Aroma and Bouquet in Wine and Beer, and Suggestion for Evaluating Beer

two glasses of wine side by side, one red and one white

I got into a conversation with Peter Barclay last night on aroma vs. bouquet for wines and beers.   For wines it’s relatively straightforward – well, defining it is; experiencing it could be a lot more complicated.  For beers, I’m not happy with the definitions I’ve seen, and I’d like to make a suggestion on how to use “aroma” and “bouquet”.

Just to be clear, both aroma and bouquet are experienced with the sense of smell, and are sometimes lumped together as the “nose” of a beverage.  I’m going to save “odor” in this context for nasties, smells like boiled cabbage or skunk that are generally referred to as “off-odors” and considered (reasonably enough) flaws.

person with their nose all the way in a big balloon glass of red wine
Go ahead, put your nose all the way in the glass

When you’re smelling wine or beer, the process is to pour some in a glass (and there are different types of glasses that are optimal for various wines and beers, designed to augment the aroma experience), then place the glass on a flat surface and swirl it gently 3-4 times.  This allows molecules of the volatile chemicals to rise with the CO2 and rise to your nose.  Next, put your nose in the glass.  Don’t snort the wine, just get a good whiff.  A good long deep whiff will bring the aromatic vapors into the small pocket in your nasal package where your olfactory sensors are – about the size of a postage stamp.  Consider what you smell; see if you can identify the natural smells of the ingredients and fermentation.  Remember that your nose desensitizes pretty quickly; you’ll probably only get 3-4 good sniffs out of it before your nose needs to rest and reset.

Elements such as temperature and how long the beverage has been exposed to air can make a significant difference, too.

Wine

The first scents you should (optimally) notice from a glass of wine are the aroma – specifically, the scents of the grapes themselves.  The primary, or varietal, aroma is that of the major kind of grape used; the secondary, or vinous aroma is any other grape that was blended in.  If your wine is made with 85% merlot and 15% cabernet, your primary aroma should be the merlot grapes and the secondary be the cabernet grapes.   Note that I’m describing pre-fermentation elements.  The aroma can remind you of fruit, flowers, herbs, or spices.  I had a bottle of red from a village in Greece in which the aroma held hints of every plant that grew nearby; aroma can be really complex.

a box that can hold small vials and paper cards used to teach you to ID wine aromas
Kits help you learn to identify common aromas

Wine bouquet comes from the combined effects of the winemaking process.  Aldehydes and esters form during the oxidation of the fruit acids and alcohol in the bottle; bouquet can take years to fully develop.  Sometimes bouquet is referred to as tertiary aroma, but it seems to me that diminishes its power.  Bouquet is a lot of what makes a good wine a mystical discovery.  Yeast, fermentation, elements like oak cask storage, aging, those are all elements of bouquet.  The fragrances tend to be much more complex and layered than the aroma.  This is where folks who describe wines go to town.  Bouquet can include notes of plum, mushroom, cedar, caramel, coffee,  chocolate, or almond; it might be yeasty, buttery, or woody.  As near as I can tell, the sky and your imagination are the limit to describing a wine’s bouquet (and of course what you genuinely discern).  Many bouquet descriptors are not things that were actually added to the wine – there were no butter, no cedar, no mushrooms – but the fermentation process has developed such complex chemistry that those are what you are reminded of when you taste the wine.

cavern filled with oak barrels stacked on their sides
Wine bouquet can indicate how the wine was stored/aged: in glass, in oak barrels, etc.

Linda Moran at Vinetowine.org (which I found on the Northwest Ag Information Network) has a handy way to keep aroma and bouquet straight: ‘Aroma precedes bouquet in the winemaking process the same way “a” precedes “b” in the alphabet.  Aroma is the basic fragrance, those first smells of the grapes and the grape juices…bouquet is referring to the smells that come from the fruit in combination with the second party, the winemaking process.’  U.C. Davis has developed a wine bouquet wheel to help identify the sources of all the possible smell elements; there are wine bouquet aroma kits to help you learn, too.

UC Davis wine aroma chart
UC-Davis has developed a wine aroma chart

Beer

Beer, on the other hand…well, definitions are a lot mushier, and I wish they weren’t.   Beer Utopia says  aroma is the smell of the beer, and that the term bouquet can also be used; that bouquet is the layers of smells and aromas perceived in a beer.  The Samuel Adams’ online Beer Encylopedia says bouquet is the aroma or fragrance of the beer.  The fabulous Oxford Companion to Beer doesn’t even define bouquet, only aroma. Beer is a lot more complicated than that.

The AHA/BJCP (Beer Judge Certification Program, the U.S. gold standard for judging beer) gives 24% of a total score to aroma and 50% to taste, which is affected by aroma, so really we could develop this a little further, don’t you think?

House Greydragon (my friend Peter again) defines aroma and bouquet for beer very similarly to how it’s defined for wine.  Aroma includes the malt, grain, and fermentation byproducts. Aroma in Peter’s consideration includes sensations like malty sweetness, caramel, toffee, roasted, toasted, or chocolate notes. I think we can break this into primary (ingredient) and secondary (fermentation process) aromas.

What beers  usually have that wines don’t is the addition of hops.  Hops make for a very complicated element in a beer’s nose.  Since we can cover ingredients and fermentation process with aroma, let’s call hop contribution a beer’s bouquet.  Sometimes that bouquet includes grapefruit, or citrus, or grass, or vanilla.  Just the citrus element can show great variance, and be more like balsam, or bergamot, or even soap (though I hope not).  Maybe a beer’s hop bouquet is like black pepper, or currants; the smell of apples, pineapple, rose or mint can all be the result of hop inclusion in your beer.  See what I mean?  Hops deserve a vocabulary and identification of their own.

We get hop bitterness measured in IBUs on brewing recipes and adverts, but I for one am a lot less interested in bitterness.  Hop brilliance, on the other hand, is why I go gaga over fresh Sun King IPAs and pale ales – styles I normally abhor ( Stone Brewing is another that does a great job profiling the wonder that is hops).  Such beers were a revelation to me of what hops can really do for a beer, and have changed my outlook on hop additions completely (in my homebrew as well as in commercial beer – well, I’m working on it, anyway!).

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