|Vince Capano is a two time winner of the prestigious Quill and Tankard
writing award for humor from the North American Guild of Beer Writers.
Vince's column is now a regular feature of beernexus.com
Check back often for the next installment of
Vince's Adventures in Beerland
Was it Diethyl Sulfide or Acetaldehyde?
by Vince Capano
Sometimes a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. Ever taste a beer and tell
someone it just isn’t right or that it simply tastes “good”? While those may seem
ample evaluations to most, they no longer are to members of North Jersey’s largest
beer appreciation club, Draught Board 15, headquartered at the Gaslight brewpub in
South Orange. Thanks to the guest speaker at their most recent meeting, raconteur
of zymurgy and recognized beer judge, Jeff Levine, club members now can tell you
precisely why that bad beer really is so foul and why that good beer is oh so
heavenly. That ability is not an easy burden, for with great knowledge come great
responsibility. Never again will a beer just be beer.
Judge Levine’s cram course for the club began with a list of descriptor definitions that
would make an alchemist proud. Get that aroma of rotten eggs or burning matches?
It’s hydrogen sulfide. Discover clove like aromas or medicinal, plastic like flavors? The
beer is phenolic. Detect fruit flavorings or roses? Call it estery. What about that
sweet, corn like aroma or one like cooked vegetables? That’s the dreaded presence
of dimethyl sulfide. And that oft-present green apple like aroma and flavor is in reality
the presence of acetaldehyde. Whew. Almost seems as if the beer tastes ok, you’ve
obviously overlooked something. Then again since the opposite of bad is good, the
moral may be if you want to see a rainbow you have to put up with the rain.
Next the members were introduced to the official beer style guide that listed twenty-
six distinctive brews. Judge Levine expounded on the difference between pale ale,
pale lager, light pale ale, English ales, India Pale ales, and a pail of ales (just seeing if
you were paying attention). He finally ended by explaining the large variety of stout
styles that paled in comparison to the number of pales. (Don’t blame me, he said it.)
Next came the hands, or more accurately, mouth on segment. Trusty stewards
(trusty because most of the samples actually did make it to the member tables)
began to distribute sample beers. Wisely, Judge Levine politely chose not to
comment on the “about time” shouts from the table on the far left. He slowly and
carefully explained just how to properly taste the samples. First, each club member
was instructed to visually inspect the bottle for clarity, sediment, and signs of
problems. One sharp member immediately noticed the “this stinks” label pasted on
the bottle he was given. Not quite a technical assessment, but definitely non-
ambiguous. Next came the act of pouring the beer into the sample cups. The Judge
demonstrated the proper tilting of the cup so as to produce a generous head but not
one that would interfere with drinking. Finally, we were getting close to something
even the total novices in the crowd could fully appreciate – drinking beer. We began
with the pre-smell swirl to bring up the nose (aromas) of the beer. We were now able
to sniff the levels of malt, hops yeast, and fermentation by-products in their sample.
The Judge seemed pleased.
Then came the actual tasting. No chugging allowed however. If you chug you are
clearly a lug. (It didn’t get a laugh when the Judge used it either.) Each member was
instructed to gently coat the inside of his mouth with the elixir, allowing it to make
contact with lips, gums, teeth, palate, and the top, bottom, and sides of the
tongue. As the Judge explained, sweetness is detected on the tip of the tongue,
saltiness on the front and sides, sourness on the side and back of the tongue and all
in combination on the roof of the mouth. Only then could the beer be swallowed.
Lastly, Judge Levine admonished each taster to exhale through the nose to maintain
a lingering finish in the mouth. By this time many members were already calling for
another sample bottle to further explore the exhale sensation. Clearly the club
boasted some fast learners. The slower tasters were not forgotten however, as the
Judge cheerily told them that if they fell behind, the less they’d be able to drink.
Clearly the Judge was also a master motivator.
Finally Judge Levine solicited comments from his ready pupils. He was awed as one
erstwhile member said his sample had a smooth, unobtrusive maltiness and an
encroaching bitterness that was accommodating and balanced, reflecting a carefully
calibrated blend of strength and gentleness on the palate. Yet another voice opined
that the sample started mildly bitter, was slightly astringent, supported by a jaunty
energy, and had a buzzing zing of subtle hoppiness that was nicely incorporated into
an aromatic malt character. From another part of the room came the view that the
sample‘s pungent hoppiness was softly absorbed into a tasty cushion of malty
sweetness that lapped at the side of the mouth with an evolving character that
finished docile, yet forceful, on the way down the throat. Casual beer fans had
become true geeks. Dr. Frankenstein move over, you have nothing on Judge Levine
As he packed up his notes, papers, and supplies Judge Levine was content. He
turned to thank one table of club members for the standing ovation they had given
him at the end of his presentation. He noted they had not volunteered any opinions
to the group but perhaps they might now. “What did you think of that last sample
bottle” he inquired? “Well, we loved it but aren’t exactly sure why”, said one of the
group apologetically. “But” he proudly added, “the bottle sure has a real nice label.”
The Judge gently smiled and nodded. He knew everyone doesn’t have to be a
judge, certified or otherwise, to enjoy fine beer. The beer community has a big tent
that welcomes all. After all, to appreciate a good beer it’s really not mandatory to
identify diethyl sulfide or acetaldehyde, or anything else.
After besides, that last bottle did have a real nice label.
|Was it Diethyl Sulfide or Acetaldehyde?