So, there’s no way I can let the B’s go without doing a post about beer.
(If you’re a beer expert, please keep in mind that I’m blogging through a book; very likely, you’ll probably know pretty much everything I have to offer here. If you’re novice-to-intermediate when it comes to your beer knowledge, though, you may find some interesting information here. I definitely found things that I didn’t know.)
Oddly enough, with the three-and-a-half pages devoted to beer in The Book, the history of beer isn’t even glanced upon. (The history of Brussels sprouts, yeah, but not the history of beer. So weird.) The Book defines beer as a “generic term for low-alcohol beverages brewed from a mash of malted barley and other cereals, flavored with hops and fermented with yeast.” As generic as that term is, it’s pretty specific as to what goes into beer–its primary ingredients are water, malt, hops, and yeast. And yet, when it comes to beer, you can have a different beer every night for months and never need to have the same one twice. Drinking beer is one of our great national pastimes, and there are whole aisles in the grocery store devoted solely to beer. (Also usually one for chips and soda. We have our priorities in order.)
“Beer,” though, is only supposed to refer to beers that are bottom-fermented, or beers in which the yeast sinks to the bottom of the tank; these beers are brewed at colder temperatures over longer periods of time, which results in a lighter, crisper flavor profile. Bock beer, malt liquor, lager, Pilsner, and Vienna beers are true beers; Eisbock, or “ice beer,” is lagered at such a cold temperature that ice crystals form and are later strained out, which raises the alcohol content as high as 13%. Porters, stouts, and wheat beers (the good stuff, as far as I’m concerned) are top-fermented and are classified as ale–along with, obviously, all kinds of ales. Some state regulations restrict the words beer, lager, and ale according to alcohol content rather than where the yeast like to hang out, which just adds to the general pandemonium when it comes to figuring out what kind of beer is what.
Beers can come in many different flavors besides your standard “beer” flavor–pumpkin, chocolate, raspberry; I’ve even seen a grapefruit beer that I am a little frightened to try. The four key ingredients have the greatest impact on the flavor profile of a beer, though. Malt adds sweetness to a beer, more or less depending on how the malt is treated. Malt is a grain, which gives yeast the food that it needs to consume and create alcohol as a byproduct–basically, we drink yeast poop. Hops give beer its characteristic dry bitterness; the plant also produces hop shoots, which can be cooked up like asparagus. Brewer’s yeast, which is not the same kind of yeast that we use to make bread, can also impart flavor into the beer–well, besides the obvious alcohol flavor. Some beers, such as Newcastle, have a flavor that is sometimes reminiscent of bread; that’s the yeast at work. Water, we think of as being flavorless, and that’s good for making beer. Using water that has impurities will transfer those flavors right into your beer and potentially murder your yeast. Gross.
The alcohol content of beer can reach 13%, but generally hovers between 3.2% and 8% in the states. The alcohol content in beer adds calories and body as well as the mind-altering effects; non-alcoholic beers, or “brews” as they are legally called, have 40-60% fewer calories than a standard American beer. Brews have a minuscule alcohol content, between .2% and .3%; some are made non-alcoholic by arresting fermentation, and some have the alcohol removed.
Beer should be served fresh rather than aged; draught beer, or draft beer, is served straight from the keg and doesn’t have to undergo pasteurization the way that bottled and canned beers do. If you’re lucky enough to live near a microbrewery that serves beer, you can drink beer that has been lovingly crafted and brewed on-site (or at least nearby). A microbrewery brews craft beer in small batches and is limited in the amount that they can brew and still be considered a microbrewery. Because of the small scale of the production, more attention can be paid to the details of beer-brewing, which usually means a great increase in palatability. (Usually. I’ve tasted some microbrews that I wouldn’t feed my dog. Well, I wouldn’t feed my dog beer at all, actually. And I don’t even have a dog, so it’s a moot point.)
If you feel a little lost when it comes to ordering beer, The Book has some information that could help:
Pale ale is a lighter ale that has a balanced flavor; pale ales are generally mild, although India pale ale has a slight bitter flavor.
Brown ale has a predominantly sweet flavor from caramelized malt and a limited addition of hops; brown ale is full-bodied, which refers to the.. erm.. well, I’ll explain it as it was once explained to me: the variances in body that you find in beverages is like having different kinds of milk. Skim milk has a very light body (it’s very thin and kind of watery); whole milk has a medium body; cream has a very rich, heavy body. It’s sort of like the thickness of the liquid, only it’s still very liquidy and not thick like honey or something. Oh, and brown ale is brown. (I bet you couldn’t have guessed that.)
Scotch ale looks a bit like scotch, amber to dark brown. Scotch ale is full-bodied and very malty. Scotch ale has some side effects–you may wake up to find yourself wrapped around some bagpipes wearing a kilt. You have been warned.
Trappist beer refers to the ales that are produced by brewing abbeys dating back to the middle ages. There are six still in existence today: Koningshoeven in the Netherlands, and Chimay, Orval, Rochefort, St. Sixtus, and Westmalle in Belgium. (Wikipedia tells me that there is one more in Belgium: the Achel Brewery. I’m going to believe them on this one because the brewery has a website.) Trappist abbeys must be under the control of Trappist monks, and their financial aims must be non-profit. If I were going to be a monk, I’d want to be a brewin’ monk.
Bock beer is full-bodied, somewhat sweet, and dark-colored. The flavor profile is both malty and hoppy. Bock beers were, traditionally, quaffed to celebrate the coming of spring; we no longer connect bock beer to any particular season.
A lager was traditionally aged 1 – 3 months to allow sediment and particulates to settle (The Book says “until free of sediment and crystal clear”–I’m guessing it settled and they siphoned it off, either that or it’s magic). Most popular (i.e. crappy) American beers are lagers. They are light-bodied and light in color.
Lambic beer is a wheat beer produced using wild yeast called Berttanomyces in an area southwest of Brussels. These beers can be sour before they’re aged; unlike many beers, lambic beers can be aged for months or years before consumption.
Malt liquor is a beer that has a higher alcohol content, up to 9%. Some malt liquor beers cannot be legally labeled “beer” because of the high alcohol content.
Stouts seem to be extremely popular in the beer world (much more than my beloved porters); I frequently see different kinds of stouts popping up on menus these days. Guinness is the most famous stout, a dry stout (also called Irish stout) characterized by a hoppy flavor with less malt. Sweet stouts, sometimes called milk stouts, are not as bitter (one might even say . . . sweeter); oatmeal stout is a variety of sweet stout made from oatmeal. Russian stout, also known as Imperial stout, originated in Britain as a strongly-flavored, potent beer to export to Russia. Modern Russian stouts are cask- and barrel-aged.
Speaking of porters, let’s talk porters for a moment. Porters are full-bodied, dark, and, in modern times, slightly sweet. The distinctive flavor of porters comes from roasted malt. They are amazing.
Vienna beer is an amber-red lager, which comes from the malt. They have a light hops flavor. Bet you can’t guess where this beer originated. Bet you can’t.
A Pilsner was originally a beer brewed in Pilsen in the Czech Republic. In modern times, it refers to pale, light lagers; they generally are mild in flavor, with a few having more of a hoppy flavor.
This firm, round root vegetable has leafy green tops–crap, sorry, that’s a beet.
Last but not least, The Book instructs us on how to achieve the perfect pour. Initially, you want to pour down the side of the glass, at an angle, to keep the beer from being overly foamy; you do want some foam, though, so you’ll want to start tilting the glass upright as you pour. The ideal amount of foam is, apparently, 3/4 in. – 1 in.; the oils from the hops will transfer to the foam, so too much head will de-bitter your beer.
My personal favorite beers: Breckenridge Vanilla Porter, Bell’s Java Stout, Elevator Brewing Co.’s Horny Goat (a Columbus brewery), Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale, Boddington’s, Rolling Rock (don’t hate) and some other ones I was too drunk to remember at the time. What are your favorite beers? Leave comments and let me know!