Bad Beer

My Beer Smells Like Wet Cardboard

Just like with wine, beer can taste awful when it is not right.

The other day my partner and I tasted a pint of German pilsner that he had ordered, which tasted slightly strange so we began to question it’s quality. The wet cardboard flavour made the pint difficult to shyly sip away at, regardless of how thirsty he was and how tempting the glass looked.

I suppose if it had been the third or fifth pint we would have been none the wiser but this was the first after a long day at work with a picturesque backdrop of sunshine reflecting on the river that just demanded a refreshing cold one.

As we looked around we realised that no one was drinking the beer that we had just ordered so always being the optimists, we thought it would be nice to try something different.

It turns out that no one else was drinking this beer for a pretty good reason….

Once we had confirmed that the beer was bad and more precisely, smelt like wet cardboard and musty warehouse, we thought about the probable cause being that it was the first pour of the day, again, because no one seemed to have the same.

Nevertheless, after a bit of research, it turns out that there could have been an abundance of problems with this sad pint.

What’s Wrong With My Pint?

Most flaws in beers won’t be detectable by the manufacturer because they happen in between the brewing and storage phase, a time where most brewers have declared their beer as tip-top and ready for consumption. This means that it’s mostly up to the restaurant or pub to detect such flaws, or in some unfortunate cases (like ours), the customer, after a keg has skipped a crucial step of being tasted by someone who knows their grapefruit from their cabbage.

Here are some of the common flaws that can cause an ‘off’ flavour in your beer:

Acetaldehyde – a compound present in almost all beers due to the fermentation process of turning yeast and starches into alcohol, although not so welcome once it’s manifested into undrinkably high levels and starts to taste like sharp, green apple.

Butyric acid – Unlike the very acceptable acetaldehyde compound, butyric acid is not welcome in any quantity. It is created by a bacterial infection that is either developed through brewing or poor sanitation in the packaging process and smells charmingly like, baby sick.

Diacetyl – In the wine world, this buttered popcorn flavour is usually a charming addition to a full-bodied chardonnay, however, in the beer world this compound is almost always recognised as a flaw. This is often a bi-product of a bacterial infection although can sometimes arise if the brewing process is cut short.

Dimethyl Sulphide – Also known as DMS, this signature flavour of cabbage and canned corn can sometimes be welcomed in pilsners, although can be considered a flaw when experienced in pale malts. DMS’ are released when malt is at the boiling stage of brewing and can be boiled off, however, if the liquid isn’t chilled quickly enough, it can start to build again and linger.

Hydrogen sulphide – The presence of this compound usually indicates poor yeast health and might make your beer taste like rotten eggs. Nevertheless, it is always produced in early larger fermentation but then carried out of the liquid by carbon dioxide bubbles, only if it lingers around will this compound lead to a rotten result.

Mercaptan – Since this compound is one of the main chemicals responsible for bad breath and farts, you definitely don’t want to be finding it in your beer…It is, however, found in almost all beers at low levels, although will become more pronounced during the second fermentation if too many yeast cells kill themselves off. You’ll be able to recognise too much mercaptan as a skunky, rotten vegetable odour, which won’t make you sick but might put you off drinking for a while…

Metallic – Some beers might taste like you’ve licked a copper coin or an open wound, in which case, the metallic components in the brewery have affected its flavour. This might be the easiest of flaws to handle, although you might still want to try another beer if you want maximum enjoyment out of your pint.

Oxidation – Voila, finally, the reason my boyfriend’s beer tasted like wet cardboard was oxidization! Oxygen will always be present in small amounts in beer, however, brewers try to avoid it’s presence as much as possible to keep a fresh flavour. The reason a beer might be oxidized could be down to the way it was stored, since higher temperatures and being left too long without being rotated will cause this flaw.

Complaining Culture

So that’s it, the beer we had ordered was oxidised, case closed.

Nevertheless, many bad pints slip through the net undetected simply because people choose to just accept that this ‘off’ flavour is how it might, probably, could, maybe, taste…

The truth is that if you’ve looked forward to a pint all day and can’t enjoy it once it’s in your hands then, I hate to break it to you, but you’re the one who’s at fault. Many pubs and restaurants would be happy to accept your feedback and might even discontinue the sale of a beer if they can also confirm the flaw, but it’s just not very British to complain about something as humble as a pint.

Getting served a bad beer will most commonly happen if you choose a pint that isn’t frequently sold, (like we did the other week) so if you want to play it safe then go with what everyone else is having.

If you’re up for a bit of adventure though, then don’t be put off by the newest label on tap, ask for a taste first and if you detect something wrong then don’t be afraid to use your new knowledge on beer flaws.

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