A Tasting Note That Might Ruin Many Stouts For You

If I was pressed to pick a favorite beer style, I’d have to say it’s the Bourbon barrel-aged stout.  I love these rich, boozy treats, which are a great companion when it’s time to kick back, relax, and unwind.  But all’s not well in paradise, because there’s a deal-breaker of a flavor that I’ve picked up in many stouts, not just the barrel aged ones.  Can you guess what it is?

Popsicle sticks.  Yup, the wooden core of frozen sugarwater on a stick.  Think back to when you were a kid, and you’d try to get the last drop of flavor from an icy treat and wound up sucking on wood. That’s the flavor that can ruin a stout for me.

I first noticed the popsicle stick phenomenon a little over a year ago while having a highly-regarded coffee stout – these can be where it’s easiest to pick out the flavor, as roasted coffee can also impart that popsicle wood taste. At first I was like “hey, I taste the woodiness of a popsicle stick in this beer – interesting.”  I was proud of myself for picking out the flavor. I told my wife about and suddenly she could taste it too.

Enjoy it now, kid. It's gonna ruin some beers for you later...

But once I tasted it, I couldn’t un-taste it.  The popsicle stick flavor started to pop out in certain stouts, dominating my palate and making it hard to taste anything else in the beer.  It went from being an interesting observation to a total bummer.  Now when I taste a beer with this flavor, it makes me think that the brewer screwed up and made a beer that was far too astringent and woody.

This came into sharp focus for me over the weekend, when I had a Founder’s Breakfast Stout.  It’s a good beer, with spicy dark notes of licorice and coffee and…aw crap…popsicle stick!  That part of the flavor took me out of the moment and pulled one of my previously favorite beers into the abyss.  It’s still a very good beer, but now every time I look at it, I’ll think “popsicle stick” and leave it on the shelf.  That sucks.

Anyway, I figured I’d share this with you all so you can have the same experience.  You’re welcome!  🙂

Is there a flavor you pick out in certain beers that makes you nuts?

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Update: Reader Bill Simpson breaks down the science on a likely source for the “popsicle stick flavor. Thanks Bill!

At the risk of being a bit geeky here, the popsicle flavour is probably caused by one or more flavour compounds related to ‘furfural’ (otherwise known as ‘furfuryl aldehyde).

One of the main culprits could be ’2-furfuryl ethyl ether’ (2-FEE), a compound that forms in well matured beers due to an interaction of furfural (formed in wort boiling from malt precursors), yeast (forming an ester called furfuryl acetate) and natural beer chemistry – the reaction of furfuryl acetate with ethanol (alcohol) in the beer leading to formation of 2-FEE.

Wood also contains a whole range of furfuryl compounds which arise from barrel toasting.

I’ve tasted this 2-FEE in beer and immediately associated it with the flavour of Belgian Trippels as well as aged stouts.

I love the term ‘popsicle’ though! I’d never made the connection, but now you point it out it seems so obvious. Thanks.

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Categories: Beer

Author:Jim

Craft beer nerd, frequent beer blogger and occasional home brewer.

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30 Comments on “A Tasting Note That Might Ruin Many Stouts For You”

  1. November 8, 2011 at 11:46 am #

    A little bit of smoke flavor can be good, but there are a lot of beers out there (I’m looking at you, Alaskan Smoked Porter) that overdo it. It gets distracting and reminds me of a dirty BBQ grill. German rauchbiers are also just nasty to me.

    I do like Great Divide’s Smoked Baltic Porter, and Left Hand’s Fade To Black Vol. 2 also had some nice, subtle smokiness.

    And I agree that some beers overdo the woodiness, but I don’t mind it as much as you do.

    • November 8, 2011 at 12:28 pm #

      I’m sure some people are wood fans and it’s cool with them. I’m a big fan of boozy beers, and still enjoy BB stouts that are a little bourbon forward. Some think they’re unbalanced, but I enjoy the heat.

      I agree on the smoke thing. Some are awesome (mostly rauchbiers) and some are…well…Charkoota Rye from New Holland. It’s like drinking BBQ sauce!

  2. November 8, 2011 at 11:50 am #

    Gawd! Between this and the time you suggested aged imperial stouts taste like olives, you’ve nearly ruined drinking stouts for me altogether. I had one of these beers this past weekend and didn’t notice any off flavors. Of course, you should get over it soon as a coffee stout shouldn’t be aged too long or it will lose the coffee flavor leaving you a bottle of popsicle stick.

    That said, I’ve started noticing flavors I never noticed before and can’t let them go. I’ve recently become rather attuned to diacetyl in beers, especially homebrews or older IPA’s that have lost their hoppy nose. I guess it’s the price we pay for developing our taste buds.

    Surely, one of the expert homebrewers who follows this site can explain where the woodiness comes from.

    • November 8, 2011 at 12:29 pm #

      I thought of you and the olives as I wrote this, Zac. 🙂

  3. Craig
    November 8, 2011 at 11:55 am #

    Damn, now you’ve ruined a lot of stouts for me. You are exactly right, I hate that bitter/metallic wood flavor. I never could place where I’ve had that before, I can feel it on my teeth just thinking about it.

    • November 8, 2011 at 12:30 pm #

      Yeah, it’s one of those flavors that once you place, it’s hard to get around.

  4. November 8, 2011 at 11:55 am #

    That is a bummer. Do you now taste popsicle stick in regular coffee?

    • November 8, 2011 at 12:31 pm #

      Depends on the coffee. I prefer Peets, especially Major Dickason’s Blend, which has huge flavor but is incredibly smooth. Once you work in astringency into coffee, the wood starts to pop. It’s not as bad a beer, but it’s not something I prefer!

  5. John King
    November 8, 2011 at 11:59 am #

    Woodiness = barrel aging?

    I can’t wait til Stephen read this and rips you apart for talking sh*t about Breakfast Stout. he goes nuts over it.

    I’ve never encountered the popsicle stick phenomena and I drink a lot of bourbon aged stuff, a majority are my own.

    • November 8, 2011 at 12:32 pm #

      I think I probably have five gallons of popsicle payback sitting in my master bedroom shower… 😦

      As for Stephen, maybe I’ll ruin it for him!

      • tronto
        November 8, 2011 at 3:23 pm #

        Impossible…. FBS is the best thing that ever happened to craft beer(jk kinda). Its heaven in a bottle and I cant taste popsicle stick, wood, or whatever. It is easily one of my top three, but then again Bitburger is my #1 if that says anything. The flavor in stouts that makes me gag is, DIRTY BAND-AIDs, (thanks John King), This has completely ruined Black Ops for me and I’m still sitting on 2 bottles.

        • November 8, 2011 at 3:25 pm #

          We were expecting you, Stephen…

          Just try and NOT think “popsicle stick” the next time you crack open a FBS… 😉

  6. November 8, 2011 at 11:59 am #

    Interesting. I’ve had Breakfast Stout a bunch of times recently and can’t say I ever got anything like woodiness from it. I’m probably just going to will myself to forget I ever read this in the hopes I never start to notice it.

    Maybe it’s one of those things where certain people think cilantro tastes like soap, or simcoe hops taste like cat pee. (None of which apply to me so far, thank god)

    • November 8, 2011 at 12:34 pm #

      Well, as someone who likes the taste of cat pee, I’ll continue to enjoy Simcoe hops. 🙂

      The popsicle flavor pounded me over the head with the Breakfast Stout. I’ll definitely finish up my four pack, and might even buy it again, but having that taste leap out was a real bummer.

  7. Don
    November 8, 2011 at 12:03 pm #

    Hey Jim, you should send me some of those Founder’s Breakfast stouts so I can tase the popsicle stick flavor too. 😉

    • November 8, 2011 at 12:34 pm #

      You should just lick coffee off of a two-by-four, Don.

  8. Adam Schulte
    November 8, 2011 at 12:23 pm #

    I love Belgian beer, but for some reason, American-Style Belgian IPA always have this disgusting aroma/yeasty flavor that I can only describe as nutty. It’s totally weird and makes me gag thinking about it.

    • November 8, 2011 at 12:36 pm #

      Sometimes those little flavors will make you nuts (pardon the pun). I got like that with metallic esters in Belgian beers – once I caught on to them, all I could taste was tinfoil! Turned me off of the style for quite a while.

  9. November 8, 2011 at 12:34 pm #

    This is what sucks about learning more and more about beer, you start to find more wrong with it than good. I personally find a meaty, soy sauce note in a lot of stouts that I cannot get passed. I hear from people all the time that the flavour in question is what they like. Problem is that it’s usually an off flavour made by leaving the beer on the yeast cake for too long, or yeast autolysis. Now this flavour can be made from other factors too, but because it’s been pounded into my head as an off flavour, I can never get beyond it.

    • November 8, 2011 at 12:36 pm #

      Once something tastes like a mistake, you’ll never learn to enjoy it.

  10. FatCatKC
    November 8, 2011 at 12:37 pm #

    My guess is your picking up on either the astrigency from the dark roasted malt/coffee or the graininess (is that a word?) of the oats. I was drinking the Breakfast stout this weekend and followed it with a New Holland The Poet. The Poet is not as high abv wise but man that is a delicious stout. The taste I can’t stand is that rotten plum/prune taste in Belgian Dubbels. I try to like it to “fit in” to the cool club but they can keep some of those Belgians.

    • November 8, 2011 at 12:38 pm #

      I love the prune/date flavor you get in Dubbels. It’s the metallic esters that are a dealbreaker for me. Overall, I like earthy beers, and plums and prunes (even rotten ones) fit the bill.

  11. November 8, 2011 at 4:43 pm #

    I too have noticed that some stouts are very smoky. I tried my first Lancaster Milk Stout the other day and found that the smokiness overrode everything else. That’s not to say I won’t drink it again but it definitely won’t be on my go-to list.

    Also, I have a problem w/ many US-brewed stouts in that I find them too boozy. Yes I know you don’t particularly like Guinness, but to me the ABV in that or Murphy’s Irish Stout is just right. I did have one go-to US Stout, Wild Goose Oatmeal, that also fell into this ABV range but it apparently isn’t gonna be made anymore.

    If any of you know of a low ABV US Oatmeal Stout that I’d be likely to find here in MD, please let me know.

    • Don
      November 8, 2011 at 6:01 pm #

      What ABV is you limit? Sam Smiths isn’t that high, and Ninkasi Oatis is around 7%. I think Barney Flats is also in the 6-7% range.

      • November 8, 2011 at 10:35 pm #

        Thanks Don, I haven’t seen either the Ninkasi or Barney Flats locally as yet but I’ll keep my eyes open. I’ve had the Sam Smiths and it ain’t bad, but it’s more pricey than my old standby, as well as having to travel a ways to get here.

        To my way of thinking beer should always be refreshing, so I like the 3.5 to 7% range. Anything higher than that starts tasting like wine to me (there are some exceptions). Ditto for sweet beers.There’s nothing wrong with them, its just that those brews don’t satisfy my beer cravings.

        When I’m looking to sip something, I prefer a good port, brandy or whiskey–neat. When dining out, if pressed (i.e., all the house beers come from A.B.), I’ll also drink red wines (preferably Shiraz or something exotic like Hungarian’s Bull’s Blood) w/ dinner, but I really prefer beer–dark, chewy, bitter, room-temperature, complex tasting beer–liquid bread!

        • Don
          November 9, 2011 at 10:38 am #

          Another one you might try is Victory Donnybrook stout. I think it is only about 3.5 %, but it is very flavorful! I’m not sure about use of oats however, but it is a great beer.

      • November 9, 2011 at 11:15 am #

        Thanks Don; I’ll put Victory on my shopping list list.

  12. November 11, 2011 at 12:20 pm #

    At the risk of being a bit geeky here, the popsicle flavour is probably caused by one or more flavour compounds related to ‘furfural’ (otherwise known as ‘furfuryl aldehyde).

    One of the main culprits could be ‘2-furfuryl ethyl ether’ (2-FEE), a compound that forms in well matured beers due to an interaction of furfural (formed in wort boiling from malt precursors), yeast (forming an ester called furfuryl acetate) and natural beer chemistry – the reaction of furfuryl acetate with ethanol (alcohol) in the beer leading to formation of 2-FEE.

    Wood also contains a whole range of furfuryl compounds which arise from barrel toasting.

    I’ve tasted this 2-FEE in beer and immediately associated it with the flavour of Belgian Trippels as well as aged stouts.

    I love the term ‘popsicle’ though! I’d never made the connection, but now you point it out it seems so obvious. Thanks.

    • November 11, 2011 at 12:26 pm #

      A BIT geeky, Bill? 🙂

      Thanks for the great explanation. I’m going to add it to the post so it doesn’t get buried in the comments.

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