Flavour and Fermentability

And the Focus Group and Funnel

Is beer less rich in taste today, on average, than historically? I think probably yes. This hasn’t to do with changes in malt types, or other brewing materials, but the terminal point at which the fermentation concludes, or gravity.

As reprinted some years ago in MoreBeer, Peter Ensminger wrote of famed, Czech Pilsner Urquell:

The original gravity of the export is about 12 °P (1.048 S.G.), with a final gravity of 3.8 °P (1.015 S.G.), and an alcohol content of 4.4% (v/v).

Literature I’ve seen on Urquell suggests these gravities are unchanged at least since the early 20th century, and probably well before that. Other pale lager of Central Europe was often similar as many analyses show.

One may compare the 1015 FG to final gravities of various modern pale lager styles, except commendably Czech Premium Pale Lager. See e.g. this chart from the website Brewer’s Friend. 1015 is outside the top end of those – the average would be a few points lower.

There is a further exception for Dortmund Export, but even there 1015 is the maximum stated. Modern Dortmunder I’ve tasted seems rather under that, in fact.

If one compares the special bitter, American pale ale, and amber ale to 1800s pale ales in a chart prepared by Ron Pattinson, clearly the modern average is lower (see pp. 164-165). To be sure a couple of examples in the latter show extreme fermentability, or attenuation as brewers say.

This occurred usually with beers impacted by so-called wild, or Brettanomyces yeast. It often manifested in beers exported to distant climes or long stored in the U.K. I’ll have occasion to show an example in my article to appear early next year in Brewery History.

But c. 1880 in the U.K., “domestic” pale ale finished generally much richer than today’s equivalent. By that chart it is in the mid- to higher teens in most cases.

Having seen the full arc of modern craft brewing from inception to today, I’d say the beers generally have not changed much in finish over that period – generally on the dry side.

Mass market lager – American Lager in the Brewer’s Friend chart, and Light Lager – is even drier, so this is relative to a point.

And there are craft types known for sweetness, New England India Pale Ale, or milk or Imperial stout. But I’ve had fairly dry examples in each category, as well.

There is such a range of production today that one can always find a taste to satisfy, but in general I would say much craft beer seems on the dry side. I mean here the taste of malt or other grains in the finish, not the hop character. It’s two different things.

Each brewer will decide what to make based on his or her taste but also the market, so a levelling tends to occur as for any food or drink product.

I think many factors explain this. First, craft did not re-invent brewing completely. The first craft brewers made something better – certainly different – than the norm in existence. Yet, they were still influenced by what they thought the market expected, by what they expected themselves.

That was impacted by what came before. Craft brewers often professed to disdain the mass market, “computerized” taste of 1970s mass-market lager, but to think it had no influence on them would be fatuous.

Just as the unpasteurized craft beer that emerged had industrial precedents, just as the all-malt brewing did, so did the mouthfeel and finish of much craft beer.

Fair enough. Brewers must make money and I’m all for whatever they make if they turn a profit. If brewers don’t make money and wither in number, the possibility for some to make beer that appeals to a certain palate withers in proportion.

Speaking for myself, I plump for rich taste, for what I think represents the brewing ideal. The old German saying “malt is the soul of beer” meant malt you could taste.

One can use the finest German or any malt in the world but if attenuated to marked dryness, how much of the character remains?

Pilsner Urquell is Exhibit A for the kind of malt finish in beer I like.* There are many other examples I could choose, but Urquell serves well due to being so well known.

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*Hops too, for that matter.