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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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Beer: Just four ingredients, infinite possibilities

Pilsner Urquell in its original glass

Pilsner Urquell in its original glass (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A Brief History

Thousands of years ago, an urn of water was sitting under a table being used to process grain. Some of that grain fell into the urn and, over the course of several weeks (housekeeping was not a top priority in those days), the water slowly transformed into an early form of what we now call beer. About that time, a thirsty wanderer came along and, seeing the urn of liquid, decided to drink it. He (or she) was surprised by the sweet taste of the concoction. The beverage was definitely not water, but it tasted so good they continued to drink. After drinking a while, they noticed that they felt strangely euphoric and slightly out of control. With a full belly, they decided to sleep off the strange feelings and awoke the next morning with a splitting headache. Thus, the first hangover was suffered.

Since then beer has been used for everything from currency to sponsor of beach volleyball. During its long history it helped to save the human race, assisted monks to survive 40 days of fasting at Lent, and was instrumental in founding our country.

Ingredients: The Early Years

If you were paying attention to the story I just told, you heard two of the ingredients of beer; water and grain. And, in the beginning, that I all that the simple people of that time knew about. But, as the process of brewing beer was refined, more ingredients made it into the brew pot.

Archeologists agree that the Vikings that first conquered and settled northern Great Britain used to flavor their beer with heather flowers. The ancient Chinese are known to have used hawthorn fruit in beer over 9,000 years ago and ancient Hondurans used cocoa, chilies and honey in their brew.

Delaware brewery Dogfish Head has made several brews based on ancient recipes that used such ingredients as chamomile, oregano and palm fruit. But, apart from specialty brews such as Midas Touch or Ta Henket – both brews based on ancient recipes – beer is traditionally made from a just a few base ingredients.

Ingredients: The Law

Beer as we know it today owes a debt to the Bavarian Duke Wilhelm IV who, in the town of Ingolstadt decreed in 1516 that beer could be made of only certain ingredients. Those ingredients were: barley, hops, and water. The fourth ingredient, yeast, had not been discovered yet and this was not included in the law until it was understood to be a part of the fermentation process as explained by Louis Pastuer in 1857. The law was known as the Reinheitgebot or more simply, the German Purity Law.

It is from these basic ingredients that beer as we know it today is crafted.

Over the next hour we will discuss each and how it affects the finished product. We will also taste examples of beer styles that highlight each ingredient.

Water

Seemingly the simplest of the four ingredients in beer, water is surprisingly a very complex part of the final product. Water comprises more than 95 percent of beer and, depending on its mineral content, can lend distinct flavors to the beer that is made with it. Water hardness or softness is something to which every good brewer pays very close attention.

Some of the world’s oldest and most well-known breweries have been using water from the same source to brew their distinctive beers for hundreds of years. And, when the brands go global, some of the flavor characteristics simply cannot be reproduced. An example of this is the debate that rages on in beer circles of whether Guinness tastes better in Ireland than anywhere else. Detractors say that it is simply romanticism that makes the beer taste better on the Emerald Isle while proponents insist that differences in the water used at contract breweries simply is not the same and thus the flavor of the beer is off because of this. In fact, a serious study was undertaken to put this argument to rest. The result: Guinness brewed in Ireland did taste better to a panel of experts in a blind taste test.

Another famous example of water playing a pivotal role in the flavor of beer is that of Pilsners brewed in Pilzen, Czechoslovakia. Bohemian Pilsners are more malt forward despite the fact that they are hopped more heavily than other Pilsner styles. This is due to the incredible softness of the naturally occurring waters used in brewing. Pilsner Urquell is an excellent example of how water affects the final taste of a beer.

Malt

Traditionally, and according to the German Purity Law, malt is made from barley grain. This was part of the law in part to ensure bakers had enough wheat and rye to make bread. Today, however, beer is brewed with a variety of grains including wheat, rye, oats, even quinoa. The mega brewers use other, cheaper grains such as rice and corn as well.

Malt is made by soaking the grain in water until it begins to sprout. At that point the grain is converting its starches into the simple sugars that are needed for fermentation to take place. The grain is removed from the water and halted from further germination by drying with hot air in a kiln.

Beers styles that are traditionally malt-forward include Scottish ale, doppelbock, Vienna lager, and English barleywine. These beers are typically sweeter with a deeper color and rich maltiness. But, other styles that are influenced heavily by malt include stouts and porters that are made with malt that is roasted longer in the kiln until almost black in color. This process lends the chocolate and coffee flavors that are so prized in these styles. Still another style of beer – hefeweizen – is light, slightly sweet and yeasty in flavor. This style gets its characteristic golden color and hazy appearance from wheat grain. An excellent example of this style is the original Blue Moon.

Hops

The flower of the plant that bares their name, hops provides the bitterness in beer that offsets the sweetness of the malt. Also known as cones, the hops flowers contain chemical compounds known as Alpha Acids that provide their bitter punch. But, hops were originally used for another reason in addition to as a flavoring; hops kills off bacteria and has preservative properties. In fact, it is these properties that may have contributed to beer saving humanity. Water in Medieval Europe was often swarming with microbes that caused sickness and disease. But, beer was found to be safe in part because of the anti-bacterial effects of the hops used in the brewing process. The preservative properties of hops lead to the discovery that beer that was highly hopped could last longer on long sea journeys and arrive in far-flung locales such as India still drinkable if a bit more bitter than the average ale. Indeed, this is the origins of the beer style known as India Pale Ale or IPA.

There are over 50 recognized styles of hops that provide flavors that range from extreme bitterness like that of a grapefruit or pine needle to milder citrus flavors that are just right for cutting the sweetness of malts.

Beers that truly showcase the flavors possible due to hops are the afore mentioned IPAs. Decidedly hop-forward, IPAs have evolved from monstrous hop bombs that lead full-on assaults of your senses to well-rounded and carefully crafted beers that employ skillful blends and additions of hops at different stages of the brewing process to produce complex brews that challenge the palate as well as the mind of the taster.

Yeast

In ancient times, brewers did not understand that the process of beer brewing would be incomplete without the contributions of yeast. It is likely that ancient brews were spontaneously fermented due to the addition of wild yeasts suspended in the air. Today, however, the true function of yeast is understood and, with the exception of lambics, most beers are intentionally infected with specific strains of yeast that are known to impart certain flavors.

Yeast is separated into two types for the purpose of brewing beer – ale and lager. Ale yeasts typically ferment at warmer temperatures and impart a frutier and fuller flavor to the beer. On the other hand, lager yeasts prefer cooler temperatures and produce crisper, cleaner beers that taste best when served ice cold.

Examples of flavors you may detect due to yeast include banana, crackers, cloves or tartness. In some cases, brettanomyces and Lactic Acid bacteria are used to produce extreme beers that present sour or extremely funky flavors. Another example of a sour beer is a lambic. These beers are made in a specific area of Belgium near Brussels and uses naturally occurring yeasts in the air to ferment the beer spontaneously.

Four Ingredients, Infinite Possibilities

Though beer is traditionally comprised of just the four ingredients we have discussed today, there are infinite combinations that can affect the flavor and character of the final product. Through skillful manipulation of these ingredients hundreds of styles of beer have been produced. Toss in a few other ingredients like fruits, flowers or even Rocky Mountain Oysters and you expand the possible flavors that can be extracted from beer exponentially. Regardless of the reputation beer has had as an inferior drink, it can be affirmatively argued that it is actually much more complex than any other alcoholic beverage.

Beer has been the drink of Pharos and the wage that helped build the pyramids, it has been used in ancient rituals and as sustenance during the most holy of times, it is a staple at sporting events and backyard barbecues. In short, it is one of the most popular beverages in the world behind water and tea. If that is not deserving of a hearty toast, nothing is!

 
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Posted by on May 31, 2013 in Beer, Beer Education

 

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Laughing Dog Beer Dinner

Last night, in the stock room of Total Wine at the St. John’s Town Center, a group of beer lovers gathered to taste Laughing Dog brews and Bahama Breeze food. Everyone left with a smile and a full belly.

The November event — A Crew Members Best Friend is Beer — of the Springfield Brew Crew was a huge success raising over $400 for the Jacksonville Humane Society.

The brain child of Crew member and BeerJunto.com owner, Steve Rushe, the event celebrated the entry of Laughing Dog beers into the Jacksonville market. The night went off without a hitch and the food pairings from Bahama Breeze were delicious! A HUGE thank you to Steve and his crew of servers for a wonderful event.

Now, let’s talk beer. The beers samples last night were:

Laughing Dog CSB — A solid English style ale with notes of butterscotch and malts. Very enjoyable and easy drinking (I liked it so mush I bought a bottle).

Alpha Dog Imperial IPA — As you would expect from an IPA, this one has a fresh piney nose with solid citrus notes. The flavor is again piney and citrus and a sweet finish.

Devil Dog IPA — More citrusy and malty. Drank easily with caramel malts which opened up as I drank more.

Dogzilla Black IPA — Another great IPA, this one nearly black in color and well balanced. I found it the easiest of the IPAs to drink.

The Dogfather Imperial Stout — Thick and delicious this beer was perfectly paired with a chocolate brownie, mouse dessert. The chocolate notes and subtle bitterness of the beer played accross my tongue like a wonderful dream. Another bottle I purchased at the event.

Again, thank you to Steve and the gang at Total Wine. You put on one really great party and I look forward to more great events!

 
 

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