What is beer? Generally speaking, it's a combination of a few basic ingredients: water, malts, hops and yeast. Sure, some brewers add extra sugar, fruit, coffee, cocoa or other flavors, but essentially, it's four things. Each of these ingredients helps contribute to the taste of the beer. The hops add the bitter taste and floral aroma, the malts bring out the sweet notes and toasted scents while the water functions as the medium to carry these characteristics.
But what about the yeast? Like the other ingredients, there are different types of yeast. Perhaps most notable amongst the different yeasts is Belgian yeast, which has a very distinct taste. It's what gives Belgian beers their well-known profile. If you've ever had a Belgian, you know what I'm talking about. If not, you now have homework.
It's rare to be able to isolate this ingredient and realize the impact that yeast can have on a beer. I was recently able to do this though, thanks to the good folks at Stone Brewing. While the Stone IPA is pretty legendary, I stumbled upon a limited release from them called Cali-Belgique, where they simply brewed their standard IPA but swaped the tradional yeast with a Belgian strain. I bought both bombers and decided to host a one-man taste test. The results were staggering (and so was I after two bombers on my own).
The standard Stone IPA is a really good brew but the Cali-Belgique is an entirely different beer with the simple swap of yeast. Rather than the normal hop-forward, bitter taste known from the IPA, this twist was sweeter and hid the the hoppiness from the drinker. There were newly present notes of banana and clove, characteristics commonly associate with a Belgian golden or trippel ale. The Cali-Belgique was smoother and less bitter overall, although some of the bitterness was still present in the aftertaste.
Another interesting difference, and one I completely didn't expect, was the coloration of the beer. The standard IPA has a cloudy haze. The Cali-Belgique was more clear. Both are a light, yellowish amber but the difference in their visual texture was astounding. The two beers also smell completely different. The standard IPA has notes of pine to go along with an abundance of hops while the Cali-Belgique smells a lot like a Belgian ale. Side by side, these two beers share a ton of genetics but have very different characteristics.
It was really cool to be able to identify the power the yeast had in the color, smell and taste of the beer. Because I tend to be a hop-head, I rarely give much thought to the yeast used in beers. Instead, I focus on the different types of hops used but after my yeast test, I'm going to re-think my anlaysis of beers try to get a handle on the different types of yeast used. I never knew they could have so much of a pronounced effect and although the Belgian yeast is clearly unique, this test taught me that yeast can't go overlooked.
- Appearance: a cloudy, yellow-ish amber (3)
- Smell: a abundance of fresh hop scent with pine and other floral notes (4)
- Taste: plenty of hops with some more subtle tastes of grapefruit and other citrus (3.5)
- Mouthfeel: not thick or thin but somewhere in the middle with a lingering bitter aftertaste, felt almost 'wet' on the palate rather than some other IPA's that can come off as 'dry' (3.5)
- Overall: a very solid IPA that is a good representation of the genre (3.75)
- Appearance: a clear, clean light amber (3.5)
- Smell: immediate scents of the Belgian yeast, almost like a Belgian golden or trippel ale (3.5)
- Taste: less hops, more sweetness with light banana and spice notes resulting in kind of a weird mashup of tastes (2.75)
- Mouthfeel: smoother and thinner than the standard IPA, still bitter but definitely less so (3)
- Overall: there's a lot going on with the hops of the IPA present but the Belgian yeast almost overwhelming them. A little strange for me (3)