Clean, balanced, hoppy, fruity—these are some of the adjectives that beer critics throw around when describing some of your favorite beers. But what exactly do these descriptions mean? And in which beer styles are you likely to encounter them? It’s the taste of beer that we’re looking at today, so continue reading and you’ll be slinging some basic beer flavor terminology around like a pro in no time.
Hops has been an essential beer ingredient since before the German Purity Laws of 1487. It’s subtle presence can be found in many beers, not only just those typically described as “hoppy.”Because modern brewers have access to literally hundreds of different hops varieties, some purists might tell you that picking out the one definitive flavor of “hoppy” can be tricky. That being said, most beer drinkers would agree that “hoppy” beers have a strong astringent flavor, sometimes a bitterness, that you just know when you taste it. For some classic examples of “hoppy” beer, try out Bridgeport Brewing’s Hop Czar Imperial IPA, San Tan Brewing Company’s HopShock IPA, or Sierra Nevada’s Torpedo IPA. Also, keep an eye out for your beer’s IBU—or “international bitterness units”—rating. Though not all hoppy beers are bitter or vice versa, a beer with a high IBU rating (say 50+) can mean that you’re also dealing with a hoppy beer.
“Balanced” sounds like a nice beer description—like your beer would be good at standing up in a kayak or something—but cute marketing aside, what does it actually mean? At the risk of being misused in drink menus everywhere, “balanced” in the beer world means that the malt and hops flavors of your beer mostly balance each other out. That is, while hops can often be bitter or astringent as we noted earlier, the malt flavors of beer are generally sweeter and can offset hoppy harshness. We’re not talking chocolate-fudge sweet, (although it can certainly be found), but more like the subtle sweetness of bread or caramel. But in terms of flavor, don’t think that your balanced beer is somehow middle-of-the-road; it takes a knowledgeable brewer to combine malty and hoppy flavors successfully. Try out Ninkasi’s Spring Reign or Bell’s Two-Hearted Ale to see what we mean.
As with “balanced,” “clean” is another term heavy with connotative baggage. But when describing beer flavor, “clean” almost always refers to how the beer finishes—how it leaves your mouth feeling after you’ve taken a sip. A clean beer doesn’t leave a sticky or rich taste behind, but instead a refreshing and crisp flavor. Any beer, from malty to hoppy and everywhere in between, can be a clean beer. Clean here needn’t mean sterile, as you can have an incredibly flavorful beer that still finishes clean. Some of our favorites include the eternally classic Red Stripe, Four Peaks’ Kiltlifter, and Left Hand’s “Good Juju.”
Ok, so you might be wondering why something as seemingly-self-explanatory as “fruity” made it on this list. The truth is that there’s much more to “fruity”-tasting beer than just tossing in some apricots and plums whenever you feel like it. Although actual fruit is often used to create fruity flavors (Abita’s Purple Haze comes to mind), a variety of fruity-tasting hops and malts can be used to create suggestions of citrus or berries. Wheat-beers in particular tend to impart fruity flavors due to their natural chemical compositions. Some excellent examples of fruity beers are Coronado’s “Orange Avenue Whit” and Lindeman’s Lambics.
So the next time you stop by noblehops, feel free to ask for something hoppy, clean, fruity, balanced, or any other beer flavor you can think of, and we’ll do our best to oblige.