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What is Skunky Beer?

This is a skunk. A North American Striped Skunk (Mephitis Mephitis) to be specific. The next time you are driving down a country road and detect the smell of this mammal, remember the aroma well. Lock it away in your brain. Incredible as it might seem, that unmistakable skunk smell is incorrectly considered a desirable feature of imported beer by many of the undereducated beer consuming population.

Below is a beer cooler. You've seen them in stores. It is your enemy! Brightly lit and beckoning you with the promise of refreshment and joy. See the beer in the clear glass bottles? See the reflection of the fluorescent lights on the door to the beer cooler? If you like beer from clear bottles sold from a beer cooler at your local mini-mart you have developed a taste for a substance named methyl mercaptan.

beer cooler

Beer is made from water, malt, hops, and yeast. When hops are boiled in the brewing process, they release bittering substances called alpha and beta acids. Without this bitterness, beer would taste sweet, flabby, and cloying. When the finished beer is exposed to light in the 200nm - 550nm wavelength, some of the bittering molecules have a photochemical reaction and produce 3-methyl-2-butene-1-thiol. This is molecularly similar to the substance that exudes from the back-end of an agitated skunk! It is not a trait of fine imported beer. It is a fatal flaw. The 200nm - 550nm wavelength is in the blue-green shade, right smack in the middle of the usual range generated by fluorescent lights.

Naturally, canned beer is immune to light. Brown bottles filter out much of the damaging wavelengths. Clear glass offers no protection and green glass is not much better. Try this experiment: Find a store that will sell you a case of Heineken from their back cooler. Do not open the case! Take it home and remove two bottles. Put one under a table lamp or a fluorescent fixture for eight hours. Label it and put it in the fridge. Put another bottle out in direct sunlight for an hour. Label it and put it in the fridge with two bottles that have never seen the light of day. After waiting a day, remove all four bottles and place them in a paper bag to keep any additional light from striking them. Have a friend pour each beer into a clean glass without telling you which one is which. Take a deep breath or two and take a whiff of each glass. Take time to allow your nose to return to normal. If you can't tell the light-damaged skunky beers from the fresh, we feel bad for you.

An interesting sidenote: Did you know that natural gas, commonly used to heat buildings and homes, has absolutely no smell? Methyl mercaptan is the same substance added to normally odorless natural gas to give it that unmistakable aroma when there is a gas leak.

While we're on the topic of getting the best taste out of your beer, it'd be a shame if we didn't mention the importance of sipping your favorite brew from a quality glass or mug. Plastic cups, while ubiquitous at college parties, have an off-putting smell that can confuse your tastebuds, resulting in a plasticky flavor. Our personalized beer mugs are made of high quality glass specifically designed for drinking beer. We also engrave custom pint glasses for those with an " anti-handle" agenda.