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What Causes "off" Flavours In Beers?

By Author: Ian Lee
Total Articles: 7

There are a number of things which can cause an "off" flavour in beer, some of which are the fault of the publican and some of which may be the fault of the brewery. When a customer brings a pint back to the bar and says that it is off, it can cause a headache, especially if the only person or persons behind the bar are staff who have little or no experience of the reasons why the beer may be off. What should they do? Pull another pint? Offer a refund? Take the beer off the bar? It can be tricky.
It can even be tricky for the landlord/landlady if they are not familiar with the reasons why the beer may be off. Apart from any other consideration, it could just be that the beer isn't off in any case, but that the customer simply doesn't like the flavour. But if it is, there can be a number of different causes, not the least of which is insufficient cleaning of the beer lines. Ideally, beer lines should be cleaned once a week, or in the case of cask ales every time the cask is emptied. Many publicans simply clean with water between barrels, but in the case of real ales it should be a full clean every time.
Of course, it also goes without saying that a proper cleaning routine should be followed, but it takes time and wastes beer. That means that it costs money, and there is also the cost of the chemicals used for cleaning, so cleaning beer lines is not a popular task, but nonetheless has to be done, unless you want your customers to migrate to another pub.
One common problem causing "off" flavours is diacetyl. This is created during the brewing process by yeast during fermentation, but it should reduce as the compounds are re-absorbed during the maturation process. It is described as a butter flavour, and in the pub is likely to be caused by bacteria in the beer line. Pediococcus is one bacterium that can cause this.
Acetaldehyde is created in the brewery as glucose is converted into alcohol and it is usually a result of the beer having been taken off yeast and racked too quickly. It is often described as having a flavour of a sour apple, but some describe an aroma of cut grass. It can also be created when the beer is exposed to oxygen during traditional cask dispensing. However, there is another problem, and this is if there are bacteria in the beer line that can convert it into acetic acid which is a compound of vinegar, and then the beer will taste of just that. This is why cask ale, especially, needs to be turned over quickly – ideally within three days.
Another problem can be dimethyl sulphide which is a compound that is created from malt and is often the result of a boil that was not vigorous enough. It is said to have a flavour of cooked or rotting vegetables, or sometimes sweetcorn. Fortunately for the pub trade, this is usually the result of failures at the brewery, so if it is happening in your pub it may be time to return it and ask for a refund.
Another problem, this time with bottled beers, is that of being lightstruck. This is very common and is referred to as the beer becoming "skunked". It is described as a grassy or vegetable flavour and is most common in bottles that are either green or clear. It is caused by light of a specific wavelength hitting the bottle and producing a chemical reaction in the beer. In order to avoid it, the beer should be kept in a cool and dark area, and certainly avoid direct sunlight.
Beer cellar temperature is important too, and should be between 11°C and 13°C (51°F and 55°F) although it can be between 10°C and 14°C depending on who you listen to. Whichever way you do it, your beer cellar temperature should be kept constant and not fluctuate wildly as this can cause an increase in the production of bacteria and can also attract fruit flies which is something else that you don't want.
Cambridge Scientific Solutions is a provider of a system for keeping the rate of increase of bacteria in beer lines to a minimum, with reasonable beer cellar temperature, and means that line cleaning cycles can extend to anywhere from 4 weeks to 6 weeks, resulting in far less beer loss, less use of cleaning chemicals, and thus a considerable saving in terms of time and money

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