Choosing a beer is an easy proposition for some people – grab a favorite or familiar brand, open, pour, and enjoy. There might come a time, however, that you feel the urge to get adventurous and try something new. Out of almost nowhere it seems, the beer aisle has become filled with a variety of new and strange looking brews – and their allure is almost hypnotic. Many have indecipherable or foreign sounding names. Some have odd or unfamiliar logos on their labels. Others come in big bottles, a few with Champagne corks on top where you would normally find a bottle cap. Hopefully together we can shed a little light on what’s inside those dark brown (or sometimes green or clear) bottles.
Where does a curious, if uninitiated, beer drinker start? How can it be possible to choose a beer you might like, instead of plunking down your hard-earned cash for something you find undrinkable? Fair warning: It will take a small amount of knowledge, but once you have the basics down, you will be on your way to enjoying a variety of beers like you never thought possible. Let’s get to it!
The first step in our quest for beer knowledge is to define what makes a beer. Beer normally has three main ingredients: Water, barley, and hops. These three ingredients are found in varying quantities in most beers, but there are a few exceptions to that rule as well – gluten free or alternative grain beers are gaining in popularity. Additionally, other ingredients can be added to beer to enhance its basic flavor. Some of these could include: Cheaper grains, such as rice, oats, or corn; herbs; spices; fruits; and different varieties of sugar including honey, molasses, or maple syrup. Due to the pioneering spirit of the craft beer movement, pretty much anything that can be considered edible is finding its way into one beer or another.
The water, obviously, provides beer’s liquid backbone. Don’t underestimate the importance of water’s role, however. Beer made with bad water will undoubtedly make bad beer. For decades, one major brewer has made the quality of the water they use a major selling point – it is simply that important to the final product. Most breweries filter municipal tap water, some even add minerals to enhance the final flavor of the beer.
The role of barley (and occasionally the aforementioned additional grains, known in the industry as adjuncts) is to provide the sugar that will become alcohol in the finished beer. The barley also provides the malt flavor we have all come to know and love – the smooth, round, character; the toasty grain nuances; or the dark chocolate and coffee richness found in so many beers. Without barley, there would be few, if any, great beers.
The bitter and herbal flavors commonly found in beer come from hops. Hops are the female flowers of a climbing perennial plant and were originally used to preserve beer – bacteria are less likely to infect a heavily hopped beer, extending its shelf life considerably. Thanks to improved sanitation in modern breweries and shorter times spent in transit, spoilage is less of a concern than in times past. Generally the more hops used in the brewing process, the more bitter the beer will be. Brewers the world over use many different varieties of hops, each type selected for it’s unique flavor profile or the amount of bitterness it will add. Many brewers closely guard which varieties and at what quantities they use to make their signature beers. The amount of time hops spend in contact with the unfermented beer also affects how much bitterness and how much of the hop aroma ends up in the final product.
The other absolutely essential ingredient to making beer is yeast. Yeast is the single-cell organism that does supremely important work – it’s main function is to consume the sugars in the unfermented beer and convert them into alcohol. Without yeast, beer would merely taste like slightly sweet, malt and hop flavored water. The yeast variety chosen for a specific beer can also add special flavor characteristics to the final product. Most breweries hire special biologists to care for their yeast strains – a very important job considering the huge role these creatures have in making such a popular beverage.
Lagers VS Ales
First we’ll tackle lagers, mainly because this is the type of beer most of us are familiar with – the big breweries around the world mainly produce lagers. They are generally known for their mild flavor, light body, and smooth character that makes them suitable for many occasions. Lagers are brewed using bottom fermenting yeast, which means the yeast simply prefer to stay at the bottom of the brewing vessel. Lager yeast strains also thrive at much colder temperatures than ale yeasts. Some beers of this style are fermented as cold as 32º Fahrenheit (0º C), but a more common range is 35 to 45º Fahrenheit (1.5 to 7º C). These cold temperatures are what make lagers less spicy and fruity than ales.
How can you tell if the beer you are buying is a lager? The simplest way is to read the label. If the label mentions the words lager, pilsner, pils, bock, helles, or Baltic porter (which is sure to confuse hapless drinkers with the ale style also called porter) the beer inside is sure to be a lager. Unfortunately solely relying on a beer’s label isn’t a surefire way to be absolutely certain you are indeed buying a lager, familiarizing yourself with the major lager players will certainly help.
While most of the popular lagers of the world are light in color and body (think Budweiser, Coors, Miller, and Busch), a few lagers are known for their amber or even dark colors. Dunkel or Schwarzbier are two common German dark lager styles. Becks and Heineken both make very popular dark lagers. If you like dark beer, or are considering a transition to ales, these beers might be a good place to start. Other popular brand-name beers that fall under this category are: Corona, Heineken, TsingTao, Pilsner Urquell, and Samuel Adams Boston Lager.
Now that we understand the more popular category of lagers, it’s time to discuss ales. The subject of ales can cause a lot of confusion for beer neophytes because a wider variety of styles fall under this category. While lagers are brewed at cold temperatures with bottom fermenting yeasts, ales are brewed at significantly warmer temperatures with yeast that prefer to do their magic at the top of the beer. A general temperature range for brewing most ales, with a few exceptions we’ll get into later, is 60 to 75º Fahrenheit (15 to 24ºC). Some Belgian farmhouse ales (saisons) can tolerate temperatures in the 90º (32ºC) range, but this extreme heat is needed to create the desired flavor profile for the saison style of beer. These are an exception to the rule, however.
Ales also come in a wide range of colors – from pale yellow, to golden, amber, brown, red, dark brown, and near black. While the color of a beer definitely impacts it’s flavor, it rarely has anything to do with the bitterness of a beer. These hues are a result of how the barley in the beer was roasted – and as in coffee, the lighter the roast, the lighter the flavor of the brew. A pale ale will consist entirely of lightly roasted barley, while a dark stout will contain a large amount of dark roasted barley. It’s fairly easy, even with an untrained eye, to see how the darkness of the roast will affect the final color and flavor of the beer. The names of many ales, as a result, give an indication of how dark they should be: Pale ale, brown ale, and red ale are fairly obvious – most others are not. A very helpful beer color guide can be found here:
While we already covered the role of hops as an ingredient, hops generally play a greater role in the flavors of ales. The extreme bitterness of some ales can be a deal breaker for many new craft beer converts. There are a whole new breed of big beers on the market touting massive amounts of hops. The bitterness of a beer is usually measured in IBUs, or International Bittering Units scale, a number which indicates how bitter the beer will be – some beers even display this number on their packaging. Ideally a beer with a low IBU will be less bitter than one with a high IBU. But to make things even more complicated, this is not always the case. While an IBU rating can give the drinker a basic idea of how bitter a beer can be, the sweetness of high quantities of malted barley flavors can often balance that bitterness. Generally the most bitter ales are IPAs, imperial IPAs, and imperial stouts. Historically these beers were made with higher than average hop levels in order to preserve them for long journeys. If you like a heavily hopped beer, definitely go with one of these. If bitter isn’t your thing, pick a lighter brew and work your way up to the big guys later.
In the world of beer, there are lagers and ales, and a few beers that combine the characteristics of both. A few classic examples of these are: Steam beer, altbier, and kölsch. Steam beer, or California common as it is now called, is beer made with lager yeast, yet it is brewed at ale temperatures. The pioneers of brewing in San Francisco devised this method in order to deal with the lack of ice or cold temperatures needed to make a true lager. The resulting beer has characteristics of both ales and lagers. Altbier and kölsch are the reverse – ales with top fermenting yeasts that are gradually brought down to lagering temperatures. These beers are normally drier, lighter and easier drinking than their ale cousins.
There should be little doubt that beers come in an endless variety of colors, flavors, and degrees of complexity. With a little knowledge and practice (and who doesn’t want to practice drinking beer?), you can become a savvy beer expert in no time. The important thing to remember is to approach your new appreciation of beer with an open mind and the desire to learn from each new beer experience.