Today I transfered my Pale Ale to the secondary fermentor. I have now been brewing around three years and I’ve become much better at predicting if the beer will taste good from tasting from the hydrometer. I generally move my beers from the primary fermentor to the secondary fermentor after around 1 week. This early in the brewing process, there seems to be a lot of off-flavors in the beer. Almost every off-flavor though seems to go away as the beer matures. I will catalog the different off-flavors that I’ve experienced and situations where they go away, and situations where they stick around. Some “off-flavors” are appropriate for certain styles and to a certain extend, part of brewing beer. They become “off” when the level of these flavors get too high for the style (there will always be some tannins (astringency), diacetyl (buttery) and other flavors in all beers). Off-flavors are often more noticeable in the hydrometer sample than beer since beer is served cold and carbonated while hydrometer samples are taken at room temperature (unless brewing a lager) before the beer is carbonated.
Puckering bitterness seems to be more prominent in dryer beers and darker beers. It is different than a hoppy bitterness since it usually has your mouth feeling drying than an overly hopped beer. In heavier beers (in terms of ending gravity, not necessarily alcohol) I’ve found this astringency is more palatable since the beer is a tad sweater. With dry beers, I’ve found the astringency will mellow out over time. The roasting process of grain seems to also add some bitterness. This is appropriate for the style generally but will mellow out a bit over time. Puckering bitterness can also be accompanied by a “grainy” flavor since the tannins that cause astringency come form the husks of the grain. Unless the beer tastes more bitter than your average IPA (from astringency, not hops), you will probably be fine. Crash cooling your beer in the secondary can also help the tannins that cause astringency to drop to the bottom of the fermentor.
Sourness in very low levels are generally nothing to be worried about, since they tend to mellow out with age. At more noticeable levels, there is the chance that the beer may be infected. That being said, I’ve had beers that tasted a bit sour from the hydrometer sample which tasted fine once they were put in the keg/bottled and carbonated. If you have a very “citrusy” taste to the beer, it can very likely be from the hop flavor. This does mellow out a bit over time and generally is a very mild sourness. I’ve found that very young stouts also have a bit of a sour tinge to them due to the fact that darker grains lower the pH of beer by a small amount. When the sourness starts to taste more like vinegar or sour milk is when you may have a problem. Even in those cases though, wait until the beer is finished before passing judgement on your brew.
A wine like or cider like flavor sometimes presents itself in younger beers. These flavors tend to go away with time. The question boils down to intensity. A mild cider or wine like flavor will mellow out. An intense flavor could mean an infection.
A General “This Tastes Like Cheap Beer” Syndrome
If your beer seems to taste a bit more like cheap beer, but with more flavor, you probably just need to give it more time. Professional breweries generally have a flawless process for making beer. That being said, really cheap beer takes a lot of cost cutting methods, the easiest of which is to reduce the amount of time beer sits in the fermentors. Some commercial beers spend less than a month in the fermentors and thus taste pretty terrible. Obviously, homebrewed beer will have better ingredients than some of the bigger commercial beers, but will still suffer if not given enough time.
The Golden Rule
When brewing, always give your beer enough time to mature before dumping your beer. Unless the beer literally tastes like Satan’s anus, it will probably improve with time. For most beers, after around 2 months, you know what your beer will taste like. Stronger beers will take more time and low gravity beers will take less. Also, less than perfect beer may still be drinkable and you can probably pawn it off one of your friends who appreciated the beer. There are more off flavors than the ones I listed above, but those are the ones I experience the most.