Beyond TODAY: Three Flavor Notes that Make a Good Beer Go Bad

Beyond TODAY is an extension of our weekly column for the TODAY Show food blog. Over there, I talk about how an off flavor ruined my last chance with a very highly regarded beer. Over here, we’re looking at other flavors that make a good beer taste bad (at least to me).   Click here to check out Today’s Bites food blog.

I hate it when this happens – you’re taking a sip of a well made and a highly-regarded beer, when a flavor note leaps out at you and spoils the whole experience.  From that moment forward, that flavor is all you can taste; it sits there like an 800 pound gorilla, pummeling the other nuances of the beer into the background.  All you get is a mouthful of monkey.

Over many years of beer geekery, I have identified a few of these flavor fouling louts. I know that these are particular to me – others can taste the same beer and get past them, but every time one of these notes pops up, it’s pretty much game over for me and that particular beer.

Here are a list of the usual suspects: 

The Popsicle stick

This one usually pops up in stouts, and not only oak aged ones.  It’s a flavor that takes me back to when I was a kid, trying to extract the last bit of flavor from a frozen treat on a wooden stick.  Once the sweetness faded, all that was left was a pleasant, nutty woodiness from the white birch used to make the stick.  I started to  identify this flavor in super-roasty dark beers a few years back, and now every time I taste it, it’s all that my pea brain can register.  The Popsicle stick flag goes up, my ability to enjoy the nuances of the beer disappears, and I look to pawn the beer off to my wife.  It’s a perfectly pleasant flavor, but it totally takes me out of the beer.

Metal Mouth

Nothing tastes more like FAIL to me than a metallic beer.  I get this a lot with Belgian Tripels, and it makes me want to run for the hills.  I’ve read that this can be a result of poorly stored malts, but it’s a constant flavor in some beers, so I doubt it’s a mistake.  It’s either a product of the Belgian yeast strain used in a beer (that’s my guess) or from the hops used in Belgium.  Whatever the cause, once my mind goes “metal” I immediately want to get that beer out of my glass.  I’ll try and hang in there and finish it, but I’m a firm believer that drinking a craft beer shouldn’t require effort.

Gym Socks and Mildew

Speaking of making an effort to enjoy a beer, I REALLY have to work hard to choke down sours.  I know this one is on me – lots of people love sours, but I haven’t been able to get into them.  My chief barrier is the idea that I’m drinking something in which dirty gym socks have been steeped; many sours have a fetid scent creeping just below the surface.  It reminds me of a load of laundry forgotten in the washing machine for a few days.  It’s not a mistake or an infection; it’s what the brewer intended, but that smell is a real turn off to me, and I can’t get past the fact that it’s part of the mix.  I still keep trying to find a sour I like, waiting for my palate to become adult enough to process these tastes in an enjoyable way, but so far I’ve had little luck.  Too bad, because I love Sour Patch Kids and other super sour treats, but I can’t seem to find a way into sours.

So those are three flavors that ruin a perfectly good beer for yours truly.  Do you struggle with these as well, or are you able to keep them in perspective when you taste them?  Do you have any flavors that will make a good beer go bad in your opinion?  As always, let us know below!



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

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18 Comments on “Beyond TODAY: Three Flavor Notes that Make a Good Beer Go Bad”

  1. March 15, 2012 at 10:48 am #

    Here’s a tip to figure out if the metallic is really there or just in your head (my wife was on a streak where she tasted metallic notes in every other beer she drank).

    Rub some of the beer on the back of your hand and smell it. If there’s a flaw, it will smell like a handful of pennies.

    Not saying that it’s not flawed if you don’t smell that but it definitely lets you pick out the bad ones immediately.

    • March 15, 2012 at 11:12 am #

      Hmmm…that’s a cool tip. Thanks, Mikey!

  2. March 15, 2012 at 10:50 am #

    I don’t think that I’ve encounter Popsicle stick, but I have tasted metal and yeah, that’s it for me – I dump it.

    Eau de Pew, a touch of the skunk, even when the beer isn’t really skunked, is also a problem for me. Maybe the beer at the top skunked due to oxygen or heat or light but the rest of the beer is OK? Had that happen a few times lately. It’s hard to want to drink the rest.

    • March 15, 2012 at 11:12 am #

      I’m actually okay with a bit of skunky funk. I guess I can thank Heineken for training me up on that one… 🙂

  3. March 15, 2012 at 11:04 am #

    I’m sort of surprised you didn’t investigate what causes these flavors. I remember these (as well as a few more) in an off-flavor tasting our club conducted once. Basically, we poured small samples of impurities into some light lager and a cicerone helped us identify each off-flavor. Honestly, I can’t ever remember what causes these flavors to occur. Do you know?

    • March 15, 2012 at 11:17 am #

      I don’t brew enough (or know enough about brewing) to talk from personal experience on what causes these flavors. I think the woody popsicle stuff is a component of the amount of roasted barley in the grain bill, at least that’s what it tastes like to me. Funny thing is that I tasted “woodiness” in dark beers for quite a while without a problem, but the second I thought “popsicle stick” it was over. Weird, and definitely my problem, not the beer’s.

      The metallic stuff is debatable, as I cover above. I always thought it was Belgian yeast, but as I’ve learned more, the answer becomes less clear (kinda like life, right?).

      The whiff of mildew I get from sours is there on purpose I think, mainly to seperate the maen from the boys. In this scenario, I’m a total thumb sucker. 😦

  4. March 15, 2012 at 11:14 am #

    Here you go.

    Worst offender was an experimental imperial smoked wheat I had at a brewfest. I couldn’t get past Band-Aid. That’s all it tasted like to me, and I nearly gagged on it.

    • March 15, 2012 at 11:22 am #

      Oh, I’ve done band-aid before, in a terribly infected beer, which happened to be the first sour I ever tasted. Not an auspicious start! Thanks for the PDF, Bill.

  5. March 15, 2012 at 11:16 am #

    I’m with you on the metallic taste, it usually comes off as too tangy to me. Can’t say I like sours either, although I’ve a couple I liked where the sourness was balanced with some other flavor profile. I have had some beers that weren’t sours that had that mildewy aroma you’ve described, although I’d describe it as ‘earthy’, that I have liked a lot. Don’t know if that’s the same flavor you’re describing.

    The flavor that really puts me off is the tart, almost cider-like taste some rare beers have, especially those mixed with wine. If I want wine or cider, I’ll order one of those,

    • March 15, 2012 at 11:19 am #

      Funny, I don’t mind green apple tartness in a beer, even if it’s known to be a result of poor brewing technique.

  6. March 15, 2012 at 12:22 pm #

    Reblogged this on best west beer and commented:
    Jim from identifies some commonly found off-putting flavors in otherwise very well-made beers. I could not agree more.

  7. March 15, 2012 at 1:53 pm #

    Too much smoke is one of my number one peeves. Beers flavored w/ coriander is another–literally gives me the hives! I also don’t like most beers that have more than about 8% ABV–unless it is artfully brewed, all I can taste is the alcohol.

    I am surprised to hear that you don’t like sours though as the Noble Rot you touted a while back was off the charts in re both sourness and mustiness (kind of like drinking a mushroom marinated in lemon juice).

    • March 15, 2012 at 2:53 pm #

      I’m with you on the smoke, but that’s usually an intentional choice of the brewer, not an “off” flavor.

      • March 16, 2012 at 5:55 pm #

        I agreew Alex, but some of them go so overboard with it that you could usze it instead of liquid smoke on your ribs.

        BTW: I apparently had a brain fart (so what else is new?), its not coriander that I can’t handle, its chamomile.

  8. Carmen
    March 15, 2012 at 2:12 pm #

    I don’t like anything too floral. This is my big problem with Hefes and Belgians. Once I get a big whiff of flowers in my nose, all I can think/feel is that I am drinking a valentines bouquet, and I am lost.

    Also, I agree with the metallic issue, but one thing I have discovered is that a beer that registers as metallic can sometimes be the effect of the food you’re drinking it with, or vice-versa. It’s one of those things that has really made me understand why and how foodies and wine folks emphasize that there are in fact right and wrong choices about pairing food with alcohol. (Of course, 75% of the time it’s just neutral…but when you get it wrong, you want to puke, and when you get it right, you discover how amazing a drink can REALLY be.)

  9. March 15, 2012 at 2:52 pm #

    If I get a slight metallic taste from a beer, I let it warm up a bit and it usually goes away. Stop drinking out of frosty mugs, Jim.

    • March 16, 2012 at 5:56 pm #

      Amen! I always make a point when drinking out to get an “unfrosted” mug. I like to be able to taste my beer.

  10. March 16, 2012 at 8:24 am #

    Reblogged this on My Super Inferior Blog.

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