Do you just smell things – or are you “hopsessed”?

Christina Schoenberger

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It is never easy to define the word ‘aroma’ – particularly beer or hop aroma. Where do you start and where do you stop? What formula do you use? Is a beer aroma wheel sufficient for describing beers with distinct hop aromas? When we decided to take on this difficult task in 2011 we
sought the help of a perfumer, Frank Rittler, to tease out the attributes of the many different hop varieties. But why on earth a perfumer? The answer is quite obvious: What science has studied aromas longer than any others? That of the perfume industry, or rather the craft of perfume making. Then why look any further and invent completely new terms to describe hops and beer when the perfectly good aroma classification used in perfume making already

After processing an initial sample of 49 hop varieties from Europe, the USA and Australia with mortar and pestle and “sniffing” them, we agreed upon twelve descriptors, each with various attributes. In order to demonstrate that we didn’t simply choose any old descriptors, but that those we chose really represent hop varieties, the illustration opposite shows the individual descriptors with corresponding examples of different hop varieties.

Once already, in our Humulus lupulus column of April 2015, we described the way in which quite simple means can be used to characterise the hop aroma all the way to the finished beer: i.e. with cold infusions, or using a coffee press and with different beer styles. But now for the big
question: How can you train yourself to recognise these attributes? Can aromas be learned?

Yes, aromas can be learned and this is something that can be trained quite easily. It’s also known as aroma memory. Take a closer look at our descriptors and the accompanying individual attributes and you’ll see that there are no chemical substances among them, but instead fruits, foods and many other things:

Floral: Elderflower, camomile blossom, lily of the valley, jasmine, apple blossom, rose, geranium, carnation, lily, lavender
Citrus: Grapefruit, orange, lime, lemon, bergamot, lemongrass, ginger
Sweet fruits: Banana, watermelon, honeydew melon, peach, apricot, passion fruit, lychee, dried fruit, plum, pineapple, cherry, kiwi, mango, guava
Green fruits: Pear, apple, quince, gooseberry, green grape
Red berries: Cassis, blueberry, raspberry, blackberry, strawberry, redcurrant, blackcurrant, wild strawberry
Cream caramel: Butter, chocolate, yoghurt, honey, cream, caramel, toffee, coffee, tonka
Woody aromatic: Tobacco, cognac, barrique, leather, tonka, woodruff, incense, myrrh, resin, cedar, pine, earth
Menthol: Mint, melissa, camphor, menthol, wine yeast
Herbal: Marjoram, tarragon, dill, parsley, basil, fennel, coriander, rosemary, thyme, green tea, black tea, mate tea, sage
Spicy: Maggi, pepper, chili, curry, juniper, aniseed, licorice, fennel seed, clove, cinnamon, gingerbread, coriander seed
Green-grassy: Tomato leaves, green peppers, hay, nettle
Vegetal: Celeriac, celery, leek, onion, artichoke, garlic, wild garlic

And this is precisely where to begin. Go to a supermarket: buy various fruits and other foods and smell them. Simply write down everything that comes into your head: be it memories (grandmother’s apple pie) or moods (Christmas, summer evening, etc.) or simply attributes (green, pungent, etc.). Practice again and again and then do a blind aroma tasting.

You’ll see how easy you will find it to describe a wide range of different aromas and how quickly you will be able to discover these aromas in beer, too. So, let yourself be “hopsessed” and join us on a voyage of discovery in the world of hop aromas.