When beer goes bad

Last week I came across a bad beer, which happens every once in a while. So, I did what I think every brewery would want us to do, I e-mailed the brewers and told them about my experience.   I included all the important info: production date of the beer, store where I purchased the beer, and conditions in the store. I did this for two reasons.  Probably the most important reason was that I really wanted them to know that this particular beer wasn’t being treated well at that store. Also, I wanted them to know that I hadn’t been discouraged by the experience and that I was looking forward to tasting a fresh sample soon.

The brewery responded the very next day apologizing for my experience and wanted me to understand (as well as I want you to understand) that they have little control over their beers once it is delivered to the stores. After delivery, it is then up to the storeowner to take care of his/her inventory. Certainly, some do it better than others and this can have an unfair impact on a brewery especially if you decide not to buy their beer again.

The brewer also invited me to stop by their brewery and told me they would be happy to replace my bottle with a fresh one. However, before you go and start complaining to breweries about their beer in hopes of a replacement, you need to keep a few things in mind:

  • Do you know the beer style you are drinking?  Maybe it IS supposed to taste like that.
  • Give a detailed description of your tasting experience to explain the flavors you did taste.  This will help the brewers identify any problem.
  • Tell the brewer where you bought the beer.  They may consider changing vendors if enough people complain about the conditions.
  • Don’t judge the brewery by that one beer.
  • Don’t rant if want to be taken seriously.

I decided to use this recent experience as an excuse to explain three common off-flavors found in beers. Also, at the end of each description I indicate who you should contact if you do encounter any of them.

Oxidation happens when oxygen is introduced into the beer sometime after fermentation and before it is consumed. The resulting taste is something like wet cardboard or paper (don’t ask me how I know what that tastes like).  Generally bottles or cans are flushed with CO2 before filling to avoid oxidation. This is also why beertenders will overflow your growler when they fill it up.  This purges any O2 out of the bottle so your beer won’t oxidize before you drink it.  Unfortunately there isn’t anyway to tell if the beer you have in your hand is oxidized until you open it. The good news is that this off-flavor is very rare.  Contact the brewery if you encounter this off-flavor.

Light struck is a term used to describe a beer that has been exposed to ultra-violet (UV) light. UV light causes a chemical break down, which in turn releases previously hidden sulfur compounds out of the beer. The resulting taste and aroma is reminiscent of skunk (again, don’t ask me how I know what that tastes like).  This is especially problematic for beers in clear or green bottles because they filter out very little UV light. Unprotected beer can be “skunked” in a matter of minutes and can easily happen to the beer that is in your glass especially if you are outside enjoying the warm SoCal sun.  Unfortunately there is no way to tell if a beer is skunked before you buy it but you can reduces the chances if you avoid bottled beer that is sitting out in the sunlight or under florescent lighting.  Reach for the bottles packaged in boxes or the ones toward the back of the shelf in the dark. Oh yeah, and keep your beer in the shade.  Contact the storeowner and notify brewery if you encounter this off-flavor.

Bacterial infections happen when sanitation breaks down during the brewing or the bottling phase and bacteria is introduced into the beer. Bacteria will eat any sugar left over from fermentation, which will destroy the malty flavors and body of a beer causing it to become “thin” and almost watery. If the contaminated beer is stored for an extended period of time it can also cause the beer to over carbonate and create a “gusher”.  A gusher is a beer that erupts like a volcano and continues to spew out the long top after it has been opened.  Another side affect from a bacterial infection is a sour beer.  You will probably know about the infection long before you drink the beer because it can have a vinegary aroma.  If the aroma didn’t grab your attention the puckering effect will, when you drink it.  Don’t be alarmed if you drink a beer with a bacterial infection.  You won’t to get sick from it.  I drink ‘em all the time; in fact one of my all time favorite beers is a sour beer.  However, the brewers of sour beers KNOW how to brew them and understand how to use the bacteria to create a delicious flavor profile.  Unfortunately there is no way to tell if a beer is infected before you open it.  The good news is that brewers take sanitation very seriously and unintentional infections are rare.  Contact the brewery if you encounter this off flavor.




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