Using his beer, Liquid Layers, as an example, Kevin talks about how he structures the flavors in beer.
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about how flavor is structured in beer, about how each flavor could be considered like an architectural element within a building, each piece designed and arranged into a structure that is the finished beer.
I started asking questions like “how do brewers create beers with hop-forward flavors as opposed to a hoppy finish?”, “how do brewers balance malt flavors in their beers?”, and “how do brewers create a beer with layers of flavor versus a complex amalgam of flavors?”
To gain insight into how brewers can take essential ingredients — water, yeast, malt, hops — and structure them to build different beers, I headed out to talk to Third Space Brewing’s Kevin Wright, whose beer, Liquid Layers, was the inspiration for this piece.
An American Style Barleywine with over 9% ABV, Liquid Layers opens with a nose of baking spices, earthy hops, and an underlying maltiness. Sipping the beer you taste spice, then a complex maltiness with a subtle roasty character, then hops, and a finish of spice again. Kevin sums it up by telling me, “[Liquid Layers] has five different types of malt, it has four different types of hops, and it has the spices in there.”
Of course, how Kevin created those flavors is the real story. To build a beer that was delicious and balanced, he had to carefully manage each element of the beer: malt, hops, yeast, and water.
Let’s consider each element in turn.
Kevin used five different malts to brew Liquid Layers. To create those “nice rich caramel notes and the burnt sugar notes,” and avoid “ that muddled, cloying, sweet flavor,” Kevin had to really know his maltsters and their malts, telling me that even malts roasted to the same degree don’t always taste the same from different suppliers: “just because somebody makes a Crystal 20° malt doesn’t mean their Crystal 20° malt is going to taste the same as somebody else’s.” It was through tasting the malts — and through carefully deciding how much of each to use — that Kevin created the rich, complex, malt flavors that are the base layer of Liquid Layers’ structure.
In the case of Liquid Layers, Kevin generously told me that he used some malts from Simpsons, specifically, “a new malt called DRC, double roast crystal,” that’s “got a really nice rainsy, burnt sugar flavor, but a little bit of chocolate on the backend.”
Hops: Hop flavor depends on the variety of hops and when the hops are added to the beer. There are well over one hundred varieties of hops grown in the US, to say nothing of international varieties. While some hops — like Citra or Mosaic — create tropical, fruity flavors, other create herbal, earthy flavors — like Crystal or Hallertau.
Another major factor in the flavors created by hops is when you add them to the beer. The earlier the hops are added, the more subdued and bitter their flavors become. As Kevin explained, it’s about getting “bitterness versus getting hop character, hop flavor.”
The way this played out with Liquid Layers was that because Kevin “wanted hop bitterness and an imbued hop flavor,” he ”did some more kettle additions,” adding hops early in the boil. It’s also possible that because he was brewing a Barleywine, a traditionally English style, Kevin used some English hops, perhaps Goldings or Fuggles, which would contribute earthy, spicy, herbal notes.
Even for beer geeks like me, the role of minerals in brewing water can be a tad esoteric. I mean, it’s just water, right? Well, as it turns out, no. In fact, I learned that “the mineral profile has more to do with the mouthfeel and the balance of the beer than anything else in it.”
Thankfully, Kevin was here to give me a quick primer: “The mineral content of the water can accentuate different flavors and can make a bitter beer have a more palate-coating, dryer bitterness, maybe astringent, or it can have a fuller, maltier kind of characteristic.”
As far as Liquid Layers is concerned, Kevin told me, “We designed the water profile to accentuate the malt character of the beer and help give it a fuller mouthfeel.”
The strain of yeast brewers use to ferment their beer can affect the beer’s flavor, as can other variables, such as the temperature of the fermenting beer, the amount of oxygen present in the fermenting beer, and the types of sugar present.
In Liquid Layers, Kevin chose a yeast strain that fermented cleanly, meaning it didn’t contribute major flavors to the finished beer. Returning to the concept of flavor architecture in Liquid Layers, the yeast here was like the studs in a house: you can’t build without them, but they don’t have an obvious aesthetic impact.
But Liquid Layers also incorporates a further element: spices. Sourced from Penzy’s, Kevin told me that “the spices are even harder to put in [the beer].” The freshness and quality of the spices, when in the brewing process they’re added, and how they’re ground, all factor into the flavor of the finished beer.
When brewing Liquid Layers, Kevin used whole spices to preserve the greatest flavor, then, because he was “looking for that imbued spice flavor,” added the spice during the whirlpool, a process of spinning the hot, unfermented beer, called wort, in the boil kettle before it’s cooled and pumped into fermentation tanks.
Using a hot extraction method with the spices created a subtle, “imbued flavor in the beer.” In beer, spices work somewhat like hops the kind of flavors you get depend on when you add them. The earlier in the process the spices are added, the more subdued and subtle their flavor will be. Because “everything’s got essential oils and flavors and those will diffuse and volatilize over time,” adding spices later in the brewing process will result in a stronger, brighter, spice flavors.
Putting it all Together:
Through careful crafting of these elements, malt, water, hops, yeast, and spice, Kevin was able to construct the layers of flavors that give Liquid Layers its name. Think about Liquid Layers as a piece of architecture: the beer centers around a big maltiness which is caramelly with a dash of chocolate. The malt is balanced and accentuated through spice and hops. As you drink the beer, you first encounter spice, then malt. The first sip tastes of earthy hops and malt, then finishes with spice again. Each piece of the flavor structure is carefully placed to create an effect of layered flavors.
Ultimately, “structure is what separates really good beers from just okay beers,” Kevin says. “You’re bringing a lot of different things together.” You’ve got bitterness, you’ve got sweetness, you’ve got sometimes roastiness, and all that needs to work together to make something cohesive.”
Of course the wonderful thing about beer is drinking it, the beautiful flavor of it, the experience of it. And when I head back to Third Space for another pint of Liquid Layers, I find all this complexity just disappears into the beer.
Hmmm. Now if I can just find someone to explain how that works.