“Let’s grab a drink!”
The next thing you know, you find yourself in a bar surrounded by copious amounts of facial hair, skinny jeans, and ironic conversation Ts. You look at the menu only to find 653 different types of beer–of which you know two. You have a couple of choices: play a game of craft beer roulette, or go ahead and order the domestic light. Of course, the only thing that screams “girl” more than that is a white wine spritzer. Allow me to offer a third option–a crash course in craft beer geekdom!
First, let me stress I have nothing against domestic light beers. They definitely have their time and place. I’ve never yet asked for a bully porter at a tailgate–but a sliver bullet goes down nicely. And the consistency (as we’ll learn later) of the American lager is a testament to the skill of master brewers. Of course, light beers are still the biggest sellers, but this is the era of the crafts, and a little knowledge is helpful. Unless you enjoy taking that brew gamble…
So what makes a beer a beer, and not, for example, wine?
Beer is a deceptively simple drink. All varieties can be boiled down to four basic ingredients: water, yeast, hops, and grain. Seems simple enough until you remember the vastness of that beer menu and its 653 varieties.
These miraculous little beasties are what give beer identity and national style. At the most basic level, and the least understood if my impromptu poll of folks at the grocery store is any indicator, yeast determines if you are drinking an ale or a lager. Yes, it’s hard to believe while wading through a brew house, but all beer breaks down into these two categories.
Most craft brews are ales, while those domestic lights I mentioned are lagers. And here’s what makes that above mentioned consistency so impressive: Lagers must be brewed at a lower temperature, thus giving less room for error. Ales brew at higher temperatures and are more forgiving. Which is probably why they’ve been around longer, historically, and are the go-to for the basic home brewer. Those higher temps allow for a wider variety of flavors to break out, but that can often lead to slightly unique profiles in each batch. Lower temps require careful monitoring to create uniform flavor. So the next time you grab that fine American Pilsner, remember it has some impressive credentials of its own.
While many brewers will develop their own propriety yeast, you heard me right, it’s the ancestry of the little bugs that matters the most. If a beer is labeled as “Belgium,” that is simply a reference to where the yeast got its passport stamped, not the country where the beer was brewed. Nationality isn’t just a label where these little guys are concerned. Belgium yeast imparts different flavors than German or American yeast. And that’s just the prepackaged varieties–just wait until we get to the free-range critters!
In case you don’t know, and very few of my grocery store interviewees did, the hops used by the modern brewer are actually the flower of the plant Humulus lupulus. Varieties are sold as bittering, aroma, or dual purpose, and just like yeast, contribute greatly to flavor.
Hops add depth of flavor and help to balance the malt. While there are certainly many hop-heavy beers–some American craft brewers seem to subscribe to the adage “go big or go home” when it comes to hops–malt-intensive brews are equally available.
Like yeast, hops are unique to their area of origin. Their soils, climates, and country of birth help impart unique layers of flavor. But unlike yeast, they don’t determine the nationality of a beer. Often, a brewer will experiment with several types of hops added at different points in the brewing process. A true melting pot!
When most people think of beer, they think barley. And they’d be right. It’s barley that becomes malt. And the char on that determines the color of the beer–the darker the char, the darker the beer. And without barley, the yeast wouldn’t be able to do their business. Barley is unique in providing just the right sugars for the little beasties to consume and make those byproducts we enjoy so much: bubbles and alcohol! Barley even provides that nice frothy head when not all its proteins get converted to sugar.
But barley isn’t the only grain to be found in that amber goodness. Wheat, rice, corn, rye, and even oats make occasional appearances in today’s craft brews. Wheat beer tends to have more body and a hazy, often tart, complexion. Rice in a beer is about as nondescript as on a Chinese menu: great as filler, but no flavor. Corn is similar, although it is often thought to impart a bit more sweetness. Rye can be toasted to add caramel notes or left natural for more spice. Oats give creaminess–think oatmeal stout.
Now that you know what makes a beer a beer, you can probably take a stab at that menu. However, to get more in depth, and provide the beer novice (or the beer-stuck-in-a-rutter) a slightly better idea of what they are ordering, I gathered a group of willing victims volunteers at our local Flying Saucer Draught Emporium to taste-test a wide variety. All for the sake of this article, of course.
While different arrangements are possible, many bars list their beers by either category (e.g., “sours” or “hop-heavy”) or country of origin. For the purpose of this article, I am using country as a means of categorization.
Along with my (slightly hung-over) friends, I was assisted in this tasting by Cari Contreras, girl-wonder-certified-cicerone, and someone everyone should take drinking. If you are wondering what a cicerone is, think sommelier but for beer. (Yes, they exist–and just knowing that word will go far toward your craft-geek-cred, but for a few more crafty words, see the bottom of this article.)
And away we go…
- CLASSIC PILSNER: Craft varieties of this standard lager may be harder to locate, but if on a menu, this is often a safe bet. Although my group of tasters agreed it was “a standard beer” and “great for a summer day at the pool,” when drinking a craft beer they wanted “more personality.”
- BLONDE: This is an entry level–i.e., easy to drink–craft ale. My tasters enjoyed this saying it was “more complex” and “a bit more bitter.” One even decided it had “just a tinge of s’mores.”
- WHEAT: Wheat added to the barley gives this ale its cloudy color and crispness. Another entry level beer described by one taster as “the beer equivalent of the lemon drop.”
- AMBER: Sometimes called “Red Ale.” Intended to be drinkable, but not bland with a strong toasty or caramel undertone. The tasters agreed calling it “a cozy, full beer with a slightly mouthwatering aftertaste.”
- BROWN: The American version of the classic English Brown Ale does what ‘Murica does best and cranks the volume. More hops, more malt, and more brown. We agreed with thoughts ranging from “a beer latte” to “dessert!”
- PALE ALE: This American adaptation (more hops) of the English brew has come to be the standard of craft beers. One taster decided this beer “goes with dinner and life pretty well.” But, if you don’t like hops, be warned.
- IPA: Stands for India Pale Ale, and like many of these “American” beers, has a European cousin. But, as an American beer, the flavors are turned up to eleven. (If you don’t get that, may I suggest renting This Is Spinal Tap?) Most of the hop-crazy beers fall into this category or its brother IMPERIAL IPA.
- BARLEYWINE: This is a beer, despite the name, but will have a higher alcohol content, often 7 to 12%. You are warned. The American versions are, you guessed it, hoppier but not as extreme as an IPA. The tasters ranked this one high, asking if it came in pints!
- STOUT: Another American version of an English standard. Roasted and toasty, maltier and full of American hops making it stronger than its British ancestors. The tasters found it “thick and warm with hints of molasses and roasted coffee.”
English/Scottish/Irish: (Note: All the beers listed above as having British equivalents can often be found in both the amped-up American versions and the more sedate English brews on extensive beer menus)
- PORTER: The first mass produced style of ale has a dark roasted, chocolaty malt flavor. The tasters were mixed, with one saying it was “too malty” and another liking it with the comment that “it didn’t taste as dark as it looked, like a stout-light.”
- MILK STOUT: Also called a SWEET STOUT or a CREAM due to the addition of unfermentable lactose (milk) sugars. This beer lives up to its name with the tasters saying it “looks like a coke” and “smells as sweet as it tastes.”
- OATMEAL STOUT: In either British or American versions, the oatmeal adds creaminess to the malty richness of the base stout. “Don’t be scared of how dark it is! It’s easy to drink, it just fills you up–bread in a glass!”
- DRY STOUT: Guinness is the quintessential example. A favorite of many. “Not heavy,” with an unusual “umami nose.” “Crisper than it looks” Cari Contreras pointed out the unusual feature that Guinness uses nitrous gas to disperse the beer rather than the traditional CO2, which leads to less gas intake, and thus less gas (eh hum) output! (We can all appreciate that.)
- RUSSIAN IMPERIAL STOUT: Born of the connection between the English and Russian monarchies, this stout was brewed to survive the trip to the Russian court. Generally not a favorite with my tasters, with one saying “it feels like they threw everything at it,” and another calling it “ugh in a beer.” However, it has its fans, with a lone tester saying it was what she thought of when she wanted “to taste Russia.”
- 60/70/80/90 SHILLING: A traditionally Scottish beer with a gradation of strengths from the weakest 60 (rarely found and then only on tap) up to the “wee heavy” 90. An interesting beer if you are looking for unique–very few hops, which don’t grow well in Scotland, but definite notes of the ever-available Scottish peat. The tasters gave this style top ratings saying it was “hard not to like” and “tasted like fresh air and Scottish Heather.”
- WEIZEN/HEFEWEIZEN: The most popular beer in Southern Germany. In 1516, the use of wheat was outlawed in beer, but as the nobility could ignore these laws with impunity, wheat beer became synonymous with royalty. While that is an interesting fact to drop while bellied up to the bar, the most important thing to note about this brew is that it is usually found with an excess of yeast and you may be either asked how you’d like that yeast, or provided with the remainder in the bottle. Many connoisseurs like to sprinkle the yeast over the top of the beer. This met with mixed reviews, with one taster saying it was too much like “drinking sea monkeys.” The beer, sans sea monkeys, however, had high marks with notes of banana and crisp wheat.
- KOLSCH: Traditionally brewed only in the city of Cologne, this beer is a hybrid as it uses ale yeast but is then cold lagered like a traditional lager brew. When my tasters gave point scores, this style got the highest overall score of any beer we tested. Universally described as “easy to drink but with enough oomph to feel authentic.”
- VIENNA LAGER: Obviously not an ale. Very dark larger with lots of malt, but not enough to save it from being described as “crisp, drinkable, and completely forgettable.”
- BOCK: What the IPA does for hops, this does for malt. One taster said it has so much malt it’s “almost chewy.” Enjoyment of this beer, like the IPA, is mostly determined by malt preference. Those who enjoyed the malty beers loved, those who didn’t, well, didn’t.
- WIT/WHITE/WITBIER: This white ale was the first type of beer to include hops. This beer often incorporates elements of wheat and spices such as coriander and orange peel. Another highly rated beer with the tasters. Comments such as “smells like a barnyard, tastes like heaven.”
- SAISON: Meaning season, this ale uses a yeast closely related to the yeast used in red wine which produces a uniquely spicy brew. Cari pointed out that all saisons have a higher alcohol content and a slightly bitter taste due to the increased number of phenols produced by this yeast. But what you need to know is our tasters’ opinion, which was to rank this their second favorite! With comments like “peppery” to “my husband’s first choice, one of my top three!”
- DOUBLE/DUBBEL: If it seems like we skipped the single, we did! They are only available at the brewery with doubles found in retail. This is a strong beer with not so subtle hints of prune. Not a favorite with the tasters with one describing it as “cloying, like prune juice mixed with a beer.”
- TRIPLE: This is a higher alcohol brew, but not exactly related to a double. A fruity beer described by my tasters as “a little like drinking a juicy fruit gum.”
- LAMBIC: Strange things happen in Belgium. I mean, honestly, waffles? I love them, but who decided to start ironing food? So maybe it’s no surprise that Belgium would be home to free-range yeast. This beer is made by opening the windows and the tanks and inviting whatever little beasties are nearby to stop in for dinner. The yeast bring their bacteria friends and have a party. If Cari’s dreams come true and sour becomes the new hops, this style will be everywhere. The yeast do the fermenting and the bacteria make the sour. Oddly, this was something of a hit with my tasters with one saying she must “have a masochistic streak” because she couldn’t stop sipping. “Like an aged cheese, or sour patch kids,” you have to keep sampling.
- FRAMBOISE: This is a raspberry beer with a lambic base. Surprisingly, the berry moves the sour into sweet. In fact, the tasters thought it tasted “more like dessert” or “it’s the beer equivalent of a parfait!” Sweet and fizzy, “the smart girl’s answer to the apple-tini.”
Glossary of terms that will impress your friends:
Abbey: Beers brewed in the style of the Belgium (Trappist) monks, but not by the monks. Any beer can be named Abbey, but very few can be called Trappist.
Bock/Doppel Bock: Fun facts: Bock means goat, so look for that on most Bock labels. True Doppel Bock names will always end in “Atop” or “Ator.”
Cicerone: The sommelier of the beer world. Fun fact: there are close to 200 master sommeliers but only 7 master cicerones alive today. There are three levels of cicerone: certified beer server (level 1), certified cicerone (Girl-wonder-Cari is one of these), and master cicerone. Why so few? They’ll tell you its harder–believe it or not, beer is more complex. More ingredients, more origins, thus, more flavors. Just imagine the food pairings!
Daytime: Exactly like sessionable. Drink this at lunch and then head back to work. You’ll still be productive. Sort of.
Esters: Along with phenols, CO2, and alchohol, a byproduct of yeast fermentation. Usually responsible for fruity taste elements. More often found at higher temperatures of fermentation, thus more common in ales than lagers.
Humulus Lupulus: The plant that produces hops. From the Cannabis family. Only the female plant produces the “cone” that become hops.
Imperial: In a beer this means higher alcohol. You are warned.
Phenols: One of the by products of yeast fermentation, along with esters, CO2, and alcohol. Usually responsible for the spicy tastes such as clove and pepper. Can also create an undesired “medicinal” taste.
Reinheitsgebot: The German beer purity law of 1516 outlawing the use of wheat. Beer was strictly limited to barley, hops, water, and yeast.
Trappist: Beer brewed in one of the eleven Trappist monasteries in Europe.
Sessionable: The opposite of Imperial, lower alcohol. Meant to be drunk as part of a session of beers.
Umami: Another category of taste (sweet, sour, salty, and bitter) meaning a meaty, savory taste. Warning: In the wrong company you will just sound pretentious if you use this word.