Wednesday, 7 September 2016

One Man's Banana Lollies is Another Man's Baby Vomit

There are some common faults in brewing beer and they result in identifiable 'off-flavours'. We had a session to try and isolate and identify them, which proved very interesting. You see, not all 'off flavours' are bad - for example; apples; honey; popcorn; aniseed might be pleasant aromas and flavours. Some, however - such as cardboard, sulphur, farts and baby vomit - will never be particularly palatable.

Most of these flavours are natural and occur during fermentation and other organic brewing processes. Some of them are present in all beers, but pass below the detection threshold, unless they are meant to be noticeable in certain styles, in which case they are perfectly acceptable.

The difficulty is that we don't all use the same vocabulary to describe these things, and we don't even all detect them in the same levels.Different people have different words to describe the same thing (green apple/ paint thinner).The ability to detect some tastes and aromas is genetic, and we all have different biological sensitivities. It is, naturally, of benefit to be able to identify one's own blind spots to assist in brewing.

To test these things, we took a control beer and added samples of off-flavours (chemical compounds) to it. The control beer was Mort's Gold, a crisp, hoppy, Czech-style pilsner brewed by BentSpoke. After we had all sampled it and made notes on how it was supposed to taste, our facilitator (and crazy chemist in the kitchen), Patrick Baggoley, added capsules of powder to different jugs of the beer, which were then passed around for our delectation. He did, first caution us with a service announcement - “If you see someone slipping powder in your drink in the pub, report it to the authorities.”

  1. ACETALDEHYTE (CH3CHO) - I detected a sharp aroma of nail-varnish remover and an unpleasant finish which flattened both the hop and the malt profile. I am meant to detect green apples, cut grass,cut pumpkin and/or latex paint. This is naturally-occurring organic compound found in yeast is present in all beer in small quantities, and is part of the flavour profile of some American lagers (including Budweiser). High levels are generally due to poor yeast health or un-aged beer.
  2. ETHYL HEXANOATE - I detected an aniseed/ fennel aroma and a saccharine flavour with detergent notes. I am meant to detect aniseed, red apple, strawberry and floral, sweet esters. It is produced by yeast early in fermentation and found in low quantities (0.07 - 0.5 mg/l). The perception threshold is 0.2 mg/l.
  3. ETHYL BUTYRATE - I detected vomit and cooked creamed corn. I am meant to detect banana sweets and bubble-gum (deliberately encouraged in some Belgian beers), tropical fruits, mango, tinned pineapple, and a slightly cheesy fruity ester flavour, probably not encouraged in anything.
  4. ISOAMYL ACETATE - I detected no aroma and an astringent, chemical flavour. I am meant to detect banana and pear-drops, which I don't even consider to be remotely alike! Apparently this is perfectly acceptable in Heferwizen
  5. 4-VINY GUAIACOL - I detected root beer flavour, nutmeg, vanilla and clove,which was not unpleasant. I am meant to detect spicy, herbal, clove. Hurrah! This phenolic flavour is caused by/ found in wild yeast/ specialty yeast, and is present in all beers. It is perceptible in wheat beers, smoked beers and Specialty Belgian beers, but at higher concentrations it may taste medicinal.
  6. CIS-3-HEXANOL - I detected a buttery aroma, and a flat, graphite, hay/corn flavour with a lingering astringency. I am meant to detect alfalfa (seriously? How many beer-drinkers know what that smells/ tastes like?), grass clippings, sagebush, hay and green leaves. This is a compound that arises naturally in vegetal matter when unsaturated fatty acids are degraded, and can be eliminated by reducing dry-hopping.
  7. ISOBUTYRALDEHYDE - I detected not much; it stripped all flavour and left me with a tinny/ metallic impression. I am meant to detect a grainy taste. Clearly I don;t get this one at all. It is present in all grain husks, and is detectable in high quantities when using malt that hasn’t been stored long enough before use, excessively long mashing, over crushing or over sparging.
  8. DIACETYL - I detected sweet buttery aromas and a flavour of plastic or rubber. I am meant to detect butter popcorn and butterscotch. This dulls the malt and the hops, and is a very common fault in homebrew. It can leave a slick mouthfeel, which gives the illusion of a richness, and the ability to detect it is easier in lower alcohol beers. It is acceptable in small quantities in ESB and Bohemian Pilsner. It is produced early in fermentation and is generally caused by wrong temperature, unclean beer lines and infection.
  9. LIGHT-STRUCK - I detected skunky, wet dog, damp flats and soggy carpet aromas - it smells like a lager (Carlsberg/ Heineken/ Steinlager). I am meant to detect sulphur, which presents as a catty, skunky aroma - yay, me! It is caused by the photo-chemical reaction of exposing beer to light. Imported Euro lager (in green bottles) often tastes like this, to such an extent that many people now have accepted that is how it is supposed to taste. (Corona uses a hop additive/ chemically-modified hop to get around this problem and still be able to use clear glass bottles.) You can try this yourself at home (or at the pub if there is a nice sunny beer garden) by pouring an IPA and putting it in direct sunlight. Even after 30 seconds it will start to taste differently. The solution is simply not to expose beer to sunlight after hops have been added – don’t use clear or green bottles.
  10. DIMETHYL SULFIDE (DMS) - I detected rotten veg and boiled cabbage. I am meant to detect cooked broccoli, corn, and/or parsnips. This is a sulphur compound produced during fermentation of malt and is present to some degree in all beers (the highest concentrations to be found in German lagers). Fortunately it often boils off naturally in the brewing process, so can be eliminated by the use of a long, rolling boil.
  11. 2-NONENAL - I detected a spent fireworks and peated whisky aroma, and a strong cardboard flavour. I am meant to detect wet cardboard, paper, ball-point pen, and tomato juice. This indicates that the beer has oxidised, and can be avoided by purging bottles with CO² prior to filling, storing beer cool, and drinking beer fresh.
  12. MERCAPTAN (3-METHYL2-BUTENE-THIOL) - I detected sulphur and rotten eggs. I am meant to detect drains, polecats, rotten veg; and a farty catty sulphur. This is usually caused by light-strike (see 9).
  13. HYDROGEN SULPHIDE - I detected burning, lighter fuel, and an astringent mouthfeel. I am meant to detect rotten eggs and burning matches. This is produced by yeast during fermentation, and, whereas in small quantities it can make beer taste ‘fresh’, at higher concentrations it is an ‘off-flavour’. It is hard to detect because olfactory senses quickly adapt to this flavour. “The more you look for it; the less likely you are to find it.”
This seemed like a good note on which to end the session and go and have a decent beer! For more information on off-flavours in beer check out these links:
BJCP Guide to Beer Faults
The Complete Beer Fault Guide by Thomas Barnes

Tuesday, 6 September 2016

Getting to Know 'The Other'

Climbing Mountains and Writing Stories: In Conversation with Yann Martel
Canberra Writers Festival
Llewellyn Hall, 26 August, 2016

Yann Martel looks a little like a scruffy and earnest student. He talks like one too, frequently wandering off on tangents and occasionally forgetting what he’s talking about. But he is so erudite, charming and fascinating, that he is captivating as he describes his attitude to religion, politics, art, and life (both of Pi and in general).

He studied philosophy at university, which he claims is a good way of being reasonable; of “scouring the wonder from religion and art”. And yet he is fascinated by religion and he loves religious texts, which both tell stories and entail the suspension of disbelief. He laments that our culture is so cynical and explains that if you can set that aside, the texts of the gospels can open up to faith and wonder. Admitting that there is no proof for faith, he confesses, “it is comforting and it makes me feel better.”

He asks us to consider why Agatha Christie is so popular? Her novels all follow the same framework and they are very English in their setting, humour and morals, and yet she has sold five billion copies of her books worldwide. He suspects this is because she writes about death in a way that is entertaining rather than depressing. We are all going to die in the end, so it is comforting to think of death in terms of faith. The Jesus event is a bit of an anomaly, because gods are usually omnipotent and don’t die. But this one resurrects; death is not a finality, but merely a threshold.

This returns him to his interest in religious faith and Life of Pi. He feels there is a proximity of animals to the divine, stating where there are lots of animals (India), there is a strong manifestation of religion. Gods and animals are always in the moment (not worried about the past or thinking about something else), and have a strong sense of presence. They can play the role of the witness, and he has put a chimpanzee into his latest book, The High Mountains of Portugal. The chimpanzee is an interesting choice as it is the closest animal to a human, sharing 98% of the same DNA as us, but what a difference that 2% makes!

With little prompting, Martel speaks about the film adaptation of Life of Pi. He accepts that adapting a novel to screen is challenging. For a start, there is the need to use different language. He may write, ‘the ship sank’, because he is more interested in the effect this has on Pi than the event itself, whereas in the film, it becomes a visually dramatic and engaging scene. His reaction to the film was mixed due to the difference of perspective and point of view. In the book we see everything through Pi’s eyes; in the film we see Pi himself. Naturally the ruminations of the book are lost. Martel considers the film is a nice compliment to the book if you read the book first. If you see the film first, it seems a little lacking. He was slightly disappointed in the film but, he laughs, no one ever blames the author for a bad adaptation of their novel, and anyway, “I cried all the way to the bank”.

When asked which version of Life of Pi really happened, he throws it back to the audience – which did we prefer? Obviously the first one with the animals is more marvellous and remarkable. We tend to prefer metaphors; who cares if they are true? If we are obsessed with facts and the truth alone, we would never read novels or poetry. We also tend to believe what we last see, which becomes problematic in a film. In a novel we don’t see anything; we create it all mentally, and because the ‘real’ story is macabre and horrible, most people want to believe the first story, even if it is incredible. Life of Pi is going to be adapted for the stage in London (cue gasps of delight from the audience), and Martel hopes to involve himself more and suggesting that the storyline is inverted, putting the grim one first, and allowing the fable to be teased out by the investigators in the Mexican hospital.

Martel has a shack to write in, in which he isolates himself. Before he begins a novel he reads books, asks questions and researches. Then, “I close my eyes and try to imagine being the other”. He wrote about a man who became a woman and returned to being a male with a new sense of awareness in Self (1996). Interested in sexual identity, he asked women about all aspects of their sexuality and physicality and concluded there is a greater sorority of women than there is fraternity of men. Beatrice and Virgil (2010) is an allegorical tale about the Holocaust featuring a donkey and a monkey. He believes that a great story creates empathy, and the best way of understanding ‘the other’ is to be ‘the other’ through fiction. It is a matter of concern to him that the largest group of people who don’t read is that of middle-aged males; the ones who tend to run the world, and therefore, need the most understanding.

One of his more controversial actions was his attempt to educate former Canadian Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, whom he describes as a “tight, narrow little man”. Harper had no life/ work/ travel experience and famously never read. When asked what his favourite book was, he replied “The Guinness Book of World Records”. Shocked by this gulf between the political and the arts, as Harper was meant to be the people’s representative of both, Martel sent him a book every two weeks with a short note. The first was The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy, for which he was accused of being elitist – “We can’t all read Tolstoy!”

Martel continued to send Harper a variety of books from Agatha Christie to Harlequin Romances (The Virgin Secretary’s Impossible Boss) over four years – 101 books and letters – and received no reply. People accused Martel of arrogance and asked him, “What does it matter if Harper doesn’t read?” He counters that it is important to read the imaginative word; “If you have power over other people; you must know these other people.”

Naturally, this statement lead to a question from the audience asking what he would recommend our own Prime Minister read. After commenting, “You make me feel like a literary oncologist”, Martel fielded the question deftly, suggesting that, as he needs courage and serenity, perhaps a war novel would be appropriate – something like The Red Bad of Courage. Playing expertly to the crowd, Martel concluded, “but I understand that Turnbull likes the arts – he’s just in the wrong party…”