Who Did That?
One of my favorite aspects of the modern brewing scene is the jumbled and intertwined providence of flavors and aromas. Simply put, what ingredient is doing that? When we smell and taste beers the first instinct is to ask the basic question: do I like this style? As your palate develops and you try more and more iterations of the style, the question starts to narrow and the specificity increases: which hop is creating that flavor, is that wild yeast, etc.?
There are some styles that more easily lend themselves to identifying where the flavor and aroma are derived. For example, that fruity, herbal, floral, piney, punch-in-the-face aroma of the modern American IPA can only be one thing, the culmination of hop additions. The yeast typically appropriated for this style is meant to let the hops and malt backbone shine. These strains create very few yeast derived flavor compounds capable of overpowering the beauty of the hops. By contrast, the hefeweizen is a style dominated by the production of esters (organic acid + ethanol) and some phenols (aromatic organic compound with hydroxyl group (-OH)). The banana, clove, vanilla, spicy flavor and aroma all stem from the interplay of yeast byproducts, though not to the total exclusion of the sharp acidity of wheat malt in such high proportions.
On the flip side, plenty of brewers are ditching the stylistic playbook to create new flavor combinations. One of my personal favorites is the interplay of the wild yeast brettanomyces and any of the pungently fruity hop varieties. Brett’s ability to produce intensely flavorful metabolites results in the formation of additional esters such as ethyl acetate (pear drops, fruity) and ethyl decanoate (brandy). When combined with the brettanomyces esters, hop oils such as geraniol (floral, citrus) and linalool (tropical, floral) create a melange of fruits and spices on the palate that blur the line between the genesis of the flavors. There’s something incredibly fascinating about being unable to tease out what’s contributing what to the finished product. The same can certainly be said of the inclusion of certain malts to bolster the honey, roast, biscuit, bready, etc. character of a beer, while balancing the scales with your yeast and hop selections. The liquid world is quite the playground!