By Jack Kenny
We come across the term all the time, in writings, at tastings, in conversation: body. Beer body. Mouthfeel. Whether we are behind the stick or standing by the cooler, it helps to have some good words to guide the customer in choosing a beer. Body is one of those aspects that tends to elude description. What exactly is it, and why is it noteworthy?
A beer’s body is also called mouthfeel. That narrows it down. The mouth is an excellent feeler. One time when I was a kid, a spider went into my mouth as I was riding my bike down a steep hill, and I remember to this day how it felt. We do the same with food and drink, and we categorize the experience. We possess profound taste memories; on a lesser scale, we develop mouthfeel preferences and dislikes from experience. Beer, yes. Spiders, no.
When you feel beer in your mouth, you can give it a physical description. It’s thin, even watery. It has a pleasant lightness. It’s chewy, soft, oily, thick. It’s smooth or it’s effervescent. These last two relate to carbonation. If the bubbles are small, the beer will have a creamy feel in the mouth. A beer’s body has nothing to do with taste. It’s only about the physical feel. Aroma and flavor are part of the evaluation, but separate from body.
To some people, body and mouthfeel are different things, and between those the definitions vary. Others maintain that body is a subset of mouthfeel. Beer judges (aren’t we all) consider “body” to mean the fullness of the beer in the mouth. As for mouthfeel, that could include a wealth of characteristics, such as silky and astringent. One of the most authoritative sources for learning about body and mouthfeel is the website of the BJCP, the Beer Judge Certification Program (bjcp.org).
“Body is technically separate from mouthfeel,” BJCP says, “which encompasses physical sensations such as astringency, alcoholic warmth and carbonation, but the combination determines how the beer stimulates the palate. The body is determined by the levels of dextrins and medium-length proteins. Lack of dextrins is caused by low saccharification temperatures, excessive use of adjuncts or by highly attenuative yeast strains. A low protein level may be caused by excessively long protein rests, excessive fining or the addition of large amounts of fermentable sugars. Light body is appropriate in American light lagers and lambics, but not in malt-accented styles such as barleywines and doppelbocks.”
So you see, a bit of beer knowledge could help with the deeper level of body language. Microbiophobia, no. Saccharification, yes.
Mouthfeel is best described as the textural attributes of beer. Craft Beer & Brewing magazine breaks it down to three: carbonation, fullness and afterfeel. “Carbonation is felt as a particular sting or tingle that is linked to the amount of carbon dioxide in a beer. Bubble size and foam volume, too, are related to carbon dioxide. Beers pressurized with large volumes of nitrogen have a tight foam and tiny bubbles, which produce a creamy mouthfeel.”
Fullness refers to the perceived weight and flow resistance of a beer while it is being consumed, CB&B says. This goes back to dextrins, those complex sugars, which contribute to mouthfeel without adding sweetness. Beers that seem to lack proper fullness might be described as thin, whereas full-bodied beers can range from round to syrupy.
Afterfeel – not aftertaste – is associated with the lasting sensations recognized in the mouth. Stickiness, astringency, dryness, bitterness, oiliness or mouth-coating characteristics can leave a lingering afterfeel.
“Although not well understood, mouthfeel is strongly influenced by a beer’s raw materials and brewing techniques,” the magazine notes. “Aside from adjustments to ingredients and technique, brewers also can use water chemistry to influence mouthfeel, adding salts such as sodium chloride to enhance a perception of body and complexity.”
Impress your customers and peers by dropping some words around the topic of beer body: full, dense, heavy, viscous, robust, medium, balanced, light, delicate, wispy. Carbonation can be spritzy, champagne-like, prickly, round, creamy, light, gassy, sharp, or delicate. For mouthfeel, try smooth, silky, velvety, luscious, opulent, voluptuous, rich, slick, prickly, tingly, creamy, warming, viscous, hot, chalky, astringent or oily.
All this might be a bit too much to swallow (ahem). Practice with your favorite style. Soon those dextrins will roll off your tongue.
Jack Kenny has been writing The Beer Column for The Connecticut Beverage Journal since 1995. Write to him: firstname.lastname@example.org.