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How to become a beer connoisseur: the basics of craft beer

I was recently introduced to Man Crates, who have some awesome gifts for guys.  They posed the question, what would help a beginner that is looking to get into beer. So I thought about it a bit and came to the conclusion that we should start at the beginning with a foundation discussion of beer types, ingredients and styles.

Beer is an exceptionally complex creation that, as the craft beer renaissance continues, is also exceedingly intimidating. There is a dizzying number of styles to choose from each described in terms that sound like they come from a different language.  But, fear not gentle neophyte, we are here to help.

Beer Types

Whether you want to learn about beer for your own edification or so that you can follow a beer-centric conversation without having to ask for translation, every beer drinker should know what type of beer they drinking. To clarify, there are two main types of beer, but many different styles. According to the Beer Judge Certification Program Style Guide (2008 Edition) there are 23 distinct beer styles, each with multiple sub-styles. The 2014 Great American Beer Festival guidelines list 90 styles with multiple sub-styles. But, we will talk more about styles later.

As noted above, there are two main beer types; ale and lager. The major differences between the two lie in the yeast that is used and how they are fermented.

Ales are fermented at warmer temperatures and employ top-fermenting yeast. That is to say, the yeast tends to float towards the top of a fermentation tank as it works its miracle on sugars suspended in the liquid. Ales were the first type of beer discovered and have roots that extend more than 9,000 years into history. Ales tend to have robust flavors and higher alcohol content.

Lagers are made with bottom-fermenting yeast and require cooler temperatures – around 40 to 55F. They also require longer for fermentation to complete. The term lager comes from the Germany word for storing the beer in cool caves or lagerung. Because of the longer fermentation time and cooler temperatures, lagers tend to have lighter, crisper flavors.

Beer Ingredients

Now that you know the two types of beer, it is important to understand what ingredients besides yeast go into the final product. In its purest form beer consists of just four components; water, malt, yeast and hops.

Water is arguably the most important ingredient in the mixture that comprises beer. Without this single, abundant element beer would never have been discovered. But, different water results in different beer. Indeed, entire styles of beers have resulted because of the type of water available. The relative hardness or softness of water can impart very different flavors due to mineral content.

Malt usually refers to barley that has been allowed to begin to sprout before being dried in a kiln. But, other grains such as rye, wheat and oats can be used in the brewing process. The type of malt and the amount that it is roasted in the kiln plays a major role in the characteristics of the finished beer.

Yeast strains are not restricted to just top and bottom fermenting. Within those two categories are hundreds of strains that impart different flavor profiles in to beer. Some brewers even allow their beer to be inoculated by wild yeasts to elicit sour or funky flavors.

Hops are the flower cones of the hops plant. Added during the boil phase of brewing beer, hops contribute the distinctive bitter flavor evident in most beer. In addition, hops are a natural preservative and contribute to stabilizing beer for storage over a period of time.

In the hands of a master brewer, these four ingredients can be transformed into literally scores of different beer styles. But, when adjuncts are added such as corn, rice or fruit, the possibilities open further.

Beer Styles

So, now that you know about basic beer types and ingredients, it is time to have a discussion on styles. The most popular style of beer in the world is the light lagers produced by huge corporate beer conglomerates. These beers tend to be light to medium yellow in color, highly carbonated and are mild in flavor. Most of these light lagers are brewed to closely approximate the German pilsner style. But, there are many more styles with much more flavor to choose from.

With more than 90 styles and at least that many sub-styles, getting to know them all can be daunting. So, in order to keep it simple, we will only look at the major styles and their characteristics. By far the most popular styles are:

  • Pilsner
  • Wheat
  • Pale Ale
  • India Pale Ale (IPA)
  • Stout and Porter

Pilsners are lagers and are generally straw to light gold in color and crystal clear. They have aromas of grain, yeast, flowers and some bitterness. They are crisp, slightly bitter and maybe a bit biscuity in flavor. This style takes its name from the city of Plzeň, Bohemia, Czech Republic, where it was first produced in 1842. Later the Germans began producing the style and to this day many people mistakenly attribute the style to the Germans.

Wheat beers are ales and as a general style are cloudy and range in color from pale straw to dark gold. When you smell a wheat beer you are likely to get hints of banana, cloves, grain and perhaps sweet citrus. A sip should provide a mild to strong banana and clove flavor as well as a slight tart tang. Brewers often add orange peel, cardamom and coriander to this style so these flavors may be present as well. These beers may be referred to as heffeweizen, weizen, witbier or wit.

Pale ales are, as the name implies, ales that range from pale gold to deep amber in color. They usually have a moderate aroma of hops that might include pine or citrus. On the tongue pale ales generally show off their moderate hop characteristic with a balanced, mildly sweet malty backbone. Pale ales that are brewed in the Burton upon Trent, UK are considered to be the best in the world to the high gypsum content of the local water.

IPAs are ales that are clear and have a range of colors from deep gold to reddish copper. Aromas from IPAs are heavy on hop bitterness and can include pine, citrus, resin, floral or fruity. The flavor can be mildly hoppy to bitingly bitter with an assertively sweet malt backbone. IPAs began in England and were formulated to survive long voyages by sea better than other styles.

Stouts and porters, while technically two different styles, share many of the same characteristics. These dark brews range in color from light brown to black. Aromas you will experience with both can include coffee, chocolate, dark fruits, toffee, caramel and even cream.  A taste of these styles may present flavors that match the aromas as well as others like burnt toast, hop bitterness and sweet cream. Stouts are generally considered heavy beers than porters in flavor but, not necessarily in alcohol. Porters were said to be favored by the baggage handlers in London’s train stations, thus the name. Both styles are often carbonated with nitrogen rather than carbon dioxide producing a creamier, richer mouthfeel.

As a starting point, the information presented here can be used to springboard into more learning. The world of beer is full of traditions, customs and practices. There are many more styles of beer to discover as you taste your way through craft beer culture. In addition, each style has an optimal style of glassware created to enhance its specific characteristics. The best way to learn is to simply try new things, read as much as you can and enjoy the camaraderie of friends over a delicious well-crafted beer.

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Posted by on March 17, 2015 in Beer Education

 

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Sierra Nevada Continues Production of Heavenly Ales

Sierra Nevada Ovila Dubbel

Image by Another Pint Please... via Flickr

Earlier this year I wrote with much enthusiasm about a new venture that Sierra Nevada Brewing was embarking on; a collaboration with the Trappist monks of the Abbey of New Clairvaux in Vina, CA known as the Ovila series. The partnership was to produce three brews this year; a Saison, a Dubbel, and a Quad. Both the Saison and Dubbel have been released and both are excellent. The Saison is lemony and refreshing as a Saison should be while the Dubbel is rich with plum flavors.

The Quad, which is just now being released, promises to be just as wonderful as the other releases in this series. Bill Manley, Sierra Nevada’s director of communications, describes Ovila Quad as “kind of figgy, with a rum-raisin aroma, but finishing quite dry.”

For those not in the know, a Quadrupel brew is a style originated by De Koningshoeven Brewery in the Netherlands, the only Trappist brewing abbey not in Belgium. According to the beer styles guide for the Great American Beer Festival competition, the style is:

“…characterized by the immense presence of alcohol and balanced flavor, bitterness and aromas. Its color is deep amber to rich chestnut/garnet brown. Often characterized by a mousse-like dense, sometimes amber head will top off a properly poured and served quad. Complex fruity aroma and flavor emerge reminiscent of raisins, dates, figs, grapes, plums often accompanied with a hint of winy character. Caramel, dark sugar and malty sweet flavors and aromas can be intense, not cloying, while complementing fruitiness. Though well attenuated it usually has a full, creamy body. Hop characters do not dominate; low to low-medium bitterness is perceived. Perception of alcohol can be extreme. Clove-like phenolic flavor and aroma should not be evident.” Another trait of the style is a high alcohol content usually above 10% ABV. This style is sometimes called Grand Cru, as well.

The Ovila Series was begun to assist the monks in raising funds to restore the chapter house of the Santa Maria de Ovila monastery formerly of Trillo, Spain which served as an assembly hall for Cistercian monks for more than 800 years. History, though, was not kind to the Abbey and over the years a series of wars, fires, and ransackings reduced the Monastery to being used as agricultural storage – the Chapter House, to store manure. In 1931 some of the stone blocks of the Chapter house were sold to newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, but the project he had in mind never came to fruition, so the blocks lay unused in San Francisco for decades.

In 2003 the ground was broken on the site of an orchard at the Abbey of New Clairvaux to rebuild the Chapter House. In 2010 Sierra Nevada, under the Ovila Abbey brand name, began producing Belgian-style beers to assist in funding the restoration.

Even though the final stone will be placed in just a few weeks, there is still a lot to be done before the Chapter House is fully0restored. Because of this, Sierra Nevada has extended its support into 2012. In an article by the Washington Post, Manley says the brewery plans to rerelease the Ovila Dubbel year-round in four-packs of corked, 375-ml (12.7-ounce) bottles. Sierra Nevada also will release two more limited-edition Ovila beers in the larger format: a Belgian-style strong golden ale and a version of the quad, aged in brandy barrels.

I anticipate getting a bottle of the Quad in the next day or so. I am looking forward to trying it and letting you know my thoughts. Based on the track record of Sierra Nevada, I am convinced it will be nothing short of heavenly.

Until next time,

Long Live the Brewers!

Cheers!

Marc Wisdom

 
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Posted by on December 2, 2011 in Beer, Beer Styles, Belgian, Craft Beer Brewery

 

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Pour Yourself a Koelsch One

A wreath Kolsch Beer - LA Times of Kölsch.

Image via Wikipedia

 It is always fun to delve into the history of a particular style of beer. Particularly if that beer is a bit obscure to begin with. Lately I have become fascinated with several German styles of beer. Coming from a very Bavarian background, I thought it only fitting to dig a little deeper into the traditions of my forbearers and learn more about German beer styles. And so, I begin my little trip down the cobbled stones of ancient brewing with a look at a style that is emerging in the United States as an approachable, drinkable, and decidedly refreshing style: Koelsch.

Now to understand Koelsch you will need to have a basic understanding of the two categories of beers; lagers and ales. Do not confuse these two categories with beer styles. Styles reside within these two categories. The difference between these two broad categories is the type of yeast used during fermentation. Ale yeasts ferment at warmer temperatures and are sometimes called “top fermenting” yeasts. This is because the yeast tends to stay towards the top of the tank during fermentation. Lagers yeasts conversely ferment at cooler temperatures and tend to stay towards the bottom of the fermentation tank. Another major difference between these two categories of beer is that ales tend to have more yeast driven flavors then lagers. Ale yeasts lend complex spicy and fruity flavors to beers that the cooler fermenting lager yeasts do not.

Now that you know the difference between ales and lagers, it is time to learn some history. Sherman, set the dials on the Way-Back machine to the closing years of the 1300’s in Cologne, Germany. A group of Guilds gathered and peacefully over-threw the noble-run government with a more democratic style of governance that allowed more freedom to all and ended a tradition of class segregation in the city that still holds true today. The reason this is so important to the history of the Koelsch style beer is that it proved that the people of Cologne were free-thinkers and strove to be different from other German cities.

At that time the German beer landscape was dominated by what is now called an Altbier or old beer. These beers were ales that used top fermenting yeasts. In the mid-to-late 1500’s though, a wave of lagers began to take over the German brewing world. Altbiers started to be replaced by the new lager styles until only a few ales remained. The city fathers of Cologne recognized that these ales were quickly dying out and, in 1603, issued an ordinance that outlawed the brewing of all but top-fermented beers within the city limits of Cologne. Thus, bottom-fermenting beers were proscribed from Cologne which led to the beginnings of modern-day Koelsch.

From that day in 1603 until the early nineteenth century, Cologne became known for its Keutebier, or white ale similar in style to Belgian wit beer, but without the addition of spices. Keutebier was a beer that used mostly wheat as its main grain. As tastes changed over time though, more and more barley was used until wheat completely disappeared from the beer and the first Koelsch was brewed in 1906 by the Sunner Brewery. But, it wasn’t until 1918 that the name Koelsch was officially used to describe this new style.

At first the style did not gain any momentum. But, after two World Wars, the style began to catch on. In the mid-1940’s, breweries that had been devastated during the Wars began to re-emerge. Lagers were still firmly in control of the beer-drinking world, but Koelsch was making in-roads. In the 1960’s Cologne’s beer production was a mere 50 million liters, or roughly 13 million gallons. In contrast, as the style began to rise in popularity, Cologne’s beer production peaked at over 370 million liters, or almost 98 million gallons. In recent years that number has dropped down a bit, but if the resurgence I have noticed in the style holds, Koelsch could well be on its way back up the charts.

Significantly, as with Champaign, the beer can only truly be called Koelsch if it is brewed in Cologne. In 1985 the Koelsch Convention established that only breweries within the city limits of Cologne could brew Koelsch beers. All others are to be called Koelsch-style beers. In 1997 the European Union gave further protection to the style allowing only 14 breweries the right to label their beers as Koelsch. As with most German beers, this style also adheres to the Reinheitsgebot or German purity law that prohibits the use of any ingredients in beer other than water, barley, hops, and yeast.

A Koelsch beer should be the color of straw and have a rather thin mouth-feel. The official guidleines state that this style should be between 4.4 and 5.2% ABV. The flavor should be slightly sweet with little or no hopiness and practically no fruitiness. All of these characteristic combine to make this an exceedingly refreshing beer when served at about 40 degrees. This is especially true on a hot summer day in Florida when the sun is beating down with the intensity of a blast furnace.

Some Koelsch and Koelsch-style beers to try are: Reissdorf, Gaffel, Harpoon Summer Beer, and Samuel Adams East-West Koelsch. And if you are looking for a locally brewed Koelsch-stylre in Jacksonville, FL, look no further than Intuition Ale Works and their deliciously refreshing Jon Boat Ale.

Until next time,

Long Live the Brewers!

Cheers!

Marc Wisdom

 

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