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Diacetyl: An assignment for you, Daniel Bradford

Jay Brooks lists his “Top 10 Least Favorite Defects” (part of an ongoing series he posts each Tuesday) and diacetyl isn’t in there. A bit of a surprise, until Jay explains he has a high tolerance for that buttery, butterscotch flavor.

Popcorn, diacytelIn this case he means diacetyl must be there at a pretty high level before he notices it. For some, many in fact, drinkers tolerance means they consider diacetyl desirable.

I am reminded of the presentation that Lauren Salazar, who oversees the quality control program at New Belgium Brewing, made at the National Homebrewers Conference in Denver almost two years ago. The “doctored” beers included Fat Tire dosed so heavily with diacetyl that it smelled like standing in front of the popcorn machine in a movie theater.

“Diacetyl is one of the first words you learn (in judging beer),” she said. “We are American brewers. We are paid to hate diacetyl. You know how much British brewers hate us for that?”

Anyway, this is a shout out to you, Daniel Bradford. For those of you haven’t noticed, the All About Beer magazine publisher has set out on a quest to become a beer expert. I have no idea how to define a “beer expert” but I think understanding diacetyl would be a step in the right direction.

Of course that means spending time in the countryside around Bamberg, Germany, drinking fresh lagers. Then heading across the border to the Czech Republic for more golden lagers. You’ll also have to down plenty of pints of cask ale in the UK, then compare those experiences with drinking cask ales in the US Northeast. You’ll encounter diacetyl, for sure. How tolerant should you be?

This is not simply a matter of understanding precusors, VDK and all that good stuff. Or arguing whether Northwest hops and diacetyl don’t like each other. There’s something cultural involved.

Looking forward to your report, Daniel.


14 Responses to Diacetyl: An assignment for you, Daniel Bradford

  1. ethan.john February 25, 2009 at 7:11 pm #

    Man, I wish someone would pay me to become a beer expert! I have to pay my own way right now! 😉

  2. Daniel Bradford February 26, 2009 at 6:57 am #

    Sounds like a great idea, Stan. Since I’m not likely to be whipping around Europe too soon, unlike some beer dogs that I know, what do you recommend I try out? I seem to remember that there are English breweries whose bottled versions have traces of diacetyl in the flavor. Got some ideas? I’ll head over to Jay’s and see the other top ten.
    Cheers, Daniel

  3. SteveH February 26, 2009 at 12:49 pm #

    Fullers ESB, for one Daniel.

    But Stan, “…spending time in the countryside around Bamberg, Germany, drinking fresh lagers.”? To learn what diacetyl doesn’t taste like?I know that Urquell can have a slight buttery taste to it, but I never noticed it in Schlenkerla’s offerings — nor any of the Munich brews. Is German beer changing?

  4. Stan Hieronymus February 26, 2009 at 1:27 pm #

    Steve H – No D in Schlenkerla, but head to the countryside . . .

    I’ve heard beer geeks complain that it’s because the brewers are lazy, getting old, whatever. And I’ve had beers that were distractingly diacetyl. But what I was referring to was a fresh quality I associate with just a touch of diacetyl.

    Can be the same with cask beer.

  5. Stan Hieronymus February 26, 2009 at 1:31 pm #

    Daniel, some British beers have more than a trace of diacetyl and it isn’t all that pleasant.

    But I’m not suggesting a lesson in identifying diacetyl. I’m suggesting drinking it with people who consider it part of the flavor profile. There seems to be a “right” amount of diacetyl and may depend more on individual taste and less and matching a style. For some people that amount is zero.

    So I’d suggest seeking out American beers brewed with yeast of English heritage, like Geary’s and Magic Hat. On cask, of course.

  6. Bill Aimonetti February 26, 2009 at 5:41 pm #

    Having sampled a few cases in the last year or so, I think the 16oz Urquell cans exhibit the “right” level of D without the distracting light struck and oxidation issues often found in the bottles. A fun experiment is to start with a pretty cold one and see how far you have to let it warm before you notice the butter cream character.
    Stan’s comment on D and freshness has me a little confused. Does this mean fresh as in Zwickel valve fresh? Still fermenting where the yeast just hasn’t sucked it back in yet? Does low level D in “fresh” packaged beer deminish over time? It seems like it would need to have substantial yeast in suspension for this to happen.

  7. E.S. Delia February 26, 2009 at 5:43 pm #

    I’d also recommend checking out anything Geary’s for the big D, including their reproduction of Old Thumper. I love diacetyl as long as it’s kept somewhat in check, and that all depends on what the brewer intended.

    To me, that’s the difference between a defect and a delight.

  8. craftbeerguy February 26, 2009 at 7:09 pm #

    I’ve grown to understand that diacetyl characteristics are “OK” in some styles, like dunkel lager, but I still don’t like it. When I smell a beer (any style) with even a trace, I find it extremely detracting. I won’t go and say its laziness on the part of the brewer, because there could be a couple factors for its presence. But I definitely find it to be a flaw. For the records, I am extremely sensitive to this characteristic. I might smell it in YOUR glass while we sit at the bar. I suppose I can find it more tolerable in dunkel lager, or some English styles, but I don’t think that level of toleration is enough to measure. I just call it detracting.

  9. Stan Hieronymus February 26, 2009 at 7:23 pm #

    Bill – I am pretty much talking about “still fermenting” fresh. And in draft beer, as opposed to bottled.

    This is not a vote for saying, “We’re in Franconia so all diacetyl is OK.” Diacetyl and smoked – Steve H, not talking Schlenkerla but a beer in the countryside – does not work at all for me.

  10. SteveH February 27, 2009 at 6:15 am #

    “Having sampled a few cases in the last year or so, I think the 16oz Urquell cans exhibit the “right” level of D without the distracting light struck and oxidation issues often found in the bottles.”

    I’ll second that.

    “I’ve grown to understand that diacetyl characteristics are “OK” in some styles, like dunkel lager”

    And I’ll disagree there — diacetyl is a big fault in a Dunkel, takes away from that dark bread toastiness. Some mild initial sweetness, yes, but no butterscotch please!

    Stan, read you loud and clear about the growing trend in the smaller breweries — sad to hear.

  11. craftbeerguy February 27, 2009 at 6:49 am #

    Since when is a Czech Pils style ever allowed to have any diacetyl, and dunkel lager not?! Pilsner Urquel never had a diacetyl characteristic until it started being brewed in Canada, which is where most of the Urquel comes from that we drink in this country today. As for diacetyl in dunkel, as previously stated, I do not care for the characteristic in ANY beer on ANY level, however, it would be important to note that even 10 years ago, german dunkels with detectable levels of diacetyl, and some American versions, like Penn Dark (yuck), were winning Golds and Silvers at the WBC. Unless we think the highly acclaimed people judging these events know nothing, which I don’t believe, there are some strong indications that diacetyl characteristics in dunkel are not only allowable, but possibly even, deep rooted in the style. That said, I still prefer a beautifully bready, clean dunkel over one of those evrytime.

  12. SteveH February 27, 2009 at 7:17 am #

    “Since when is a Czech Pils style ever allowed to have any diacetyl, and dunkel lager not?!”

    Don’t know when the BJCP style guides were written, but they’re the guidelines I’ve followed for many years — and no Dark Lager of any kind should exhibit Diacetyl characteristics, without it being a fault – of course. That includes Dark American Lager where Penn probably falls. I can’t say as I’ve ever tasted a German Munich Dunkel that had diacetyl present, hard to believe they’d win awards.

    To Urquell, and the Bohemian Pils style, some diacetyl has always come through to me, not anything heavy or off-putting, but vague. Especially years ago when Urquell was still being lagered in oak.

    Now — to the point of judging and recognizing characteristics, you aren’t mixing the definition of Diacetyl and DMS, are you? Plenty of German-style lagers that will exhibit mild DMS from the use of Pils malt, but the two characteristics are different.

  13. craftbeerguy February 27, 2009 at 8:41 am #

    I agree. Diacetyl is a flaw in dark lagers. In my opinion, it is a flaw in almost every style of beer–almost always detracting. None-the-less, Penn Dark, with it’s detracting diacetyl characteristic, has won many awards in the Munich Dunkel category of GABF and WBC. Surprising, I know. I’m gearing up to take the BJCP exam soon. I’m leaning on my professional brewing experience that I gained from working with Bryan Pearson at the Church Brew Works, and my experiences of sitting next to BJCP judges at various competitions. I have only ever had a couple of Munich Dunkels that displayed this characteristics, and none of them I would refer to as good. I agree, there are plenty of great dunkel lagers that drink clean. These are the ones that I’ll be drinking! Have you ever had Pious Monk Dunkel from Church Brew Works? An amazing American representation of the style. Crisp, clean, and bready like a good dunkel should be.

    As for Urquell, which a good one is harder to find than ever, I find the crispness and softness of the beer to outweigh any small detectable amount of diacetyl present. I suppose that’s why I found it odd to talk about in a conversation about diacetyl.

    Thanks for your insight. I will be following your articles, and appreciate good conversation on interesting topics like this one.


  14. SteveH February 27, 2009 at 11:52 am #

    “Have you ever had Pious Monk Dunkel from Church Brew Works?”

    No, but I’ve heard very good things about the brewery. Being in the Midwest we rarely see the central eastern brews (let alone pub brews) — Victory being about the only one.

    “I find the crispness and softness of the beer to outweigh any small detectable amount of diacetyl present.”

    All that and the hops, of course, leave the diacetyl less distracting. But when you look over the style guides (emphasis on guides, of course) I think you’ll see the Bohemian Pils is about the only lager where some diacetyl is acceptable to style. I could be off with the American style light lagers, but I stay away from them in judging because I have an allergy to malted rice…

    Funny thing is, I picked up a bottle of Ayinger’s Altbayerisch Dunkel yesterday, one of the few true Munich Dunkels imported to the US — and one of my favorites. Can’t wait to enjoy it now!

    Good luck on the exam.

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