Beer Sensations: What's in Your Beer, Beyond Flavor?

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Are you constantly on the hunt for the holy grail of beers? There is nothing like the euphoria of tasting an absolutely fabulous brew. But have you paused to think about the exciting sensations that beer offers . . . beyond flavor? When beer's non-flavor sensations - astringency, body, carbonation, finish and temperature - are out of whack, the beer lacks balance and can even be undrinkable. A brewmaster designs, brews, ferments, and packages a beer with a vision of how sensations figure into the overall experience of the beer drinker. The next time you are evaluating a beer, think about how these physical sensations contribute to your total tasting experience.

Astringency is that dry, puckering mouthfeel that you get from beer, and it's caused by tannins. Astringency results from the phenolics in beer. Tannins are mostly extracted from the husks of grains and from other ingredients such as hops and adjuncts. If you make a beer that gives you that mouth-puckering feeling and a grainy flavor that is evocative of husks, the most likely problem is that you have over-sparged in an effort to squeeze every possible bit of extract from the grain. You may also have scorched your grains with a water temperature over 170 degrees F/76.6 C during sparging. A well-made beer will have just the right amount of astringency to balance the bitterness and sweetness. Sadly, astringency is often noticed only as a flavor fault, and tasters sometimes confuse astringency with bitterness. An experienced taster will identify and appreciate astringency when a talented brewmaster presents a beautifully composed beer. Astringency range descriptions: low, medium minus, medium, medium plus, and high.
Body refers to the weight or thickness of a beer. For instance, you can expect an imperial stout to have a chewy, full-bodied, and velvety texture, while a Kolsch usually offers a medium light body with a smooth, crisp mouthfeel. Some beer novices assume that dark beers have more body than light beers; this is sometimes but not always true. For instance, a British dark mild can be mahogany in color, but look for a light to medium body in that beer style. A movement in the wine world toward better balanced, lower-alcohol wines spearheaded by such luminaries as sommelier and vintner Rajat Parr has gained popularity over the past several years. A similar trend toward well-balanced, lower-alcohol craft beers is gaining popularity as session beers flood the market. There is a place and time for all types of beer, depending upon the time of day, the circumstance, the weather, your mood, and a host of other factors. Studying and experiencing all beer styles gives you the opportunity to learn about when to serve the right beer at the right occasion. Body ranges: drying, soft, mouth-coating, and sticky.
Carbonation is the fizziness that combines tactile and chemical taste sensations (chemical taste is a form of acidity). Proper carbonation is style-dependent and influences a beer's flavor, aroma, appearance and mouthfeel. When evaluating carbonation, you are essentially identifying the level of dissolved carbon dioxide in solution. An under-carbonated beer is pitifully lifeless with a body that seems thinner than expected. Too much carbonation can overshadow every other aspect of the beer and may result in an eruption from the bottle or glass. Even novice tasters aren't shy about expressing an opinion on the level of carbonation in a beer, perhaps due to their experience with soft drinks since childhood. Inappropriate carbonation can be a telltale sign of a brewer who needs more knowledge and experience in kegging, bottle conditioning, and storage practices. At worst, it is a reflection of poor sanitation. Perfect carbonation is not only physically pleasing but also enhances just about every other aspect of a beer. Carbonation ranges: low, medium, and high.

Beer Sensations with Lyne Noella
Finish is the taste that stays on the palate after the beer has been swallowed. The finish, or aftertaste, that we perceive in beer is mostly dependent upon our sense of smell. Our taste buds perceive five flavors: sweet, salty, bitter, acid and umami, popularly referred to as savoriness. On the other hand, the thousands of olfactory receptors in our nasal cavity react to a beer's molecules carried by air, providing a torrent of data that greatly influences our perception of a beer's finish. When we drink an IPA, we expect a delightful medley of hop flavors to linger. After swallowing a Baltic porter, we enjoy dark malt flavors that endure. Finish has a lot to do with our perception of drinkability: If the finish is ideal, we are thirsty for more. If the finish is unsatisfying, we look for a different beer or stop drinking altogether. Length of finish: short (15 seconds or less), medium (16-60 seconds), or long (over 60 seconds).
Serving Temperature is crucial to a beer's flavor, aroma and appearance. Ideally, the serving temperature will be calibrated to the style of the beer being served. However, in many cases, breweries and bars set the serving temperature to 38 degrees F/3.3 C. When beer is served via a draught system, it can be difficult to serve the beer warmer than 38 degrees F without causing excessive foaming, unless the system is designed for flexibility. However, if you are dealing with bottled beers out of your refrigerator, controlling serving temperature is simply a matter of removing the beer and waiting. Americans are known for liking their beers cold; this makes the most of carbonation, hop bitterness, and head retention. However, allowing a beer to warm beyond 38 degrees F allows most beers to fully express their flavors, acidity and aromas. A Czech pale lager will show best at a colder temperature while a cask-conditioned British ordinary bitter will cry for a serving temperature on the warmer end of the scale. Serving temperature for beer ranges from 38 degrees F/3.3 C to 55 degrees F/12.7C, depending upon the style.
Garrett Oliver, Editor of The Oxford Companion to Beer, describes beer as the most complex and varied of drinks. Wine drinkers may be surprised to hear this opinion and it may increase their interest in learning more about beer. The more I learn about beer, the more I realize there is to know, and I have come to agree with Garrett Oliver's conclusion. Understanding the art and science of crafting and appreciating beer is a passion that will never grow old. I hope you will share my video, Beer Sensations, with friends and family to get them thinking about how beer is indeed life's most complex and delightful beverage.
Lyne Noella is a Certified Beer Server, homebrewer and blogger living in Los Angeles. See her blog at
What's in my Beer, beyond flavor?
The secrete ingredient is always "LOVE", that's what my wife tells me anyway.
Hey Lyne,
This is a great post for drinking novices. Thanks for explaining all these factors. I learned a lot.