Is This Beer Bad, Or Is It Just Me?

Many beers, many flavors.

Many beers, many flavors.

Happy New Year, everyone, and welcome to 2015! If all holds steady, we will continue to see a rise in craft beer varieties and venues this year. While that is excellent news, the expansion of craft beer also brings a bit more responsibility to the craft beer drinker.  Beer is food, and even though it has a relatively long shelf-life, it can go bad without the proper handling—and not all bars are created equal. With the exploration of craft beer brewers ever increasing, it is helpful to know the difference between a beer that has gone bad and one that simply doesn’t suit our tastes.

Common Beer Mishaps

 

Buttery flavors are not just for wizards.

Buttery flavors are not just for wizards.

Butter

When it’s bad:

A buttery or butterscotch flavor and slippery mouthfeel can be the result of beer contamination caused by dirty draft lines.

When it’s good:

Diacetyl, the compound that causes the buttery flavor, is also a natural by-product of yeast, and brewers will create beers to highlight that character. British and Scottish ales may have low diacetyl levels, as well as some brown ales.

Cardboard

When it’s bad:

Beer that has been stored for a long time at warm temperatures will oxidize, causing it to develop paper and cardboard flavors. All beer contains oxygen to some degree, but keeping the beer cold and still can help slow the process.

Lighter-colored beers suffer the most from oxidization, and will taste like paper or lipstick. The aroma may also become sweeter and honey-like. Darker beers will take on a sweet, sherry-like aroma as they oxidize. While this aroma may not be unpleasant, it not what the brewer intended. Oxidized dark beers also lose their malty character and become thin.

When it’s good:

Many aged beers, as well as dark Belgian Ales and Barleywines, will develop some level of oxidation, though the effect should be subtle.

Cooked Corn

Active fermentation will remove most buttery flavors.

Active fermentation will remove most vegetable flavors.

When it’s bad:

Dimethyl-sulfide (DMS) in beer will create the aroma and taste of cooked vegetables, most commonly corn. These off-notes can be a sign of contaminated draft lines.

When it’s good:

DMS is usually removed during vigorous fermentation. Since most lagers and cold-conditioned ales ferment more slowly, they can be expected to carry low levels of DMS, but it should never be present in any ale style.

Clinging bubbles are a sign of a dirty glass.

Clinging bubbles are a sign of a dirty glass.

Bubbles  

When it’s bad:

Bubbles cling to the inside of a glass when residue like chemicals or food has been left behind—a sure sign that the glass has not been cleaned properly. This is different than lacing, which leaves behind layers of foam as you drink the beer.

When it’s good:

Bubbles on the inside of a glass in liquid beer is never a good thing.

Be an Advocate!

When a beer leaves the brewery, it’s on its own, subject to the handling of people who may not know the best practices for storing and serving. As craft beer lovers, a bit of the responsibility of monitoring the handling of beer at our favorite bars falls on our shoulders—no brewery wants their beer to be served with off-notes they not intend, and most bars do not want to be serving contaminated beer. If you think your beer has gone bad enough to become undrinkable, send it back and politely explain the reason why, or ask if the flavors are as they were meant to be. (When my friend had his first Small Beer, he asked the bartender if it was supposed be so “challenging.”  It was.)

What problems have you found when ordering beer at a bar? How did you handle them? Let us know in the comments below.

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