Bitter Words for Beer

[Closeup of mug of beer with foamy head]

Story by Peg Herring | Photo by Lynn Ketchum | Oregon Agricultural Progress Fall 2009

Give these guys a beer and they can describe the subtlest overtones from lemon-lime to burnt rubber. They are part of the fermentation science program at Oregon State University headed by Tom Shellhammer, and they’re building a new vocabulary of beer.

With a palate as refined as any wine connoisseur’s, Shellhammer’s goal is to tease out the taste of bitterness into a full spectrum of vivid and precise descriptions. It’s not enough to say beer is bitter; he wants to know if it’s bitter like aspirin or tonic or grapefruit rind.

Like many languages, the vocabulary of beer began as an oral tradition, people talking about what was tasty, or not, about particular brews. In the 1970s, sensory scientist Morten Meilgaard set out to standardize those conversations, to create a dictionary of words that would precisely describe the taste and aroma of beer. Meilgaard built his dictionary in the form of a wheel with three concentric circles. The Beer Flavor Wheel was the first sensory diagram ever developed for a particular food. Since then, food scientists have created sensory wheels for defining the flavors of wine, coffee, chocolate, even maple syrup.

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