Are you familiar with the term ‘Sommelier’? It’s a well-educated and trained wine professional and the road to achieving such an esteemed title is long and arduous. A similar program has been created for craft beer, called a Cicerone. There are three levels of certification in the program, I possess the first being a ‘Certified Beer Server’. The second, which I’ve recently started preparing for, is a ‘Certified Cicerone’, and the third being a ‘Master Cicerone’ – of which only a handful exist.
I have decided to begin my journey towards taking the next exam –containing a written text, essay section, and tasting demonstration – there is a 19 page syllabus, filled with some things I’m confident in and some things I’m not, once of which being “off-flavors”. So I decided to attend the Off-Flavor Tutored Tasting held at the Cicerone Certification Headquarters in Chicago. I was very excited to travel into the city, with a fellow co-worker of mine, and visit this place I’ve read about for some time now.
There we learned how to identify the most common “off flavors” in a beer and ways to detect by smell, taste, and/or observation that a product is not worthy of consumption. There are several ways a beer can go bad, from bacteria to yeast problems to just being old; and it can be a very overwhelming subject matter to approach. See, brewing beer is a series of biological and chemical reactions, each necessarily required to follow a meticulous series of timed chronological events that, if go awry along the way, will indeed produce an inferior brew. Chemistry was always one of my worst subjects in school; I got away with the credits in college by taking astronomy classes.
This is why, the day before I went I spent five hours studying the entire section of “off-flavors” on the syllabus provided by the Cicerone Program. I read about the life cycle of yeast, oxidation, Hydrogen Sulfide, Phenols, Esters, and Acids, oh my! I didn’t know what level of knowledge would be required to confidently visit the Cicerone Headquarters for the first time, so I had to be ready!
Upon arrival, and in seeing the seven-page PowerPoint Presentation, it dawned on me that five hours might have been a bit of overkill. I mean, the first three slides were about how to taste beer. The teacher was a great guy, though, and he held my attention the entire hour of the class. He was very knowledgeable and had a nice wit about him, he was approachable with questions and wasn’t intimidating or snobby in any way.
The classroom assistants handed out beers we were to try, first the control, which contained about four ounces of Amstel Light and then, as we went through the lecture, six other tainted test samples were distributed. We discussed basic tasting techniques and the difference between taste (what your tongue does) and flavor (taste with aroma), and then our instructor guided us through four ways to “smell”:
- Distant sniff – hold beer under your nose about 6 inches
- Short sniff – right under your nose
- Long sniff – right under your nose for a long time
- Covered sniff – place your hand over the glass, swirl the it a few times, then smell
I found this to be insightful, especially the covered sniff, each technique produced a different experience. So we were swirling and smelling our samples and then tasting, always twice, if you could stomach it. The six off-flavors we explored, followed by their most common description:
- DMS (Dimethyl Sulfide) – creamed corn
- Diaceytl – Buttery
- Acetaldehyde – Green Apple
- Trans-2-Nonenal (T2N) – Cardboard
- Lightstruck – Skunk
- Infection, specifically with draft lines – Butter + Vinegar
I use the term “most common” because everyone experiences taste and smells and flavors a different way; everyone’s pallet is valid and true and has different strengths and weaknesses. Some people may detect Acetaldehyde as a “green apple” presence, while others may describe it as “cut grass” or “rotten pumpkin”. The point that the Cicerone instructor made was that its important for you to identify how you react to these flavors in beer and connect them with commonly-used tasting terms.
While I may have been a bit over prepared for the lesson I received and the beer we drank was all gross, I took away a few things and, overall, enjoyed myself. One can easily produce their own, in-home off-flavors class with items you can get at the grocery store, but I’m glad I had a professional guide me through how to taste and what to expect. I also liked how the information was organized, it broke down off-flavors into two different categories, based on their origin:
- Brewing/Fermentation Flaws, i.e. production
- Handling/Serving Flaws, i.e. distribution or retail
This has already helped me in approaching and organizing all of the chemical and biological information associated with off-flavors in beer and I know will aid me in my journey towards becoming a Certified Cicerone. For more information on the program, go here. For more detailed information on off-flavors, Draft magazine has a great article here.