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Sniff at Your Own Risk: Beers That Reek

Some craft brews treat you kindly, like a overeager gentleman on a first date. But other beers put some stank on the nose and throw your senses into an orgy of odors. These are just some those beers, and they smell to high heaven.
September 12, 2014, 7:00pm
Photo via Flickr user Will Merydith

Anyone who's dipped their toes into the craft beer scene has experienced a pint that throws their senses into flux—a rogue glass that looks like beer, fizzes like beer, but smells like your neighbor on the drive back from Burning Man. I've tangoed with my fair share of these beers, many of which have made me seriously second-guess my sanity. Am I really about to drink something that smells like overcooked scrapple? Turns out, I will and I have.

Still, nothing throws a wrench into your imbibing more than a beer with body odor, and after getting side-swept by a few pungent beers (some of which were downright offensive) it was high time to get some answers. I looked to beer connoisseur and author Marty Nachel to break down the culprits lurking beneath the stink of a few choice beers and most importantly, if they're worth the smell.

Soon after the initial assault, the unfiltered funk seems to keeps its distance, but that could be because I've pushed the glass back a few inches.

PEEKSKILL BREWERY: THE ARISTOCRATS Smell: Described on the menu as a "primitive-style sour," I was expecting a vinegary, tart vibe, like a Granny Smith apple that isn't quite ripe. But what I actually got was a cheese vapor; like a fat, wet block of Parmesan that's served in a used sneaker. When I relayed my reaction to head brewer Jeff O'Neil, he simply laughed and agreed. "Yeah, it's super cheesy. We brewed it in February and one of the brewers thought it mellowed out. I think we've just gotten used to it." To be fair, he had a point. Soon after the initial assault, the unfiltered funk seems to keeps its distance, but that could be because I've pushed the glass back a few inches.

Marty Says: It's something called Lactobacillus, a bacterium that's found in yogurt and sauerkraut and other fermented foods. For beer, lactobacillus gives ales a sharp, sour flavor. The only downside, as Marty states, is that the bacteria "have their own unique 'funk' that some people may associate with aged cheese." Well, that explains the Parmesan smell.

Verdict: Tastes miles better than its cheesy esters. My instincts weren't wrong when I guessed it'd be tart, like a Sour Patch Kid with a lemon drizzle. Certainly not for the faint of heart, but that's OK. More for me.

If I close my eyes, I think I get coffee–but stale coffee that's been sitting out all day, the kind that you'd only drink because you're deliriously tired and lazy.

NIGHTSHIFT BREWING: TAZA STOUT Smell: Reading the description, I see chicory, ginger, cacao nibs, and Taza Chocolate on the label, all of which I want in my belly immediately. Sadly, none of those aromas are actually present in my glass. What lies beneath instead involves their combination blended into burnt toast and Band Aids. If I close my eyes, I think I get coffee–but stale coffee that's been sitting out all day, the kind that you'd only drink because you're deliriously tired and lazy.

Marty Says: "There's no question that the chicory was the main source of the burnt character." Chicory is a bittering root, similar to coffee, but where coffee usually gives off more roasts, chicory stays bitter to the very end. Marty continues, "Regarding the Band-Aid smell, this falls in the category of phenolics, which tend to be medicinal or plastic-like in their stench. To some people, ginger has a mildly medicinal aroma, which I think may have contributed to the overall phenolics of this beer."

Verdict: Fortunately, all of the burnt notes stop at the smell. Unfortunately, the medicinal notes make it through. The silver lining that makes this beer actually drinkable is the cacao, which is like the Sriracha of craft beer. It makes everything instantly better.

Holy smoking peat, Batman. If you get nauseous walking past a cigar shop, steer clear.

BIRRIFICIO DEL DUCATO: BRETT PEAT DAYDREAM Smell: Smoked beers are one of those styles that aren't for everyone. Too much smoke makes you feel like you're licking an ashtray, but when done correctly, it can taste like a barbecue in a glass. The kind of barbecue that you're trying to get invited to. Not even ten seconds after opening Brett Peat Daydream, I get medicine, Band Aids, and smoke. A whole lot of smoke, as though I'm being hot-boxed.

Marty Says: "Again, we're dealing with a class of phenolics, but this time, it's attributed to the smoked malt. Unlike regular smoked malts (that which is smoked over woods such as beech or alder), peat-smoked malt is not only more intense, but it also comes with its own unique "sweet" smoky smell. But it still emits a Band-Aid like odor."

Verdict: Holy smoking peat, Batman. If you get nauseous walking past a cigar shop, steer clear. It's not as aggressive as it lets on, but still a little jarring. If I see it on the shelf, I'll probably give it a nod of recognition and keep walking.

It would be nothing short of foolish to expect tame hibiscus or pine, but this was just rude.

STONE BREWING: PUNISHMENT Smell: I admit, when it comes to spice, I'm a big, fat wimp. So, it was probably a very counterintuitive move to order a chili beer, especially one that's named "Punishment" and is brewed by throwing a heaping portion of home-grown chili peppers into a beer that already pushes 12 percent. It would be nothing short of foolish to expect tame hibiscus or pine, but this was just rude. I felt like I was being waterboarded by rotting pepper puree. (In hindsight, this should have been the point where I walked away and never looked back.)

Marty Says: "I think this situation has everything to do with how the pepper character was introduced to the beer. If the actual vegetable was allowed prolonged contact with the beer, it is sure to create the rotting/rotten aroma, especially if any boiling was involved. Many brewers will produce a 'tea' from the peppers that is added after fermentation and aging and before packaging."

Verdict: My educated guess is that there was no pepper "tea" going on here. My nose was running, my eyes were watering, and my stomach was already prepping to heave on command. This is a beer reserved for an ex-boyfriend or a true masochist. Not. Fun.

Just because a beer can be made, doesn't always mean it should.

ROGUE BREWERY: VOODOO DOUGHNUT MAPLE BACON ALE Smell: Rogue Brewery frequently teams up with Voodoo Doughnut, an independent doughnut shop in Oregon, for some sweet, wackadoo beers. Previous incarnations have included the Chocolate, Peanut Butter and Banana Ale or Pretzel, Raspberry & Chocolate Ale. All of them smell like they'll make your blood sugar spike, but the Maple Bacon Ale took it to a whole new level of sickly. There's no sizzling aroma I was hoping for. Instead, it was as if someone took uncooked bacon and tossed it over a campfire. I came refer to it as "salmonella in a glass."

Trusting that Marty was far too wise to be suckered into trying such a hot mess, I sent him the list of 13 ingredients (for context, you only need four to make beer). Of these ingredients, a few standouts were: three different types of smoked malts, maple flavoring and, of course, bacon.

Marty Says: "Three different types of smoked malt—including house smoked hickory—yes, I think it's safe to say this is where this train went off the tracks. Keep in mind that maple flavoring may have also contributed its own smokiness. Not sure how they introduced the bacon or the bacon flavor to the beer as any animal fat in the beer would have damaging effects on the beer's head, at the very least."

Verdict: I couldn't get past the smell if I tried—and to be fair, I didn't try that hard. One sip and I tossed the bright pink bottle (that should have been enough of a warning sign) in the trash and immediately tried to black the beer out from my memory entirely. Moral of this story, just because a beer can be made, doesn't always mean it should. Essentially, this beer was designed to be a train wreck.

This post previously appeared on MUNCHIES in July, 2014.