I Actually Drank Something That Smelled Like the Ass-End of a Skunk

And I did so intentionally. I’d say I’m ashamed to admit this, but you all know I’d be lying. I mean, what else was I likely to encounter in a basic course about off-flavors in beer?

Yup, that happened this past Saturday, and I found it fascinating, so I wanted to share a little bit with you guys. And, frankly, encourage anyone who is in Chicago and interested to go try this course. It’s a very educational hour and a half. Well worth the $40 it cost me. Spoiler: I’m strongly considering going again.

The set-up is pretty simple. There’s a classroom and a lecturer with Power Point slides that don’t violate good Power Point rules by too much. Each seat in the class is provided with some of the slides, note-taking space, water and very bland crackers. Once things get going, they provide a control sample of a mild beer (in this case, a Sam Adams product) and then over the course of an hour to an hour and a half, bring out glasses of the same beer that have been “spiked” with some off-flavor. The goal, as is probably obvious, is to compare each spiked beer with the unspiked and figure out what the flavors are in it. Each student is there to learn how to translate what they’re tasting to the chemical (usually) causing the flavor.

The course is six basic problem flavors, and because it’s geared toward those studying for Cicerone certification1, there’s a goodly amount of discussion about how each problem occurs and if it’s something that can be fixed or prevented by the server or bar (for example, dirty draft lines can cause several of these flavors). I found this information fascinating, but was mostly focused on the stuff a homebrewer might care about. One example is Acetaldehyde, which was an incredibly “green apple candy” aroma to me, and is apparently typically (exclusively? I’m not sure.) caused by removing the yeast from the beer too soon.

It’s not that I homebrew much yet. It’s that I’m toying with the idea of doing more. That said, the batch I made right before Festival of Wood and Barrel Aged Beers 2012 turned out to be vile, so maybe I should consider some other hobby.

So, what smelled like the wrong end of a skunk? They called it “lightstruck” and normal people call it “skunked beer”. It’s a reaction that occurs when hops interact with light, especially ultra violet light (UV light).

That’s right. Skunking is basically beer’s version of a sunburn. And, much like a sunburn, it can start happening incredibly quickly. One of the folks helping with the course (I strongly suspect Pat Fahey, whom I follow on twitter) mentioned beer can skunk in the sun in as little as five minutes. So, I guess you should reach for anything but a Corona during summertime grilling in the backyard.

There are some neat, science-based discussions of skunking around. One I like over at PopSci, is a write-up about clear glass and skunking. I also, just yesterday, saw this one at Wired which uses UV detecting beads AND a spectrometer. Read ’em both, they’re quite interesting. The Wired post makes a claim about hop extracts and the PopSci post disagrees. I’ll send a beer sticker of some sort to the first person who isn’t Jen2 to come back and tell me what the difference is, which they believe and why.

fn1. The best way I’ve heard “Cicerone” described is “a beer sommelier.” There’s a very particular overlap between the two, as certified cicerones are also quite knowledgeable in beer service standards and focused on beer and food pairings. As you can imagine, this deeply intrigues me. “Cicerone” is, however, a specific title out of this specific organization – I don’t know if there are other programs doing similar work.

fn2. Sorry, Jen. You’re quick on the draw, a good friend, and great at translating science articles, peer-reviewed or otherwise. Letting you get the sticker would be clear favoritism.

4 thoughts on “I Actually Drank Something That Smelled Like the Ass-End of a Skunk

  1. Yeah Cicerone is a good program for professionals in the beer world. I’m “Cicerone Beer Server” certified, which is a pretty easy cert to get and it’s relatively cheap compared to the full-on Cicerone which is like $350. If you’re interested there’s also BJCP which offers more or less the same certification for a fraction of the price ($60 I think).

    Good blog, very breezy and informative! You should add social networking links so people can tweet links to the blog post or like the post on facebook, etc.

    • Thanks! Glad you liked the post. It was fun to attend and write.

      I’ve just started looking into BJCP stuff. I’m definitely interested, but I’m a bit new to this sort of thing, so it’ll be a bit. Still, it’s actually a goal for the future!

      Do you plan to continue on to Certified Cicerone?

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