly makes a beer taste sweet in this first installment of an occasional series that will (hopefully) take your beer knowledge a step further: Beer 201.
by Eddie Glick

I like my beer like my women: pale, strong, full-bodied, and extremely bitter.
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“Boy, this wheat beer is sweet.” “The honey makes this brew really sweet.” “I don’t like dark beers—I like my beers sweeter.”

I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard those phrases, or something along those lines, before. Although every person’s perception is his or her own, those three observations are, depending on the beer the person is actually talking about, a little misinformed. Here in this premiere installment of Beer 201, I’m going to try to explain what exactly “sweet” means when it comes to beer, what makes a beer sweet, and why a lot of people think of a beer as sweet when it isn’t.

First off, what is “sweet” exactly? Different folks will experience the sensation of sweet quite differently. What may seem syrupy sweet to one person might seem only slightly sweet to another, or something that is semi-sweet to me might be slightly tart or bitter to you. It all depends on how our taste buds are built and what we’re used to. But scientifically speaking, the taste sensation of sweet is caused by certain chemicals, most of which are sugars. When beer dorks describe a beer as “sweet,” they usually mean “malty.” As you already know, virtually all beer is made from, at least in large part, malted barley. The brewer extracts sugars from the barley, which feed the yeast. The yeast convert the sugars into alcohol and carbon dioxide. Depending on how the brewer prepares the barley during the brewing process, varying percentages of the sugars are broken down into two broad categories: fermentable and non-fermentable. In the case of barley, a large proportion of these non-fermentable sugars are dextrins. Since these sugars aren’t fermentable—in other words, the yeast can’t eat them—they remain intact all the way through the brewing process, giving beer its (as beer dorks call it) malty sweetness. The best examples of maltiness can be found in darker beers like Great Lakes Blackout Stout, Bell’s Porter, Tyranena Shantytown Dopplebock, or The Poet from New Holland, and even in lighter brews like ambers, bocks, and a style you should be starting to see in stores right about now: Oktoberfest.

The brewer can also control this maltiness by adding hops, whose bitterness balances the malty sweetness. The less hops a beer has, the more pronounced the brew’s maltiness will be. So a beer with loads of unfermentable dextrins could, conceivably, taste not all that sweet if the maltiness is countered with a large dose of hops. For instance, a super-balanced IPA like Bell’s Two Hearted contains a healthy dose of malt—countered with an even bigger dose of hops, making it a hoppy yet still balanced beer. Likewise, brews like the aforementioned stouts and dopplebocks are supposed to feature a big malt profile, so the hop usage is restrained; just enough are added to make sure the end product isn’t too sweet.

And there are other ways a brewer can make a beer taste sweet. One of these ways is the addition of adjuncts to beer during the brewing process. Lactose, a sugar derived from milk, is, like dextrin, not edible to the yeast, and therefore not fermentable. You’ll almost always encounter lactose in sweet stouts (sometimes called milk or cream stouts), like Lake Louie Milk Stout or Bell’s Double Cream Stout.

Fruits contain some weird (from a brewing perspective, at least) sugars, some of which the yeast have trouble eating.
Another common brewer’s adjunct, especially during the summer, is fruit. Fruits contain some weird (from a brewing perspective, at least) sugars, some of which the yeast have trouble eating. This, of course, leads to a beer that can be pretty sweet, depending on tons of factors, such as the amount of fruit utilized, whether whole fruit (vs. juice) is used, and other pretty esoteric brewing methods (stuff like when the fruit is added during the brewing process, whether certain acidic compounds are added along with the fruit, technical stuff like that). Lighter brews like Mishawaka Raspberry Wheat feature some distinct fruitiness that still doesn’t overpower the rest of the brew, while a beer like Founders Rubœus practically knocks you in the skull with a powerful fruit assertiveness.

Other adjuncts, seemingly paradoxically, add little or no sweetness to the beer. In fact, many of them actually do the opposite and dry the beer out. Honey, a popular adjunct in wheat brews, does not, in fact, add sweetness to a beer. Once mixed with water, honey is extremely fermentable, and the yeast eat it almost in its entirety, creating lots of alcohol and leaving no residual sweetness behind. This creates a lighter, drier beer. Honey does, however, contain lots of complex, non-sugar byproducts that add a distinctive note to a brew. Try a South Shore Honey Pils, an America’s Brewing Company Honey Wheat, or, if you really concentrate, a Leinenkugel’s Honey Weiss, and you’ll notice a dry … something at the end of the sip. That’s the flavor honey can add to a brew.

(And, of course, there are exceptions to the rule. If you add enough honey to the fermenter, like, say, when making a very powerful braggot, eventually the yeast will eat so much and make so much alcohol that they’ll drown in their own waste. The honey that didn’t get eaten will still be plenty sweet in the end product.)

Simple sugars get eaten completely by the yeast, resulting in no additional flavors, but plenty of alcohol.
Belgian brewers love to add simple sugars like sucrose (otherwise known as table sugar, although they usually get theirs from beets instead of sugar cane like we do) to their otherwise complex concoctions. Simple sugars get eaten completely by the yeast, resulting in no additional flavors, but plenty of alcohol. This’ll lighten the beer significantly, allowing the creation of the amazing Belgian golden ales, those brews that hover around 10 percent alcohol but taste light and refreshing. You’ll find a few takes on these styles in the Midwest, like New Glarus Belgian Quadruple and Dragonmead Final Absolution.

(The same exception to the honey rule applies here: add enough sugar, the yeast gorge themselves to death, and the unfermented sugars stick around for us to taste. Just try Three Floyds Alpha Kong, a massively alcoholic, syrupy sweet Belgian-style beer.)

But it’s not just adjuncts that can make a beer seem sweet. Even hops, the bitter stuff, can make a beer seem sweeter than it is, even though hops add no sugars of any kind to the brewing process. Certain varieties of hops, like Cascade and Centennial, have a very citrusy aroma. Depending on how the hops are utilized by the brewer, a highly hopped beer can taste surprisingly fruity, like Bell’s Hopslam. This is really just an illusion, since the citrusy notes make a lot of us think of fruit, which a lot of us in turn think of as sweet.

That same illusion can be caused by certain strains of yeast. Those little invisible beasties create some amazingly convoluted compounds during the brewing process, some of which our brains interpret as sweet. The best example is a Bavarian style wheat beer, like Sprecher Hefe Weiss or Two Brothers Ebel’s Weiss. The banana notes these beers exhibit come exclusively from the yeast. A lot of people call this sweet, and it tastes sweet, but there isn’t any more sugar in there than in a comparable beer made with a different yeast strain.

Those are just some of the factors that can effect how sweet a beer tastes to us. As you can see, when it comes to beer, the otherwise simple notion of what “sweet” is can get pretty complex. I hope this first installment of Beer 201 helped you take your depth of beer knowledge another league further. The more we understand the brewing process, the better we can appreciate—and enjoy—well-crafted beer. And that, my fellow beer dorks, is pretty damn sweet.

Drinkin’ And Thinkin’

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