When I’m teaching beer appreciation classes, one question I am frequently asked is, “What do you look for in a great beer?” What makes a beer great? What separates the “best of the best” from the “also very goods.” It’s a good question, one worth pondering.
The first things that I look for are balance and articulation of flavors.
Balance is one that some people argue with, especially those who like their beers big, brash, and bitter. To me balance is not about having all flavors equal. Rather it’s about having a strong counterpoint to whatever flavor is dominant.
I like to think about beers fitting onto a triangle graph. On each corner of the graph is one of the three main beer ingredients, malt, hops, and yeast. Every beer can be charted into this graph based on what ingredient is dominant. For instance, American IPAs would be charted in hop corner, German wheat beers in the yeast corner, and Scottish ales in the malt corner. But none of these beers can be graphed only according to the dominant character. IPAs always have some malt underlying the hops. Cracker-like wheat character is a big flavor component of the hefeweizen. And Scottish ales need some balancing bitterness to keep them from being cloying.
This is how I approach balance. I look first for the dominant character and then consider what other flavors are there to counter it. I like Double IPAs that have considerable and complex malt to back up the bitter. While beautifully dry, tart, and funky, a good gueuze will still have some residual wheat flavor lurking in the background. While I may like some beers that are only bitter, only sweet, or too heavily bourbon barreled, I probably wouldn’t put them into the “great beer” category.
Two beers that to me brilliantly display this sense of balance are Russian River’s Pliny the Elder and Rodenbach Grand Cru. Pliny the Elder is extraordinarily dry and bitter, with huge citrus hops through and through. But the strong malt backbone with its grainy sweetness and subtle caramel flavors don’t allow the hops to totally take control. Bacterial fermentation makes Grand Cru gloriously tart and funky with loads of juicy fruit flavors. But in the background is a rich caramel and lightly toasty malt that leaves a slight residual sweet to balance the sour.
Anyone who has eaten in a four-star restaurant knows what I mean by articulation of flavors. In a well-prepared dish, every ingredient can be tasted individually, yet they all work together to build a harmonious whole.
When I encounter this flavor articulation in a great beer I can almost visualize the flavors stacking up one on top of the other. The hops pop, be they citrusy, floral, or herbal/spicy. The bitterness leaves a crisp bite on the tongue and at the back of the throat. The rich flavors of malt can be picked out one by one, caramel, biscuit, toast, and coffee. The delicate, yeast derived fruit of an English ale or the black pepper bite of a saison stands out in clear contrast to the other ingredients. And yet, in the end they all come together to give a single and unified beer experience.
A great example of flavor articulation in beer can be found in Coniston Bluebird Bitter. This English bitter has those separate layers of flavor, malt, hops, and yeast, all melding together in balanced beauty. I also find this character in Furious and Bender, the flagship beers of Minnesota’s Surly Brewing Company.
There are other things that make a beer great. But for me balance and articulation of flavors are paramount. What are your keys to a great beer?