Weekend Apolitical Blogging: Beer!
It’s been mentioned that it would be a good idea to learn about the non-political interests of Swords Crossed members. I agree that it helps to foster more good-natured debate when you realize that your adversary is a real person with many interests that may coincide with your own. In that spirit, I'm starting off with a primary interest of mine that is most likely to be shared, at least on some level, with other SCers: beer.
(I actually wrote most of this, and intended to post it, last weekend, but it got a little out of control and just kept getting longer! Hopefully it is still a bit interesting to some of you!)
I love a good beer. I love the impressive variety of different beers, and I love trying new beers. When traveling, one of my top priorities is finding the best local beer bars and brewpubs. So, for example, my impression of Ohio is colored by visits to Barley's Smokehouse and Brewpub in Columbus, and Great Lakes Brewing Co. in Cleveland. A highlight of my trip to the San Francisco area was dinner and beers at the Marin Brewing Company in Larkspur and touring the Anchor Brewery in SF. Ebenezer's Pub will forever be a required stop anytime I am anywhere near Lovell, Maine, and the Hardware Store Restaurant, with it's yards of beer, was a favorite destination in Charlottesville, Virginia. Of course, at that time, I was also brewing my own, which was cheaper, often better, and lots of fun. Currently, the best local place to get a beer is definitely the British Beer Company, which always has a large variety of excellent beers on tap.
There are basically four different ingredients that go into making beer: Malted barley, hops, yeast and water. Every one of those ingredients, even the water, can be varied in quantity, preparation, or variety to create different styles and tastes of beer. Other ingredients can also be used to create unique flavors. The barley provides the sugars that are fermented into alcohol, but that can be supplemented to various effect by things like wheat, corn, fruit, etc.
Broadly speaking, there are two different categories of beer, lagers and ales, the primary difference being the strain of yeast used, and the temperature at which fermentation takes place. Lagers, in general, use "bottom-fermenting yeast" and are brewed at a cold temperature, and ales use "top-fermenting yeast" and are brewed at room temperature.
The cold brewing temperature of lagers keeps the fermentation process slow, steady and efficient - sugars are converted to alcohol and carbon dioxide, and that's about it. You get little or no production of byproducts like esters. This results, usually, in a clear, crisp, relatively non-complex beer, where subtle flavors can come to the forefront. Variation in the mineral content of the water can actually be a significant factor in the taste of some lagers. Still, most of the flavor is going to come from the variety of malt and hops used, and the styles of lager are far less varied than those of ales.
Light Lagers used to be synonymous with "beer" in the United States. This is the style that includes Budweiser, Miller, Coors, and 90% of the space in a typical beer store. Mostly they are designed to have very little flavor so as to appeal to as wide an audience as possible. They also tend to be easy to drink several of in one sitting, smooth, and crystal clear. Definitely not my favorite style, but there are some that are decent. I’d drink Stella Artois on a hot summer day and be pretty happy about it. And heck, even the mass-produced American beers aren’t a bad way to wash down a nice New England Clam Boil. Still, given the choice, I’d generally pick almost anything but a light lager.
Pilsners are what Bud and Miller claim to be, but they aren’t. In a good Pilsner, you can taste the malt, but the hops are really where the action is, in both taste and aroma. Traditionally, a specific variety of hops called Saaz is used, but anything that gives a nice floral aroma will work. Pilsner Urquel is the ultimate example of this style, and is one of my favorite beers of all time. It used to be quite difficult to find, but it has now become pretty much ubiquitous, to the point where I am almost embarrassed to say it is a favorite! Really, I loved Pilsner Urquel before it became cool! I am also quite enamored with Buzzards Bay Pilsner, which has the bonus of being locally brewed (for me).
European Amber Lagers are like light lagers, but with more flavor – more malt and more hops. This style includes Oktoberfest beers, and is a good first step towards a fuller enjoyment of beers for anyone who has been drinking Bud their entire life. Sam Adams Boston Lager is a readily available and decent example. I also recently tried Blue Point Brewing Company’s Toasted Lager and it was quite tasty. These beers tend to look great in a glass, coppery-colored and clear, with a nice head that sticks around for a while.
Dark Lagers up the flavor quotient a bit further by using malted barley that has been roasted, resulting in beers ranging from light brown to virtually black. Still relatively subtle in taste, but with added complexity from the roasted malt – caramel or even chocolate flavors. Xingu Black Beer from Brazil is a favorite of mine, and Sam Adams Dark Lager is again a readily available and decent example.
Bocks are probably the most intense lager you’ll ever try. They range from fairly mild to the eye-popping triple bocks, but in all cases it is the malt that provides most of the flavor. This style was apparently developed in Catholic monasteries to provide a nutritional supplement during Lenten fasts. They are very much “bread in a bottle,” and also tend to have a pretty high alcohol content. Not one of my favorite styles, but they can be pretty satisfying in some situations, and by the time you get to the bottom of the glass, you’ll probably be feeling pretty good about it! The best bocks are probably from Germany, but I have no specific recommendations. Sam Adams Double Bock is quite good. Michelob Amber Bock is a very mild bock, and maybe not really a “true” bock, but is an inoffensive introduction to the style.
Ales are usually fermented at room temperature, and as a result you can get some “byproducts” of the process – not just alcohol and CO2 – most typically esters. Skilled brewers use this to their advantage to create beers with complex and interesting flavors. Ales are often best when less than ice cold, and have a more “robust” flavor. Ales have a much longer history than lagers – first brewed at least 6000 years ago in Sumeria, whereas lagers weren’t being made until maybe the 13th century AD, and really didn’t take off until much later. Overall, I greatly prefer ales to lagers, perhaps in part due to the tremendous variety of ale styles. I’m only going to list a few of them. (And all of these styles have numerous sub-styles.)
Pale Ales are relatively light in color as ales go, are relatively dry, not sweet, though the malt taste is definitely there. Can be pretty fruity from the esters present, but the hops should balance the flavor nicely and make for a very drinkable beer. Bass Ale is the classic example of this style, though I prefer Fuller's London Pride if I want a good English beer. Many many excellent pale ales are made in the United States. Sierra Nevada Pale Ale is a great one.
Scottish and Irish Ales are stronger, darker, and emphasize the malt flavor. Scottish ales have a peaty quality from using barley that was roasted over peat fires. Roasted, unmalted barley is what gives Irish Ales their reddish color. Belhaven Scottish Ale is a classic example, and Harpoon Hibernian Ale is a nice Irish Ale made in America.
Brown Ales are, as you might expect, brown in color. They have a caramel or nutty malt flavor, often fairly sweet, with only a touch of hop flavoring in some varieties (such as Nut Brown Ales) or they can be pretty evenly balanced between malt and hops. Newcastle Brown Ale is the most easily found example. I’d suggest Wychwood Brewery’s Hobgoblin if you can find it.
Porters are my favorite style of beer. These are usually dark brown with reddish highlights, and have a nice “roasty” flavor which can vary from chocolate, caramel, nutty, toffee, or all of the above. Can have secondary flavors like licorice, coffee, toast… Little or no fruitiness that you get in lighter ales. Hops will balance out the sweetness and provide yet another level of complexity in the flavor. Porters lend themselves well to interesting additional ingredients as well, such as in Sea Dog Hazelnut Porter, or a home brew I once made that included ginger, juniper berries, and spruce. Delicious! Perhaps my number one favorite beer is Fuller's London Porter, which I just happen to be enjoying as I write this. Some excellent American porters include Anchor Porter, Smuttynose Robust Porter, and, happily for me, Cape Cod Porter, brewed just a few miles from my house.
Stouts are basically a subset of porters, tending to be darker, almost black. They feel a bit thicker, creamier, than a regular porter, often lower in carbonation. Tend to be more chocolate or coffee than nutty or toffee. Guinness is the classic example, but hardly the best. (I prefer O’hara’s, but I can say that the Guinness I had on tap in London many years ago was vastly superior to any Guinness I have had in the States.) There are some very tasty varieties of stout, such as oatmeal stout (Samuel Smith Oatmeal Stout is a very good one, or Wolaver’s Oatmeal Stout for an excellent domestic version) and milk stout, which adds lactose to the fermentation to make the final product even creamier.
India Pale Ales (IPA) are possibly my second favorite beer style. Very different from the porters, these emphasize the hops, and are light in color. The style was developed in England to survive the long boat voyage to India. Hops are natural preservatives, and so we get this highly hopped ale. The best IPAs smell fantastic, like a bouquet in a glass. The flavor is primarily hops, but with a definite malt character present as well. A very refreshing, easy to drink style that pairs incredibly well with fried seafood. Dogfish Head 60 Minute IPA is a very nice example of this style. I’m also fond of Harpoon IPA, which is available on tap at many of my local restaurants.
Wheat Beers replace some of the malted barley with malted wheat, generally about 50/50. Depending on the type of barley malt used, these can range from light and refreshing to dark and heavy (Weizen, Dunkelweizen, or Weizenbock from lightest to heaviest.) Many of the best wheat beers are from Germany (Hacker-Pschorr makes several excellent wheat beers), but American brewers also produce some real winners. Harpoon UFO Hefeweizen is quite nice.
Belgian Beers are a category unto themselves, within which there is incredible diversity. The thing that sets them apart is the yeast. There are many strains of yeast, and each produces it’s own particular fermentation byproducts that add unique and interesting flavors. In Belgium, there are diverse regional yeasts and brewing traditions, including spontaneous natural fermentation, using multiple types of yeast in one brew, mixing old beer in with new beer, etc., that make Belgian beers unlike any other in the world. A description of all the different types could easily be as long as what I have already written, so all I will say is, try some! Two excellent ones that I have had recently are Corsendonk Abbey Brown Ale (which falls into a style known as “Dubbel”), and Duchesse de Bourgogne (which is a “Flanders Red Ale”) The Duchesse is in the same league as Pilsner Urquel and Fuller’s London Porter, absolutely among the best beers I have ever tasted. Of course, Belgian beers don’t have to be brewed in Belgium, and American brewers have some excellent offerings. I’d recommend pretty much anything from Brewery Ommegang in Cooperstown, NY.
Fruit Beers don’t just get a fruity flavor from yeast-produced esters; they are made using actual fruit in the brewing process. It can be fairly subtle, as in Cape Cod Berry Merry Christmas, a seasonal ale made with cranberries and orange zest (and absolutely delicious!), to more apparent, as in Dogfish Head Aprihop (which has a strong apricot aroma, and a very pleasant IPA-like taste), to overwhelming, as in Wachusett Blueberry Ale, which tastes more like a blueberry soda than a beer.
There are many other styles that I haven’t even mentioned, but this is already much longer and more geeky than I originally intended. Anyway, if you love beer, I’d love to hear about your favorite beers, your favorite styles, best brewpubs and bars, or anything else you care to share. How about favorite recipes if you are a homebrewer!
What’s in your fridge right now?