When it comes to international beers, few are as well-known or widely appreciated as Heineken. You can find this beer practically everywhere, and people from all walks of life like to drink it. But, what does Heineken taste like? How did it attain its world-renowned status? If you’re a beer enthusiast, you should pay attention to the origins of this beer and its flavor notes. Let’s dive in.
What Does Heineken Taste Like?
Heineken is a lager beer with a mild yet bitter taste. Unlike other beers that are infused with a variety of flavors, Heineken is about as simple as it gets. So, the tasting notes are strong, bitter, with a hint of sweet corn or green apple. The flavor of Heineken varies whether you drink it out of a can or a bottle. Most people prefer canned Heineken, which we’ll explain later. Heineken also has a strong, bitter aftertaste that builds the more you drink it. Overall, this beer has a distinct taste you can’t find with other mass-produced beverages.
What Gives Heineken Its Signature Flavor?
There are only three natural ingredients in Heineken – water, hops, and barley. Since the beer doesn’t contain any additional components or flavors, it has a smooth and reliable consistency. So no matter where you are in the world, a bottle or can of Heineken will taste the same.
That said, there is a bit of chemistry and biology going on behind the scenes. According to the company, it developed its own proprietary yeast to add to the brewing process. In 1886, two chemists developed two unique yeast strains – A-Yeast and D-Yeast. That same year, the company made a batch with A-Yeast, and the rest is history. In 1889, Heineken won a gold medal at the Paris World Exhibition.
Let’s break down Heineken’s flavor into three categories: aroma, taste, and experience.
If you drink Heineken out of the bottle, you’ll notice a slight skunky odor. Canned Heineken doesn’t have this aroma, which is partly why many drinkers prefer the canned version. Once you get past the skunky smell, you’ll notice the biscuity malt scent, along with light and delicate citrus notes. The hops add a slightly grassy, earthy aroma to the bouquet.
When drinking out of a can, you’ll notice malty sweetness and citrus flavors. The taste is smooth and clean with a mildly bitter aftertaste. If you drink out of the bottle, the bitterness lingers longer. So, if you’re not a fan of bitter beers, you should only drink from the can.
Heineken is a light straw color with lots of carbonation. As you pour the beer, you’ll notice a thin ivory head that dissipates quickly. The carbonation is a natural side effect of the fermentation process. As the yeast consumes the sugar from the barley, it emits CO2, creating the bubbly mixture. As a result, it feels light and airy when drinking.
A Brief History of Heineken
Heineken’s story began in 1864 when Gerard Heineken took over the Haystack Brewery in Amsterdam. At 22, Heineken had little beer-making experience, but he was passionate and ambitious. As history has proven, these traits are all it takes to be a success.
From the beginning, Heineken knew he wanted to focus on lager. This decision was pretty monumental, considering the brewery was in the Netherlands, and Dutch brewers specialized in ales, brown beers, and porters. Nonetheless, Heineken forged ahead and stuck by his choice.
The company was able to build a second brewery in Rotterdam nine years later, illustrating how much people liked his original brew. However, that would all change when in 1873, Heineken hired Dr. Elion to develop a proprietary yeast. Although the A-Yeast wouldn’t come for another 11 years, Dr. Elion’s work paid dividends almost immediately. In 1875, Heineken won the Medal D’Or at the International Maritime Expedition in France. That year also marked Heineken’s status as one of the largest beer exporters in France.
Heineken really started to hit the international market after the A-Yeast became part of the brewing process in 1886. From there, with Heineken’s signature recipe locked down, it could take over the world. Heineken expanded into South America as early as 1883, then Asia in 1929. Heineken was also the first legally-imported beer in the United States when Prohibition ended in 1933.
After Prohibition, Heineken took off in the US and other countries. Today, it’s available in over 200 countries worldwide, and it’s ranked the second-largest beer maker (after Anheuser Busch). Annually, Heineken produces around 221 million hectoliters.
Similar Beers to Heineken
As a European-style lager, Heineken is often touted as the gold standard. Most beer enthusiasts compare other similar lagers to Heineken to see how well they stack up. If you’re interested in sampling similar beverages, you can try one of these:
Carlsberg Danish Lager Beer – This brand is actually number three for worldwide production, making over 110 million hectoliters annually. This beer is a bit hoppier than Heineken, so it has a harsher bitterness to it. However, the bitter flavor comes after the initial malty sweetness. Carlsberg is very easy to drink.
Pilsner Urquell – Depending on who you ask, Pilsner may be considered the gold standard for pale lagers. The flavor profile is similar to Heineken, but the taste is a bit smoother and has less of a bitter aftertaste. The secret of this beer is the water, which comes from Pilsner, Czech Republic. Since the water is softer (with fewer minerals), it has a lighter balance than Heineken.
Samuel Smith Old Brewery Lager – This beer is pretty well-known in Europe, thanks to its mild yet distinctive taste and organic ingredients. Samuel Smith uses bottom-fermenting yeast (standard for lagers) and filtered soft water. The hoppiness is softer, leading to a cracker taste and smooth finish. If you’re not a fan of bitter beers, Samuel Smith is an excellent choice.
Spaten Munchner Lager – This German beer is mainly consumed during Oktoberfest, but it works well as an everyday beverage. Unlike Heineken, Spaten uses four ingredients – water, barley malt, hops, and hop extract. The result is an earthier beer with grass and floral notes. You also get a slight hint of honey and peppercorn.
Best Ways to Drink Heineken Beer
Because Heineken is so popular and widespread, there are several ways to enjoy this beer. Let’s break down the most popular options:
Out of the Can or Bottle
The simplest method is to drink Heineken out of its container. As we’ve mentioned, glass bottles have more of a skunky aroma and bitter flavor, so you can plan accordingly. A big reason why cans don’t taste as bitter is that they block light from getting in. As sunlight enters the glass, it affects the beer. This is why beer is never served in clear bottles. Otherwise, the yeast would ferment more, leading to flat beverages or over-carbonated bottles that could explode.
Poured in a Pint Glass
Typically, the best way to drink any kind of beer is out of a pint glass. Pouring the beer releases a lot of the carbonation and flavor, giving it a much smoother taste and mouthfeel. You can pour Heineken out of a bottle or can, or you can get it from a draught. Regardless of the method, you’ll notice a much different flavor than if you drink straight from the container.
Mixed With Juice
One easy way to cut down Heineken’s bitterness is to mix the beer with fruit juice. Apple or pear juice works well because it has an earthier flavor. If you want to wake up the citrus elements of Heineken, you can add a splash of lemon or lime juice.
The exact mixture will depend on your preference. For example, if you like the bitter flavors, you won’t want to add too much juice. Alternatively, if you like your drink sweeter, you can add Heineken to the juice instead of vice versa. Another alternative is to mix Heineken with lemon-lime soda, such as 7up or Sprite.
What to Eat With Heineken
Because Heineken is a light, refreshing lager, it works best for hearty meals, not those with lots of spice or tasting notes. Some examples of foods to try with Heineken include:
You can also pair the beer with mild and creamy cheeses such as Havarti, gouda, cheddar, or Swiss. So, Heineken goes well with a Charcuterie board if you want something light yet filling to accompany your beverage. In other countries, Heineken is a good dinner beer since it doesn’t offset the flavors of anything you’re eating.
The Bottom Line
Because it’s often sold in green bottles, Heineken can have an off-putting aroma and flavor. As a rule, bitter beer lovers prefer Heineken because of its skunky scent and aftertaste. However, if you’re looking for a mild European lager, we highly recommend trying Heineken out of a keg (draught) or a can. Doing this helps alleviate the skunky elements and ensures a smoother, richer taste.
With so many bottles of Heineken sold every year, it’s clear that the brand is highly popular. So if you’ve never sampled it before, now’s the time to try it.
Additional Reading: What does beer taste like?