Nov 26 2011

Rerun: Craft Beer Primer

Originally published in Couloir Vol. IX-2, Nov. 1996

Cerevisia malorum … divina medicina
(A little bit of beer is divine medicine)

After a long day of climbing and skiing you’re bound be thirsty. Part of this thirst is pure physiological dehydration, something only a quart or two of water will cure. But let’s get real. You’re not aching for a glass of water — what you really want is a beer. Not just any old beer, but one you can wrap your tongue around and taste. Not some cheap, near beer (as common as slope dopes on corduroy), but a beer that shares your passion for quality and uniqueness. Maybe any beer will do, but how about enjoying the taste and aroma as well as the wetness?

How? Read on, friends, and permit this slight treatise on fine microbrewed beer available throughout the country.

Brewed fresh, consumed locally.

What this be
First, a review of beer definitions and the finer points of beer handling and drinking. Beer is made from malted barley and/or wheat, hops, yeast, and water. It’s often called “liquid bread” because the ingredients are the same, only the hops (pods from the hop vine) are used to provide different flavoring and aroma. In making beer the malted grain is first crushed and steeped in hot water to extract the soluble sugars. Then the sweet liquid result (wort) is boiled with hops to balance the wort and impart the hop flavor. When cool, yeast is added to ferment the mixture as well as to add additional aroma and flavor.

A quick look at many beer options. (click to enlarge)

Lagers and Ales
Beer is generally categorized as either a lager or an ale, and there are 30 plus styles (used for judging) within these categories. Lagers (from the German word for store, or lay down) are brewed with bottom fermenting, single strain yeasts, and are boiled with certain hops for a characteristic bitterness without a flowery aroma. They are brewed and stored at cold temperatures until fermentation is complete.

Ales, on the other hand, are brewed warmer with top fermenting, complex yeasts, and more fragrant, flowery hops. However, nowadays just about anything goes, which only benefits those of us who like to try different beers and enjoy each for what they add to refreshment, socializing, and eating or cooking.

Both lagers and ales can be brewed light or dark, weak or strong. Typically, the stronger, richer brews are more malty, and the darker brews use more highly roasted grain.

Ideal Conditions
Beer should usually be consumed (you notice I didn’t say chugged or sloshed down) at temperatures near that which they were fermented. This is about 42–44° for American lagers, 50° for German beers, and British ales at cellar temperature, 55–60°.

Like food and wine, the flavor is not released until it is warmer or gets warm in the mouth, and it must be swallowed because the taste buds for bitterness are at the back of the tongue. (How’s that for an excuse?!)

Beer should also be enjoyed with both the eyes and the palate. Use a glass so you can see the color and head of the beer, but don’t wash the glasses in soap; it kills the head. Use a good detergent, rinse thoroughly, then let air dry. At the trailhead your best bet, of course, is straight from the bottle. Heavy, earthen mugs work OK for warmer temperatures when you want to keep the beer cooler, longer.

In beer tasting circles, a general preference is to use a large brandy snifter which traps some of the aroma and leaves room for the head. Pour the beer to develop at least a couple of fingers of foam. This way some of the carbon dioxide id released so you don’t get such a bloated, “burpy” feeling. The only exception to this “head” rule is, by tradition, British–style draught ale which should completely fill the glass.

Pub Crawling
If you do a lot of craft brewery sampling, particularly in the brewpubs, you’ll notice that most of the offerings are ales. That’s because ales are easier to brew since they are fermented warm (no cold storage needed) and are ready in about two weeks after they are done fermenting. If it’s a new brewery, the offerings will probably taste the same, even if they are pale or brown ales, because the yeast and the hops dominate the flavor. Since they are expensive items, they tend to use the same ones.

Lagers are less common since they require cold storage and longer fermentation times. However, there are many fine lagers coming on the market since sales are up and they can afford better facilities. Most of the craft breweries which are expanding are now bottling the beer for better distribution and, in general, producing some very fine ales and lagers.

If you are planning to do some multiple beer sampling start off with lighter, weaker, more pale beer and work toward the darker ones since the heavier beer is usually stronger and will cover the subtle flavors and fragrance of anything lighter. Please note there are no references to the popular marketing recommendations for “light,” “dry,” or that stuff. Light color is “pale.” Remember, we’re talking craft beers.

Types of Ales
In the craft beer arena there are a multitude of ales made by every craft brewery. Typical examples are pale ales, honey ales, bitters (English style), Extra Special Bitters (ESB), brown ales, porters, stouts, and a multitude of wheat beers (still an ale). The American craft breweries tend to be a bit more hoppy/bitter than their British cousins. India Pale Ales, known for their strength and hoppiness/bitterness are currently seeing a rise in popularity. The extra hoppiness comes from using extra hops, a factor that helped preserve them in the long voyage from England to India and the colonies.

Brown ales are maltier/sweeter than the pales (great with prime ribs, roast beef, etc.). Porters are a dryer, darker, stronger brew than the browns, but not as dark and strong as the Stouts, which come in a variety of styles: Irish—with a bitter/roasted flavor; Cream stouts—sweeter and smoother; Imperial stouts—strong and rich; and sometimes you will find Oatmeal—drier, or Milk stouts—mellower.

Wheat Beer
The wheat beers are known for a citric overtone to their flavor. Wheat beer has anywhere from 25 to 75% malted wheat, and the particular yeast gives the beer a slightly lactic/sour taste, sometimes with a hint of cloves (like the German wheats). Wheats are drier than regular ales which makes for a great refreshing summer drink (or fall or spring or winter), and a great base for fruit additives like raspberries and lemon. A good example with lemon is Sam Adams Summer Ale, and with raspberry, Oregon Raspberry beer. Also, you will find many of the wheat beers to be cloudy and called “hefeweizen” or “hefeweiss.” In German, hefe means yeast, weizen means wheat, and weiss means white. In these beers the yeast is in suspension (hefe) which gives the beer a smoother body, and they are usually very pale (weiss) because of the unroasted wheat. The brew will have a great thick, creamy head from the protein in the wheat, so watch it when you pour the hefe.

Lagers run the entire gamut from pale to dark, but not with as much variety as the ales since they are more difficult and costly to produce. The palest of the craft brews are the Pilsners with a hoppy crispness that make them more refreshing than ales. Excellent examples are Dock Street Bohemian Pilsner and Sam Adams Golden Pilsner. What you will notice about these is the full–bodied flavor and richness in contrast to the “lawn mower” beers like Coors or Bud.

Newer additions to the lager market are “red” ales and lagers. These are not really all that different from regular lagers, they just have a little more body and flavor from different malts. Amber or red brews use more roast barley, which imparts a richer flavor to the brew and gives them the darker color. These beers go well with roast meats, chops, steak, etc. Next in line are the Bock beers, which are stronger and more malty (sweeter), and traditionally are considered festive beers. Double Bocks (Dopple Bocks in German) are stronger still (7% or so), and really compliment stews, roasts, and steaks.

Seasonal Options
There are some special, seasonal brews that you should try. One type is the Barleywine—a rich, strong (10-11%) ale that uses wine yeast (hence the name) to get their high alcohol content — definitely not a “lawnmower” beer; a good example is Anchor Steam “Old Foghorn”. Also, there are a fine variety of Christmas ales that are dark and rich with spices that go well with the season.

For something really different there are some Belgian Lambic styles of ales on the market. The Lambic style (from Belgium) uses a wild yeast for fermentation, and many of them use cherries, peaches, raspberries, etc. for flavoring. One U.S. example is Sam Adams Cranberry Lambic, available at Christmas time. For a real treat on that special occasion (or anytime) as an appetizer or after–dinner drink, try some Lineman’s (Belgium) Peche or Framboise (peach or red raspberry) lambic style—like a slightly tart champagne—GREAT; $5 a bottle and worth it.

One of the great ways to enjoy beer is with a good meal. The pilsners and some crisp pale ales go well with oriental food, seafood, and such lighter fare, where the darker beers go well with richer, more spicy food. In addition there are some great cookbooks on using beer as an ingredient in sauces, batters, marinade, gravies, etc3. I particularly like a good bock beer in chili—really enriches the base. For a special treat for your friends (or yourself), serve a dark lager or bock beer with chocolate cake or brownies. And for a different dessert, serve up a stout float (Guinness and rich vanilla ice cream) or better yet, mix 4 ounces of porter with 2 scoops of rich vanilla in a blender for a Mocha–flavored shake. Experiment, have some fun, try a different craft beer each week, invite friends over for brew tasting, and/or take up homebrewing—you’ll gain a lot of friends, and you can brew anything you like. I’ve tasted some superb home brewed beers that you will never find on the market.

In summary, I hope we have tweaked your interest in the craft/microbrewing market, and encouraged you to try new craft brews. There is a huge variety of beer with so many different characteristics, but that’s what’s so great about the craft brewing revolution. Every brewery tries something different, and most turn out good to great brews, providing an opportunity for an endless search for different and better brews.

Dennis Barthel was a home brewer for over 15 years, and a ranked National home brew judge by the American Homebrewers Association and the Home Wine And Beer Trade Association. He is a member of the Maltose Falcons Home Brewing Society, and resides in Woodland Hills, CA.

Brewpubs, my favorites, offer fine varieties of fresh brews with good food, some quite up–scale. Most are brewed in accordance with the old German beer purity law, the “Reinheitsgebot,” nothing but grain, yeast, water, and hops; no preservatives or additives. That’s why they are so good, and good for you (in moderation). An old German proverb says that the brewery is the best drugstore, and Paracelses, a 16th century physician said, “Cerevisia malorum . . . divina medicina” (A little bit of beer is divine medicine). Who am I to argue with such wisdom of the ages. But I don’t want to leave you with the impression that those other beers are not good.

Beer like Coors and Budweiser are brewed with some of the highest quality control and finest ingredients that can be had. They just don’t put enough of everything in the beer (except water). But if you like them, by all means enjoy them, I just encourage you to try some of the many really fine beers out there, waiting for you. Prosit! To quote St. Hildegard von Bingen, 1150 AD (poet, author, composer), “Cerevisium Bibat!” (“Drink beer for health!”). Who can argue with that!

© 1996

  • j

    Ahhhh, Spring skis and the ‘One Beer Rule’.

    A single Barley Pop gives a great lift to the last afternoons skin-up.
    A patch of sun warmed grass, a little carbo for nutrition, a wee bit of alcohol for relaxation, and much needed liquid refreshment with all that Corn.