Who doesn’t love an ice cold beer on a sunny day or after a hard days work? Many of us do cherish those moments, but what is it that makes beer so great? Well, we could spend years talking about the virtues of beer and trying to categorize them all, but instead, we’ve decided to provide you with what we feel are the absolute beer essentials.
Of the many possible amazing things we can say about beer, we will primarily focus on providing you with a brief history of beer, discuss some beer basics, touch on a brief introduction to brewing and ingredients and finish with and introduction to some basic definitions on the beer favorites such as: Ales, Stouts, Lagers, Pilsners and more.
the History of Beer
Beer is possibly the oldest and most popular alcoholic beverage on the planet today. Records of beer can be traced back to 5000 BC in the ancient writings of the Egyptians and Mesopotamian’s.
Beer’s basic mix of carbohydrates and water made it a simple beverage to create and became a staple, along with bread, in the diet of medieval times. It was sometimes brewed into a thick and floral concoction with often poisonous flavorings that was a far cry from what we now drink today.
During the middle ages, brewing beer shifted from homemakers and became more a tool of the artisan. Pubs, Monasteries and Monks in particular, began brewing beer for the masses. Hops were added to introduce some bitterness to the sweet brew making it more identifiable to your palate today.
In 1516 the brewing guilds of Bavaria pushed for beer purity laws making it illegal to brew beer with anything but barley, hops and water. (This of course predated yeast) it was shortly after this in 1553 that Beck’s Brewing of Belgium began producing beer commercially for the masses.
Along with the discovery of the new world came the inevitable progression of brewing beer . Many breweries started the process of mass production but with differing results, regional flavors and taste. Many prominent men of the day brewed beer, sometimes hiring brew master’s from the old world to come and work their craft. Beer brewing hadn’t changed much until 1876, when Louis Pasteur was able to isolate a single yeast cell in a controlled lab environment thus changing beer brewing forever. The true secret to fermentation was discovered and was now a repeatable process. Controlled mass production and consistency were now available to the joy of beer drinkers everywhere.
Since then beer has been manufactured by several large multinational corporations around the world but still retains its artisan roots with regional craft breweries and small “micro breweries” producing outstanding product with a great regional feel and flavor. With the introduction of the metal keg in 1964, it was now possible for a completely hygienic and sterilized beer product to be shipped worldwide thus evoking the term “Import or Domestic” on Tap and giving us the modern brew we love and enjoy today.
The Beer Basics-Lagers and Ales
Ales are top fermented and require much less conditioning time than Lager. Ales are generally brewed at higher temperatures (between 15 – 24°C or 60 – 75°F) At these temperatures the yeast will produce a significant amount of esters and aromatic flavors in the Ale. This will tend to give Ales “fruity” or floral compounds. Ales tend to be slightly sweeter than Lagers. Some Styles of Ales include but are not limited to, Stout, Barley Wine, Best Bitter and Albier.
Lagers are Bottom fermented and require much more conditioning time than Ales. Lagers are the most commonly consumed of the two families. Lager undergoes a primary fermentation at 7 – 12°C or 45 – 55°F then it will undergo a secondary phase or the “lagering” phase at 0 – 4°C or 30 – 40°F. This secondary fermentation will clarify and mellow the brew. The cooler temperatures will inhibit some the byproducts associated with brewing to give lagers a crisper taste than Ales. Some familiar styles of Lager are Pilsners and Bock.
Ingredients for making Beer
Modern beer has four main or primary ingredients. Hops, Barley, Water and Yeast. These four ingredients can be mixed with various other ingredients to create allot of the styles available today. Lets discuss each ingredient a little further:
Hops are derived from the cone of the Humulus Lupulus plant. Hops were originally added to beer as a preservative. It is now mainly used for its bitterness and aroma. The bitterness of the hops will generally balance the sweetness of the malt. The bitterness of commercially brewed hops is measured on the international bitterness unit scale and other than beer production, there is very little in the way of commercial uses for Hops themselves. Lucky us!
Barley is a cultivated cereal and is major food and animal feed crop. It is heartier than wheat and will thrive in colder temperatures. It was first used by the ancient Egyptians for bread and of course beer. The Barley that is used for today’s beer production is malted barley. A process where the cereal grains are forced to germinate and are then quickly dried before the plant develops. This malting process allows the enzymes to convert the cereal grains starches to sugars, most notably of course in Barley.
Water is the primary ingredient of beer and when heated becomes known as the brewing liquid. Different water from different regions will affect the beers taste due to mineralization. Hard water is generally used for production of darker beers such as Stouts and Ales while soft water is better suited for Light beer production such as Pilsners or Lagers.
Yeast is a microorganism responsible for fermentation. It interacts with the starches and sugars of Malt barley to create alcohol and carbon dioxide. Before 1876 and Louis Pasteur’s discovery of the single yeast cell, the fermentation process with yeast was a natural occurrence, hence the localized flavors of different regions being affected by the different naturally born yeasts. Now that science has controlled the formation of yeast it can be broken into 2 main strains. Ale yeast (top fermenting) or Lager Yeast (bottom fermenting)
The proper Temperature for Beer
As a rule of thumb, Lighter, Lager style beers should be served cooler than Darker, full bodied Ales. The cooler temperatures will allow the crisper tastes of Lagers to shine through. A good serving temperature for Lagers is in the 40-45°F / 4-7°C range.
Darker beers such as Stouts will show their aromatic flavors better with a more cellar based temperature of 54-60°F / 12-16°C range. The warmer temperatures allow all the body of the beer to grow and release the floral, fruity aromas they are known for. You may serve your beer at any temperature you wish though as it all depends on taste.
Brewing Beer 101- How is Beer Brewed?
Brewing beer has become a scientific process of late with several variations, filtering characteristics and flavorings but the process itself is a simple five step constant of Mashing, Sparging, Boiling, Fermentation and Packaging.
- Mashing is the first process in brewing. The barley grains are crushed and soaked in warm water creating a malt extract. This extract is kept at a constant temperature to allow the enzymes to convert the starches of the grain into sugars.Sparging is where water is filtered through the mash to dissolve the sugars inside. The result is a dark, sugar heavy liquid called Wort.
- During the boiling process, the wort is boiled along with other ingredients, excluding yeast, to kill any microorganisms and release excess water from the brew. Hops are added at some point in this process.
- Fermentation then takes place. The Yeast, either Ale or Lager yeast is added to the mix and the beer is then allowed to settle. This is called the primary fermentation process. There can be a second fermentation process but many breweries may simply filter off the yeast at this point.
- Packaging the beer is the next step. Beer at this point will have alcohol but very little in the way of Carbon Dioxide. Many large scale breweries will infuse CO2 into the beer through the keg or bottling process. Smaller breweries or craft breweries may add residual sugars or small amounts of yeast to the bottles or kegs to produce a natural carbonization process. This is called Cask or Bottle fermented beer. No matter what process the brewery takes, all beer eventually ends up in steel kegs, bottles, cans and sometimes casks.
What is Draught Beer and how is it made?
Draught beer also known as Draft Beer, is a controlled process where the brewed beer is injected into a carbon dioxide pressurized steel keg. When tapped, the CO2 will release the beer with the proper pressure to give the beer adequate foam or head. Much of the CO2 is in the head of the beer and will give it that gassy effect, but with that comes a ton of flavor.
There are some beer brews that are cask ales. These are unfiltered and un pasteurized beers that are stored in wooden casks. The difference between cask ales and steel kegs is that cask ale is allowed to settle naturally and when ready to drink is tapped with a soft spile into a bung hole at the bottom of the cask. Being naturally fermented, these cask ales will take on different characteristics based on regions, styles of wood used and age. Very similar to our other favorite drink, wine!.
the Different styles of Beer and their Definitions
Now that we have a basic understanding of what beer is, where it came from and what makes it beer, we can explore some of the most popular style of beers available today and touch on some delicious characteristics of the beers you love.
Ales – A top fermented beer, one of the two main families beer, usually darker, aromatic with fruity or floral flavors.
Best Bitter – Basic English Pub Ale. Lower alcohol content 4-5%, dry after taste. Not necessarily bitter.
Bock– German Strong Lager, slightly sweet, malt dominated flavor.
Brown Ale– Malt accented, dark brown ale ranging from fairly sweet to dry. English.
Cream Ale – North American origin, fermented with ale yeast at higher temperatures. It is described as having creamy flavors, sometimes sweet.
Czech Pilsner – The origins of Pilsner took place in Pilsen, Czech Republic. It has hoppy and floral flavors.
Dunkel – Dark Lager associated with Germany, think Munich. Mildly sweet with a dry, off dry finish.
Extra Special Bitter– A bigger version of a best bitter, also known as ESB. It has extra hops and malt and contains a higher alcohol content.
Fruit Beers- Any beer flavored with fruit, syrup or extract. Usually this takes place in the fermentation process.
Hefeweizen – Also known as Bavarian wheat beer, it is generally a cloudy beer due to its yeast content. “Hefe” literally means yeast. It can take on Spicy, clove like aromas and flavors. It is sometimes filtered, sometimes not.
Helles – The A typical golden lager of Bavaria. Maltier and less hoppy than pilsners, this is the beer you would find at Oktoberfest in Munich, Germany.
India Pale Ale – Also known as IPA’s. They are Pale Ales with higher alcohol and hops content to act as preservatives originally created to withstand the long sea journeys to India during colonization.
Kolsch- Pale German Ale from the town of Koln, Very delicate flavors.
Lager – A bottom fermented beer, usually crisp and light. The second of the main beer families.
Mild Ale – A malt, mild, easy drinking style of English Ale. Usually quite low in alcohol content 3.5% or less.
Pale Ale – A British Ale with no lack of hops to it. Typically they are amber in color or Pale in comparison to heavier porters or dark ales.
Pilsner – Generally describes most blonde lagers, can range in flavors from mild to hoppy.
Porter – Porter ale derives its color from dark or roasted malt. It is the precursor to stout. It can be light and dry but eastern European porters can also be very sweet.
Scottish Ale – Scottish Ale has typically malt flavors. It can have caramel or fruity components with high alcohol content, usually around 8%.
Stout – Stout is very dark ale originally called porter stout. There are several styles that exist and include coffee like Irish Dry Stout, Creamy and Rich Oatmeal Stout, Sweet and strong Caribbean stout and of course, fortified and strong Imperial Stout.
Tripel – A style of beer developed by Belgian trappist Monks. Golden in color, not particularly fruity and of high alcohol content, usually 8-9%.
Vienna Lager – Slightly sweet style of Lager, medium to golden brown.
Wheat Beer – A generic term for any beer brewed with a portion of wheat in the mash. It is usually a light ale and can take on citrus characteristics; this beer may be served with a lemon to enhance its flavors.
White Beer – A Belgian style of wheat beer using 30-50% un malted wheat grain. This beer can seem cloudy and will have flavors of orange peel and coriander.
Beer and Food Pairings
It is important to note that beer is great with food. Like wine, beer can add too or detract from, the flavors associated with food. Like wine, it is best to echo flavors of the beer with the primary flavors or sauces of the food. Try and match the weight of the beer with the weight of the food. Light beers with light flavors, heavier beers with heavier flavors. Think dark Ales with clams or bitter beers with cheese. If your beer is floral think salads, if it’s a spicy dish think hoppy beers. As long as the flavors of one do not outweigh or mask the other, then you have properly matched your beer to your food. The best is to experiment and find the pairings you like best and always enjoy.
Entertaining tips for beer
If you are going to serve beer at a friendly gathering, it is important that you remember a few simple rules for etiquette purposes and to best reflect your hospitality and beer knowledge.
- Always ensure that your beer is served at the proper temperature. Lagers and Pilsners like being served cold, Ales and Stouts closer to room temperature.
- Ensure you have the proper glassware available. Chilled glasses for Lagers, etc… Don’t forget to make sure you rinse them clean.
- If you have a keg, remember to give it adequate time to chill, do not shake the keg and remember a certain amount of the beer will foam when first tapped so be patient and keep pouring.
- If you have a pump keg tap, it is proper etiquette to pump a couple of pitchers worth for all to enjoy. Keep these chilled for later use.
- If you are serving Hefeweisen’s, wheat beers or certain brands such as Corona, Pacifico or any other import beers from Latin America, remember to provide adequate garnishes such as lemons or limes. Cut them small enough to fit into the neck of a bottle and remember to put a little slice down the middle so they fit on the edge of a glass
- Many North American Bottles are now screw top, many imports and others are not, ensure you have a couple of good bottle openers available to avoid guests scratching their hands.
- Always try to recycle. Keep an area available for guests to properly dispose of empty bottles, cans, cups or glassware. Help protect the environment.
- Try and offer a healthy choice. There are several great light beers on the market (less than 4% alcohol) and many low carbohydrate beers as well. Keep some on hand for those health conscious guests. Don’t be afraid of keeping some non alcohol beer close by either. There is some great 0.5% alcohol products available. Look around and try some out.
- Don’t let your guests drink and drive. Some beers with higher alcohol content will affect your guests differently. Some people feel it is OK to have a beer and drive, be aware of your alcohol content and do the safe thing and take or arrange alternate transport.
Now that you have the beer basics down, you can go and experiment with flavors and styles to your hearts content. If you’re so inclined, you can return the brewing process to its roots. There are several U brew packages available for home brewing or you can find a local U brew in your area. Be sure to check out the local micro breweries in your area and when traveling, try out new beers localized to that region. You will be pleasantly surprised with the wide range of flavors you will discover.
Remember, the best thing about finding the beers you like is in the journey finding them. Enjoy!