Beer Interpretation #5: Oxidation // Part Two

Beer Interpretation is an irregular series of posts where I try to decipher the sometimes strange and always wonderful world of beer jargon, phrases and catch cries by drilling into the basics and interpreting the lingo.

Beer Interpretation is an irregular series of posts where I try to decipher the sometimes strange and always wonderful world of beer jargon, phrases and catch cries by drilling into the basics and interpreting the lingo. In short I’m going to try and translate the nerdy beer stuff …


Here we are at part two of this edition of Beer Interpretation looking at oxidation in beer.

You can check out part one here which covered what oxidation actually is, what it can taste like and what causes it. To help me make this post possible, I had the pleasure of chatting with the head brewer of Colonial Brewing Margaret River, Paul Wyman and Lion Co. Craft Beer Ambassador, Steve Blaine.

So let’s get back into it …

Paul at the Colonial Brewing Co. stand at this years GABS Festival, Melbourne
Paul at the Colonial Brewing Co. stand at this years GABS Festival, Melbourne
Steve Blaine at GABS Festival Sydney earlier this year. Photo Credit: The Beer Pilgrim
Steve Blaine at GABS Festival Sydney earlier this year. Photo Credit: The Beer Pilgrim

Where does OXIDATion happen?

“From a brewers point of view it’s [oxygen] is the hardest thing to eliminate,”

Paul Wyman, head brewer at Colonial Brewing Co.

At the brewery …

In the brewery there are any number of moments where oxygen can harm the beer. We talk so much about brewing being a craft that sometimes maybe we forget it’s a science as well. Too much or too little of anything can impact the finished product. “It’s crucial to get oxygen right at the start,” Paul says and whilst up until this point of the post you may have gotten the impression oxygen is always and forever bad there is one point it’s not and that’s when it comes to hungry yeast. The yeast needs oxygen to feed on in order to make booze and bubbles, two pretty critical things for beer. “The oxygen we are worried about is the oxygen post fermentation,” Paul clarifies, “a thimble of oxygen can ruin a beer over time.”

“Once yeast has eaten all the oxygen and it starts fermenting you do not want any oxygen to touch your beer,”

Paul Wyman, head brewer at Colonial Brewing Co.

There are multiple points in the brewing process where oxygen can get in where it’s not wanted but having said this Paul and Steve both agree that if oxidation happens at the brewery it’s most likely to occur at the packaging stage.

“You spend four weeks making a beer and if you don’t package it properly then you’ve basically wasted those four weeks,” Paul says, it’s fact he and his fellow brewers are well aware of when canning Colonial beers and take appropriate measures to prevent it.

Colonial Cans

Some breweries will take what is called “a library” where they take a beer from the start, middle and end of a packaging run. The beers are labelled to know which one is which and then stored for number of months before being compared to a fresh beer. This gives them a good idea of how their beer ages in the market because as much as we in the beer world would love to think that beer is being consumed within a few weeks or couple of months, the reality is sometimes longer.

Many larger craft breweries have a lab on site, something Steve and Paul agree is incredibly important to a brewery to produce not just great beer but consistency great beer.

“If you go to a brewery and they’ve got a lab you should feel a lot more comfortable about the beer,”

Steve Blaine, Certified Cicerone & Craft Beer Ambassador Lion Co.

 

Every place after it’s left the brewery …

Once the beer has left the brewery and it’s out of the brewers hands, it’s now up to a lot of different people to ensure drinkers are getting fresh beer, tasting as the brewer intended.

“I would argue that 99.9% of brewers do an excellent job of eliminated oxygen from the brewing process so if you have an oxidised beer I think that more comes down to the way it was stored and cared for and the beer drinker also has a huge role to play in that.”

Steve Blaine, Certified Cicerone & Craft Beer Ambassador Lion Co.

Operators, managers and staff at bars and bottle shops have a responsibility to handle beer correctly. No one would leave a box of seafood outside in the sun for three hours before putting it into the fridge; beer shouldn’t be any different. As a consumer we are also responsible for the beer we buy. Taking it home and storing it in the garage won’t do you any favours. Beer is a luxury, it’s something to be enjoyed so it makes sense to treat it nicely so that it is really enjoyable. Not treating your beer nicely is like going to the movies then sit facing the wall. I’m stretching my analogy somewhat but hopefully you get my drift.

This all comes full circle to those of us in the beer industry also being responsible for educating people on how to treat beer and why. It’s something the industry does in a number of ways, whether it’s master classes on beer, through marketing and even packaging.

Pirate Life (SA) cans - a great example of beer education which features on their website
Pirate Life (SA) cans – a great example of beer education featuring on packaging

How Can You Avoid Oxidised Beer?

Drink fresh, drink local …

“I think ‘fresh is best’ is the most rattled off line in craft beer and craft brewing but it’s the least understood,” says Steve. We say it but what does it really mean? He points to how often he speaks to beer lovers and they’re almost evangelical about hoppy American beers and whilst some are amazing with equally incredible reputations, it’s not always the case by the time they get to us in Australia. In many cases these beers aren’t very fresh at all. Imagine you just hopped off a non-stop flight from the US to Australia, now ask yourself how fresh would you feel?

In the article I recommended by Professor Beer in Part One of this post, article author George de Piro explains it’s not just heat but motion that can speed up oxidation, “that is why all imported at beers taste oxidised to some degree: the heat and motion experienced during shipping are brutal!”

This isn’t to say all imported beer is going to be oxidised but given what we know about oxidation and the impact time and temperature can have, the sheer physical distance between us and America is something to consider when selecting your next craft beer. There is a reason breweries like Two Beers (USA) and Sierra Nevada (USA) are insistent on their beer travelling cold and being stored cold and it doesn’t hurt to ask your bartender or retail assistant if they know how the beer was transported.

“If you want to drink American beers, visit America and drink it as the brewer in intended,” Steve suggests, “unless someone can guarantee they’ve kept it icy cold the whole trip.”

Both Steve and Paul say that the more they’ve learnt about beer and oxidation, the more their fridges are stocked with locally made beers rather an imports.

“If you’re buying something local, chances are it’s pretty fresh,”

Steve Blaine, Certified Cicerone & Craft Beer Ambassador Lion Co.

Given the amount of imported beers we, as drinkers, have drunk over the years Steve speculates that when it comes to big name imported beers they’ve probably always had a degree of oxidation. “Sometimes people have become so used to drinking beer that they don’t know what fresh beer tastes like,” says Steve. People will often comment that their big name imported beer tastes different when it’s brewed under license in Australia versus imported. Of course this could be for a number of reasons though one of them may be that the Australian brewed version is not, or is less, oxidised.

Ice, Ice, Baby …

“Buy your beer cold and keep it cold,”

Paul Wyman, Head Brewer Colonial Brewing Co Margaret River

There’s not a great deal to elaborate on here. If you want something perhaps a little catchier, Feral Brewing often say “treat like milk” which is basically the same message.

Take a closer look …

Don’t be afraid to look at the ‘best before’ and/or ‘packaged on’ dates on the beer in question. Also remember a ‘best before’ date isn’t a ‘use by’ date, take into account what style of beer it is and where the beer was brewed when looking at dates.

No harm ever came from reading a book …

“Educate yourself on the style of beer you’re drinking so you know what flavours should and shouldn’t be there,” Steve suggests. Certainly this is where the rabbit hole of craft beer can hook you in but if you don’t want to get too nerdy that’s fine. A quick Google search will bring up enough information on the style of beer so you know what it means when a beer calls itself an “American IPA” or “barley wine” just like you might already have an idea of how a shiraz differs from a pinot noir. Knowing this could mean the difference between a great and a not-so-great beer experience.

Final Words

For the craft beer industry it all comes down to education and that goes for everyone, whether you’re making the beer, selling it or drinking it. When it comes to oxidation it’s good to understand it can happen during the brewing process but also long after the beer has left the brewery.

As the craft beer industry grows hopefully education increases too and not only will drinkers know if they get a beer that’s stale but more bar and bottle shop managers be diligent with how they handle their beer just as they already do with food and other perishables.

Drink more beer, talk to more people about beer, read a little, trust your palate and what you taste, and above all enjoy what you drink!

 

 

Beer Interpretation #5: Oxidation // Part One

Beer Interpretation is an irregular series of posts where I try to decipher the sometimes strange and always wonderful world of beer jargon, phrases and catch cries by drilling into the basics and interpreting the lingo. In short I’m going to try and translate the nerdy beer stuff …

Beer Interpretation is an irregular series of posts where I try to decipher the sometimes strange and always wonderful world of beer jargon, phrases and catch cries by drilling into the basics and interpreting the lingo. In short I’m going to try and translate the nerdy beer stuff …


In every glass of beer there’s an incredible amount of passion, hard work and science that has come together to create it. The journey that takes a bag of grains and other ingredients and turns them into beer is simple yet complicated. Getting the finished the beer to you, the happy person drinking it, is equally simple yet complicated. It’s such a long trip from the making of a beer to the drinking of a beer and occasionally something can go wrong, the result is a beer that doesn’t taste the way the brewer intended – a beer with a fault and one example of a fault is oxidation.

To tackle the complicated topic of oxidation I needed to bring in a couple of big guns from the local brewing scene and so I got in touch with Paul Wyman and Steve Blaine.

Paul Wyman at GABS Melbourne earlier this year

Paul is the head brewer at Colonial Brewing Co, Margaret River and Steve is the Craft Beer Ambassador for Lion Nathan in WA, he also recently became a Certified Cicerone. Over a couple of beers at Petition Beer Corner we chatted about oxidation, ate some chips and had a few laughs too.

You can follow both Paul @6foot6brewer and Steve @the_wa_beer_runner on Instagram

Steve Blaine at GABS Sydney earlier this year // Photo Credit: The Beer Pilgrim

Let’s kick this off and dive into part one of a two part post …

“oxidation”

What is it exactly?

Draft Magazine defines oxidation as “an off flavour that transpires when beer is exposed to oxygen or high temperatures, or is otherwise past its prime.”

Basically it’s beer that is stale and old or one that’s been hit with heat or oxygen snuck in where it wasn’t supposed to.

“Heat is the enemy. All chemistry speeds up as the temperature rises.”

Tasting Beer by Randy Mosher

How does it happen?

A great read on oxidation can be found at Professor Beer, an American website written by George de Piro who is the brewmaster at Druthers Brewing Company and a Master Judge in the Beer Judge Certification Program.

“Oxidative reactions are always occurring in beer, regardless of how it is stored,”

Professor Beer

Yep, that’s right, you heard the man, so it’s not surprising to then realise that time itself will bring about oxidation.

Time …

“Every beer will oxidise eventually,” Paul says. “Even beers that are supposed to be aged like barley wines and imperial stouts eventually will get that papery, cardboard character given enough time,” continues Steve.

We seem to forget that beer is a consumable, it’s not supposed to last forever. Sure, there’s pasteurisation that extends beer shelf life – a post for another day I suspect – but this doesn’t magically turn beer into some kind of heat resistant super liquid.

One of the best ways I’ve seen the importance of time communicated is in Stone Brewing (US) Enjoy By series of IPAs. Each release features the date in huge print on the front and it’s the date that the brewers want you to drink the beer by and it’s about five weeks from the date the beer is bottled.

Screenshot (22)

Heat …

“Temperature is an absolute critical component to oxidation, the hotter the beer the quicker it happens,” says Steve. “Yeah, you’re just speeding up the reaction,” confirms Paul.

Steve uses a basic rule of thumb taught to him by Russ Gosling, head brewer at Little Creatures in Fremantle, “A beer will be ‘brewery fresh’ for three days if it’s stored at 30 degrees, thirty days if it’s stored at 20 degrees and 300 days if stored at ten degrees.”

This is why you hear some beer lovers talk adoringly about their favourite brewery that cold stores and cold transports their beers. Keeping beer cold is all about keeping oxidation at bay.

Feral Brewing puts its well, “treat like milk” they say and it’s a great way to think about your beer though probably not something to add to your breakfast routine. A significant difference between milk and beer, in the context of freshness, is that whilst bad milk will make you feel ill, bad beer won’t. “It is this durability that leads people to believe that beer can withstand all sorts of abuse,” Professor Beer writes.

What does oxidised beer taste like?

Sometimes you’ll hear someone describe a beer as being “tired”, “old” or “stale” and that’s oxidation at work. Remember, time is not a friend to many beer styles. There’s a reason that many craft breweries talk about drinking beer fresh.

Obviously “tired” is a bit of an obscure descriptor, well how about “flabby”? That’s one way that Steve describes tired and oxidised beer. “It just falls to the side of your palate,” Steve describes, “and that for me is the biggest indicator of oxidation. You drink it and it just becomes astringent, like you just sucked on a teabag.”

Often oxidised beers are described as tasting papery, like wet-cardboard, or even having a sherry or cheesiness to them. You might notice that these descriptors are pretty varied and that’s because it depends on how badly or in what way the beer is oxidised. It’s also improtant to remember that we don’t all taste beer the same way.

We are all beautiful and unique snowflakes …

Everyone perceives flavours differently, tasting beer is completely subjective. What one person tastes as corn might taste like tomato to someone else, what is green apples to you is pumpkin to the person beside you. The trick is to figure out what oxidised beer tastes like to you, not to anyone else and this takes some time, a little education and, of course, some beer drinking.

Understanding oxidation isn’t easy …

“I’ve only really understood oxidation well in the last six to nine months,”

Steve Blaine, Certified Cicerone & Craft Beer Ambassador

Steve had the benefit of the expertise at Little Creatures Brewing (part of his employer’s, Lion Nathan, portfolio) whose brewers who took him through what he describes as an “intensive session” on how to detect oxidised beers. It involved comparing a nine month old bottle of Little Creatures Pale Ale, their flagship American style pale ale, that had been kept at warm even hot temperatures to a fresh pale ale.

If you want to get your science on, this is absolutely something you can do at home if you don’t mind deliberately harming your beer. Pick something local, something fresh – have a look at the dates on the bottle or can – and leave it in the sun for a few hours and/or up to a day and then put it back in the fridge. Be sure to mark it so you know it’s the beer you have messed with. Give it a few more weeks and then taste it against the same fresh beer and see what the differences are.

To step the science up a notch you can look online for a beer sensory kit that provides you with liquid capsules containing the flavour fault which you then put into a beer.

Once you start to get the idea of what oxidised beer is and tastes like it’s generally agreed that it won’t leave you, you’ll get better and better at knowing when it’s there. “As soon as your brain is switched on to it you can’t switch it off which is a great thing,” says Steve.


Part two of this post will be up soon, continuing with oxidation and looking at where it can happen and how we as drinkers can avoid it.