Say the word ‘cocktail’ and people will immediately assume that you are talking about a spirit based drink – often involving fruit juices. Most people drink beers straight without mixing them with anything (the key exception being a shandy – beer and lemonade).
A brewery in Belgium – Duboisson – found that some of their customers experimented with mixing one of their beers with a fruit lambic, with delicious results. To-day, we are tasting the base beer for this ‘beer cocktail’ – Bush Ambree. Our second ‘beer’ for tasting is ‘Peche Mel’ – the name given to a 50/50 blend of Bush Ambree with Timmerman’s Peche.
Beer Cocktails –
This tasting is an opportunity for me to get all geeky about how our brains are processing flavour in beer. However, the first thing about doing something that involves experimenting with mixes of flavours is to enjoy the flavours.
When brewers are designing recipes, a key consideration is how they achieve balance in the beer. Flavours interact, and the way that we perceive flavours depends on the context in which they are presented. Brewers will introduce bitter flavours (through hops and/or through dark malts) to balance sweet flavours (achieved from some types of malt and from flavours developed during fermentation). In some other styles of beers, the balance might be between sourness and fruit or sweet flavours. A one-dimensional beer – that tastes of only one flavour, without this flavour being balanced against anything else – is in danger of being cloying or over-powering. While somebody might enjoy the first sip of a unbalanced beer if they particularly enjoy the flavour that is dominant in it, it is most likely that the person will have enough of that beer very quickly.
When a beer is well balanced, the drinker gets to enjoy the flavours in the beer without finding that they tire of these flavours. Balanced beers will lean in one direction or another in most instances – they may be particularly malty, fruity, hoppy, sour or have a flavour that is more evident in the beer. However, when the beer is well balanced, there will be other flavours present to ‘round out’ the taste experience. Just like seasoning in cooking, these balancing flavours should not over-power, and should be present to complement and enhance the taste experience.
When blending beers, the blender is faced with a particular challenge. Assuming the beers being blended are already balanced, the blender has to ensure that the combination of the flavours from both beers will still be a balanced affair. Randomly blending beers is by no way guaranteed to result in a better (or even palatable) drink. In a perfect world, the blend of flavours in the ‘beer cocktail’ will complement eachother, or (taking things one step further), the flavours from each of the individual beers will combine and interact resulting in a taste experience that is a result of blending the two beers, but for which some of the flavours come about purely because of the interaction of the flavours in the two beers. Put simply – in a great beer cocktail, you can taste something in the cocktail and possibly find it very difficult to identify which beer has contributed that flavour.
Bush Ambree –
Beer Style – Strong Belgian Amber Ale
Alcohol by Volume – 12.0% a.b.v.
Brewed by – Brasserie Duboisson
Brewed in – Pipaix, Belgium
Let’s just get one thing out of the way to start with. We are talking about a 12.0% a.b.v. beer – significantly above average strength. With ‘standard’ mainstream beers in Ireland typically being around 4% to 4.3% a.b.v., this beer is around three times stronger. We can expect more flavour, and it is inevitable that there will be an amount of character resulting from this high strength – but this, in itself, is an interesting dimension of the flavour of this beer. Brewers’ yeasts will typically find it difficult to ferment a beer above 14% to 17% a.b.v. – the alcohol produced during the fermentation inhibits the yeast from continuing to ferment sugars. So, at 12.0%, this beer requires an alcohol-tolerant yeast to be used, and is coming up on the limit for the alcohol content that is achievable in a ‘normal’ beer. (Freeze distilling allows beers to reach ridiculously high strengths, but this process is changing the character of the beer significantly, and requires a process beyond what is normal in brewing).
Bush Ambree is a strong Belgian Amber. When poured properly, it will have a significant white head of a size associated with Belgian beers. At 12%, the alcohol content of the beer will tend to limit the extent to which this head will sustain on the beer – high alcohol level in beer is detrimental to head retention. The beer itself presents with a luxurious burnished gold colour.
The aromas in this beer are incredible. Ripe banana comes through immediately, with a background of sweet caramel and toffee. For anybody who has tasted Bananas Foster (a dessert consisting of bananas and caramelised sugars), this is for all the world like liquid Bananas Foster in a glass. The taste of the beer combines these two key flavours, but very subtly they are balanced by Belgian spice (a little chilli pepper, black pepper and white pepper from the Belgian yeast fermentation ‘season’ the flavour of the beer), and there is bitterness present sufficient to balance the significant sweetness of the beer. With this bitter/spice balance, the beer is incredibly drinkable. While the caramel and banana flavours should be satiating, the counteracting flavours serve to quicken the finish of the beer. A slight fruit/toffee sweetness lingers delicately in the finish together with a touch of clove, but this is subtle and dissipates to a lower level after swallowing.
The alcohol in the beer gives the impression that one might associate with a flambéed dessert. Alcohol fumes seem to carry the flavour in the mouth, and contribute to both sweetness and body in the beer. This alcohol also slightly accentuates the heat of the spice in the beer. Combining this with the buzz of carbonation in Bush Ambree, the luscious medium bodied texture of the beer is lifted by carbonation and spice making the beer both rich and light at the same time.
Bush Ambree is an incredibly complex beer. Layers of flavour, and superb balance make this an exquisite beer to taste. While the high strength of this beer might be disconcerting to some, I would argue that this beer delivers a level of complexity and flavour that one might associate with a liqueur or whiskey of two to three times the alcohol strength – looked at in this way, sipping this 12% a.b.v. beer is both more responsible, and a delightful taste experience!
Peche Mel –
Beer Style – Beer Cocktail consisting of a 50/50 blend of
Bush Ambree (Strong Belgian Amber Ale) and
Timmerman’s Peche (Fruit Lambic)
Alcohol by Volume – 8.0% a.b.v. (after blending 12.0% and 4.0% a.b.v. beers together)
Brewed by/in – Bush Ambree – Brasserie Duboisson, Pipaix, Belgium
Timmerman’s Peche – Timmerman’s Brewery, Brussels, Belgium
The possibilities for combining Bush Ambree with numerous foods can make for incredible food pairings – whether with lighter meats (chicken, turkey, pork), pasta dishes, or with desserts. Combining Bush Ambree with another beer extends the idea of a beer-food pairing – a beer-beer pairing, if you will.
In Ireland, you will not see a bottle of beer called ‘Peche Mel’. While the brewery has started blending the two beers and bottling the result themselves, at the moment, a Peche Mel can only be achieved in Ireland by blending Bush Ambree and Timmerman’s Peche in a 50/50 blend.
Above, we have talked about the flavours of Bush Ambree by itself. As a fruit lambic, Timmerman’s Peche balances luscious peach fruit flavour with tongue-puckering sourness to give a tart and thirst quenching fruit beer. Blending these two beers together curiously results in a beer that is an easy to enjoy explosion of fruit flavours as well as being an incredibly complex and layered taste experience.
The first aroma that comes through in a Peche Mel is strawberry, and this follows through on the flavour. The sourness of the lambic shifts the balance of the beer, and any bitterness that might have been perceived in the Bush Ambree is relegated to an imperceptible background balancing factor. This sourness enhances the refreshing quality of the beer and lifts the body. While banana is in evidence in the Bush Ambree, this flavour is effectively masked in the combined beers and is virtually imperceptible. Likewise, the alcohol strength of the beer is diminished massively in terms of its flavour contribution – the rich alcohol vapours evident in the Bush Ambree dissipate completely, and the fruity character of the combined beers gives the impression of a beer two thirds or one half the strength of the 8.0% a.b.v. that is present.
Peche Mel is a ‘fruit salad’ of flavours – almost like biting into a mouthful of Opal Fruits, and tasting a number of fruit flavours at the same time. Strawberry comes through, but once one adapts to this, the contribution of peach ot the flavour is more evident. Tropical fruits (lychee, pineapple, melon) and bright citrus fruits (mandarin orange and the suggestion of sweetened lemon) are also perceptible. The lambic sourness subdues the flavour of the spice that was evident in the Bush Ambree, and this spice character is relegated to a suggestion in the finish after the swallow.
Peche Mel is a wonderfully fun way to enjoy a beer. The parts that make up the final flavour of the beer can be identified by themselves by tasting the individual beers before blending. After blending, multiple interactions take place, and the flavour experience is quite different from what might expect having tasted the individual beers. Peche Mel can be enjoyed as an explosion of fruit flavours without concerning oneself about where these wonderful flavours are coming from, or can be dissected to try to understand which of the two elements of this beer cocktail are interacting to result in the individual flavours that can be perceived.
Either way, it is delicious!
Perceiving Flavours –
Often, we will describe beers in terms of the individual flavours that make up the beer. Sometimes people listening to these descriptions can pick up these flavours, sometimes they find the descriptions perplexing. When it comes to perceiving flavours, the process is individual, context-specific and complicated. Breaking down flavours into the elements that make up the total flavour experience is an attempt to help people anticipate whether they might like the drink in question. While they might not be able to perceive or dissect the individual flavours, understanding the types of flavours present gives them an opportunity to assess (before tasting the beer) whether they have a chance of liking the beer in question (or a chance to avoid the beer if it does not sound like it would be to their liking).
Our brain processes flavour experiences as ‘flavour objects’. In some cases, the sum total of the flavours will be ‘lumped together’ and the person will make an emotional assessment of the flavour (‘I like it’ or ‘it’s terrible’). Breaking down flavours to their constituent parts can be tricky without training, but if someone does it for you, you might understand better why you like one beer and dislike another. This can be a path to more targeted experimentation with new beers – by focusing on tasting beers that contain the flavours that you liked in another beer, you have a better chance of enjoying new beers.
Our tongues allow us to taste sweet, sour, salt, bitter and savoury flavours. In the case of all of these flavours, we are genetically programmed to detect them, and our reaction to them is also built into our DNA. In general, we are programmed to enjoy sweet and salty flavours – they indicate that the food will give us required calories for nutrition or salts to help achieve electrolytic balance in our body. However, too much of sweet or salt can be over-powering. We are programmed to be cautious about bitter and sour flavours (evolution has trained us to associate these flavours with potential poison or spoiled food respectively). However, both of these flavours can provide a balancing contribution to sweetness reducing the cloy associated with it. With experience, we develop our ability to appreciate bitter and sour to a point where they become flavours that we enjoy and relish. If this sounds odd, think of the reaction of a young child to vinegar (young children will typically be aversive to this flavour) as compared to the reaction of a slightly older child to salt and vinegar crisps.
Our noses provide us with the ability to detect a long list of flavours – including herbal, fruity, spicy, roast and many other flavours. Receptors in our nose are responsible for the tens of thousands of different flavours that we are capable of differentiating beyond the basics of sweet, salt, sour, savoury and bitter. They provide a kaleidoscope of flavour experiences that allow us to enjoy flavour to a level beyond what can be experienced by animals. While many animals are more sensitive to lower levels of flavours, and can respond quickly to small concentrations of flavour or aroma, our larger brains allow us to differentiate between different flavour qualities, and understand the essence of flavour differences in food to a much better extent than animals can.
In our beer cocktail experiment, we can see different interaction effects in flavours. Balancing bitter, spice and sour against fruit and sweet can reduce the cloy that one might associate with these flavours, and make them more palatable. Interactions of flavours can result in different perceptions of flavour – the banana from the Bush Ambree is very much masked when the Timmerman’s Peche is blended with it, and the blend results in a perception of strawberry that is not present to any discernible extent in either of the constituent parts of the blend. This shows us how flavour can be context-specific – something that tastes one way by itself can taste quite different in another context.
All of this makes flavour quite complicated. The ability to break down flavours into their constituent parts requires that our brains have flavour images of the flavour elements, and the ability to dissect the sum total of the flavour being tasted into the individual elements, together with the ability to process and match the individual constituent parts of the flavour with images that we might have coded into our brains through past experience. For some people, the flavour image database that they have in their brain might not be robust enough to allow them to consciously identify the individual flavour elements. This does not preclude these people from having an emotional reaction to the flavour (‘I like it’ or ‘I dont’ like it’) – it might simply make it difficult for them to explain exactly why they like it.
All of this is very geeky – it provides me with hours of entertainment breaking down flavours of beers and understanding the origins or sources of these flavours. Most people prefer just to enjoy their beer. With a little understanding of beer styles, one can appreciate how bundles of flavours are common across beers that belong in a particular style or style family – and this can be an avenue to experimentation that increases the chance that the person will taste a new beer that they like. Tasting beers beyond styles with which one is familiar can be more ‘hit and miss’, and, if you have the chance, asking a person to let you know what you might expect from a new style will increase your ‘hit rate’ in beer experimentation. The person in question might be the server in your local independent off-licence or your local craft beer bar, but it needs to be somebody who knows what they are talking about.
In Ireland, the education on beer flavours has not developed to the same extent as it has in other countries – we have had limited choice in beer up to ten to twenty years ago, so servers have not needed these skills. Thankfully, this situation is changing, and the service that can be achieved when you are buying a craft beer is improving all of the time.
A little understanding of the flavours that are present in a beer can (a) help you anticipate if you are likely to appreciate a new beer, and/or (b) help you understand why you might not have liked a particular beer (or why that beer might not have been appropriate to the occasion on which you tried it). All of this can help our experimentation with new beers result in a better ‘hit rate’ in identifying beers that we like.
However, remember while beer flavour can be complicated, it is also incredibly individual. What you like is what you like, and this is the most important factor.
Above all, enjoy the beer that you are drinking, and (hopefully) experiment to taste some beers that will allow you to enjoy beer all the more.