For a living I drown in wine. But after a long day assessing flights of wines nothing is more restoring than guzzling beer. One evening, however, the contents poured from a can of my favourite brand of lager didn’t smell enticing at all. If anything, the brew was almost odourless and had an off-flavour to it. In fact, I’d have sworn I could pick up the same peculiar odour found in a ‘corked’ bottle of wine, variously described as resembling a mouldy newspaper, wet dog, or damp basement.

As you know, a bottle of wine may end up being ‘corked’ because a certain contaminant ‘hides’ in the stopper made of natural cork and then goes on to ruin the taste of the liquid after the bottle has been sealed. The main culprit of this particular wine fault is TCA, which usually refers to 2,4,6-trichloroanisole. It is the main cause of the wine fault called ‘cork taint’.

But in this unfortunate instance the drink at hand is lager – not wine! Could I really have been served with a unique example of a ‘corked lager’? And if so, how on earth did the brew get ‘corked’?

Thanks to a series of high-profile exposures, it is known that the moldy menace TCA is not just housed in individual corks but has spread throughout entire wineries. But could the TCA problem trespass other beverage manufacturers and pester breweries, too?

I contacted the customer care department of the well-established brewery that has been producing my favourite restorative lager for years and suggested the master brewer would have a closer look at what some might find a hilarious query.
My customer complaint was handled ever so diplomatic but unfortunately I didn’t received a satisfactory explanation to the alleged ‘corkiness’. So, I investigated further.

one corked shoe
What seemed odd and impossible at first sip, suddenly appeared rather plausible after having read the article I stumbled on at the web site of Wines & Vines, a trade publication.

It tells the story of a sales representative for a major cork supplier recently who had a problem with a TCA-tainted shoe. Every time the guy walked into the conference room for a meeting, his co-workers suddenly noticed an awful smell of TCA.
After giving the man a sniff-down, his colleagues discovered that one of his shoes was tainted with TCA, which is apparently a fairly common problem with leather goods. Rather than continue trailing eau de TCA in his wake, he returned the offending shoes to the place of purchase. Just imagine this guy trying to explain to the store manager that his shoe (just one of them, mind you) was ‘corked’.

So, TCA doesn’t limit its diabolical work to wine corks. TCA can breed anywhere there is a combination of cellulose as a host (corks, barrels, cardboard and wood, as well as leather hides), chlorophenol compounds (which can come from chlorine cleaners and bleaching agents) and molds. Non-cork TCA can end up affecting an entire lot of wine or an entire winery even. And, yes, it’s also a good excuse for having smelly feet.

So, alright, it’s true that ‘corkiness’ doesn’t always come from corks. But, it’s pretty hard to imagine – let alone explain – how a lager can taste ‘corked’, especially when sampled from a metal tin with no cork around. Is it plausible TCA may have spoiled my favourite lager, too?

Still puzzled and looking for answers I dug deeper until I stumbled on this enlightening article: “identification, cause, and prevention of musty off-flavours in beer”. It reports on a study carried out at the famous Labatt Brewing Company Ltd, Ontario, Canada, suffering from chronic, sporadic musty problems in batches of beer they produce.

no myth but plausible
Basically, the auteurs conclude that musty off-flavours in beer can indeed result from contamination with 2,4,6-trichloroanisole as well as 2,3,6-trichloroanisole, geosmin, 2-methylisoborneol, 2-isopropyl-methoxypyrazine and 2-isobutylmethoxypyrazine, alone or in combination.

As I suspected and had pointed out to the master brewer when reporting my corked lager, the researchers mention that musty compounds can be introduced via source water or raw materials or, alternatively, may even be produced within a brewery as illustrated here.

Skoll!!!

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