What if there were an easy way to make your favourite brew taste even better? Impossible, you might say — but there is: by smelling it.
It’s tough to pin down just how much a beer’s aroma influences its flavour, but scientists (and beer sommeliers) agree that it has a hefty impact. Just like beer’s colour and taste, its smell can tell you a lot about your favourite sips.
“Aroma is one of the biggest things when it comes to enjoying beer,” says Roger Mittag, the founder of Prud’homme Beer Certification, a beer-education platform. That’s why it’s so important to take the time to smell the freshly cut grass, forest floor or just-baked bread wafting from your glass.
Here’s everything you need to know about properly smelling beer.
What creates aroma in beer?
The majority of the aromas that hit your nose as you raise a pint boil down to two factors: malt and, to a lesser extent, hops.
Malt can impart a variety of scents, ranging from bready to nutty to chocolatey to smoky — and beyond! — depending on its roast and also what grain it’s made from. (Most are made from barley, but some can be made from wheat, oats or rye.)
Hops, on the other hand, are responsible for many of the vegetal notes in beer. When you catch a whiff of pine needles (or straw or grapefruit), that’s the hops you’re smelling. Different hops give your beers different aromas; if you love the tropical-fruit notes of your favourite India Pale Ale, for example, you likely have Citra hops to thank.
Yeast also plays a big role in the way a beer smells, says Mittag, but its aromas can be harder to detect and harder to describe. If you’re a fan of sour or wild ales, then you’re familiar with their signature funk, which can often smell like blue cheese or barnyard — this isn’t a bad thing, we swear — or even musty cellar. That’s a result of the type of natural yeast used in these brews: Brettanomyces (but you can call it Brett, as it’s more commonly known).
Two smells you don’t want to encounter? Skunkiness — an off odour caused by prolonged exposure to light — and paper or cardboard, which can indicate that your beer is stale.
The proper technique for smelling beer
- Use a glass
For optimal aroma (and taste!), beer should always be poured into a glass. In general, a narrower rim will concentrate aromas, which is what you’re looking for here. And if you really want to nerd out, there are specific types of glasses that can enhance specific beer styles.
- Let the beer warm up
An ice-cold brew is not ideal for scent-searching. “Allowing the beer to open up and breathe and warm up is one of the most important parts of the process,” says Mittag. In general, take IPAs and stronger stouts and porters out of the fridge at least 15 minutes before you want to enjoy them. Pale ales and regular stouts and porters should warm up for 10 minutes, while lighter beers like session ales and light lagers can stand for at least five minutes.
- Pour the right amount of foam
A finger or two of foam is crucial, says Mittag, because carbon dioxide is what gets those aromas into your nose. For a proper pour, tilt the glass at a 45-degree angle and start pouring. At the halfway point, gradually straighten the glass as the head forms. Ta-da! You’ve attained the perfect pour.
- Put your nose in the glass and take some small sniffs
It may sound counterintuitive, but taking a series of smaller sniffs is better than a deep inhale, which can overload your senses. “Consider any scents that are popping out of the beer,” says Mittag, then repeat the process for your next few sips as the beer’s scent profile evolves. “Some people might pick up the pine immediately in an IPA, for instance, but don’t get the fruit right away,” he adds. Not smelling much of anything? Cup your hand over the glass, swirl a few times, then smell again.
- Compare notes with a friend
Just as we all have distinct palates — hence cilantro is so polarizing — different people are bound to pick up different scents in beer and describe them differently too. Share aroma notes with your pals and see if you can help each other identify the various aromas in your beer.
But what if you just don’t have a great sense of smell?
If the number one scent you detect from your beer is…beer, you’re not alone.
Learning how to smell and describe aromas takes practice. Mittag’s best advice: Pay more attention to everything you smell every day.
Walking through the forest? Breathe in those piney, mossy scents. Unpacking your groceries? Smell each piece of produce as you put it away. Digging into a bowl of Southwestern Beef & Lager Chili? Consider the various spicy notes: cumin, coriander, smoked paprika.
“Everything we smell goes back into our brain’s filing cabinet,” says Mittag. And as you file away scents, you’ll learn more about what you love in a beer — which will lead you to try new ones. Can’t get enough of your go-to brown ale’s caramel and raisin notes? Chances are you’ll also enjoy the wide world of stout. But there’s only one way to find out!
A cheat sheet to common beer aromas
As you build up your catalogue of scents, look out for these basic ones:
- Porters and stouts
- Pale ales
- Wheat beer
- Brown ale
- Wild ales or sours
Grass, pine or wood (a.k.a. resin), mango, pineapple, grapefruit skin or pith
Coffee, toffee, nuts, dried cherries, chocolate, caramel
Biscuit, malt, touch of caramel
Lemon, oats, barley, grass
Cloves, banana, honey, bread
Apple, plum, caramel, raisin, toasted biscuit
Blue cheese, horse blanket, cellar, barnyard