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I'm working on a little project of my own regarding beer balance and I've got a lot of theories. One of the questions I haven't yet answered is how alcohol impacts balance after it gets to a particular percentage and starts tasting sweet.

Does anyone know of any research (or common thoughts) on how alcoholic a beer needs to get before it starts tasting a bit sweet, which I feel helps offset hop bitterness and malt astringency?

It's possible it is different per person, which could be why I've been unable to find hard numbers. For me, it seems to be somewhere in the 7-8% ABV range that I begin to perceive sweetness from alcohol.

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    Does alcohol taste sweet? Last time I sipped vodka, I don't remember the impression of sweetness. – FishesCycle Jan 8 '12 at 16:55
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    Does a shot of everclear into a beer make it taste sweeter? I think that's the experiment right there. – brewchez Jan 8 '12 at 19:56
  • @brewchez, that would be a cool experiment. The ABVs could easily be calculated based on volumes. I've always found higher ABV beers to be on the sweet side, as well, but I always assumed it was the higher FG they normally end up at, which leaves some residual sweetness. – JoeFish Jan 9 '12 at 3:26
  • @JoeFish Wouldn't a higher FG mean a lower ABV? I had a pale ale that ended at 1.022, and it came out rather sweet, but I figure it's the high FG that left sugars in the beer. – CDspace Apr 28 '14 at 14:40
  • @CDspace: if the Original Gravities were equal, then yes. However high ABV beers start out with a much higher OG and tend to finish with a somewhat higher FG than lower gravity beers. So even though they finish higher, they've got more ABV because they started so much higher. – JoeFish Apr 28 '14 at 18:38
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I don't think there's a direct relationship between ABV and perceived sweetness. Residual sugars contribute to the sweetness. One reason for this can be the use of low attenuative yeast strains either on purpose or otherwise. High gravity beers require yeasts that are tolerant of the high alcohol levels. Use of these alcohol tolerant strains can produce dry beers even at high levels of ABV, however. So, in short, I think the answer of sweetness is more attributed to the combination of attenuation and alcohol tolerance of the yeast and not ABV.

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  • Interesting. I've been looking around in my brewing books and have found nothing, but I swear I detect a little sweetness when my beer goes above a particular ABV, even with a standard level of attenuation and bitterness. I might do some more experimentation to figure out when I'm onto something or on something. ;) – Hop the Mad Alchemist Jan 10 '12 at 15:16
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While I think the discussion so far has been good, I also have felt like alcohol contributes something akin to sweetness.

While I appreciate the argument that high ABV beers tend to have high FGs which should result in a sweeter flavor, I often feel that the alcohol is more involved than this, especially with Double/Triple IPAs where I don't so much notice sweetness as an alcoholic flavor, much like vodka.

My theory is that alcohol, especially once it's fairly perceptible (as you mentioned, it seems to be most notable in the 8%+ range), offsets bitterness in a similar way to sweetness. Maybe you're experiencing something similar to that?

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Sounds like you are on the right lines. Wikipedia on sweetness of wine says "How sweet a wine will taste is also controlled by factors such as the acidity and alcohol levels, the amount of tannin present, and whether the wine is sparkling or not. A sweet wine such as a Vouvray can actually taste dry due to the high level of acidity. A dry wine can taste sweet if the alcohol level is elevated." quoting pages 198-199 of Peynaud, Emile. The Taste of Wine: The Art and Science of Wine Appreciation. Introduced by Michael Broadbent. Translated by Michael Schuster. San Francisco: The Wine Appreciation Guild, 1987 as the source but I don't have that book. I would also be interested in hard numbers.

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Alcohol in itself is not sweet, like sugary sweet. But alcohol definitely contributes to the body of a beer, like residual sugars do. In my opinion this is the main factor higher alcohol beer are experienced as sweeter besides the residual sugars.

Stronger Belgian styles like a tripel have relative low FGs (e.g. down to 1.008 or less) but a high alcohol content. This keeps the beer in balance and keeps it 'drinkable' or 'digestible' as the Belgians call it. On the other side there are British ales with low alcohol but high FG. Also balanced.

Note: The term balanced suggest other styles are 'out of balance' which sounds negative but this of course comes down to beer style/personal preference.

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Clean pure ethanol diluted to about 5% with distilled water does have some sweetness.

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