Beer Basics

Beer isn’t considered the classiest drink, but I have to admit after a round of golf on a warm day, it is hard to beat.  You can’t go frat party crazy when doing business golf or at an event, but many times, I’ll have a beer in place of a cocktail.  It’s a great way to hydrate a little and pace yourself for the evening.  I’ll usually switch to wine for dinner, but instead of a martini or a Manhattan, a beer is an acceptable approach. 

Beer has been brewed for thousands of years, back to the Beowulf days of mead.  This beverage has lots of variations and modifications, only limited by brewmaster creativity, but I am going to hit just the top types of beer you’ll run into (and want to taste).

The building blocks of beer have been the same for a very long time.  There are a few ingredients in all beers:

Malt: There are a few grains that are used for beer making, most commonly wheat and barley.  In both cases, the grains are run through a kiln to heat the grain and convert the starches in to sugars that accessible by the yeast for fermentation and this is called malt.  The roasting also gives nutty flavors and a darker color.

Hops: Hops is one of the main flavor elements in beer with intense aromatics and a bitterness that balances the sweetness of the malt.  It is also a natural preservative as in IPAs.

Yeast: Yeast is a bacterium that loves sugar and converts it into alcohol.  The brewmaster might use a naturally occurring yeast in a craft beer up to a highly specific commercial yeast for a volume production.  Yeast can add fruity notes to the beer.

Water: Beer is mostly water and you want a good source of pure water to make great beer.

Other Stuff: German purity laws require beer to just use the elements above.  Outside of Germany, lots of other elements are added to the beer to generate the beverage they desire, including honey, spices and other elements limited only by the imagination.

When I think of beer, there are a few characteristics that define a beer. 

Specific gravity:  This defines the density of a beer compared to water.  Lighter beers are very close to water (insert your favorite joke here) and at the other end, some beers are a meal in themselves, filling your belly to the point of skipping dinner.

Alcohol Content:  In the brewing process, you can push a beer to very high levels of alcohol or keep it more moderate, appropriate for a picnic on a weekend.  It’s worth noting the alcohol content in order to keep track of your consumption.  I once unwittingly consumed two very high alcohol Canadian beers and had a little problem when I went to stand up!

Bitterness:  That bitter flavor typical in many small craft brewed beers is induced by the use of Hops.  I am personally not a fan, so I am careful to ask about the bitterness of a beer before I order it.  Many people love it and think it makes the beer more interesting and flavorful (which it probably does – this is a me issue)

Carbonation:  Not all beers have the same carbonation level.  This is the bubbles in the beer from retaining the CO2 during the fermentation process.  Simple canned lagers are usually pretty bubbly, and a nice English cask ale will generally be a bit flatter.  This one is personal preference and how much you like to burp.

Color:  The color of beer can run from a very pale straw (like Coors Light) to deep dark brown colors, almost black.  The brew master changes the color with the toast level on the grains used to make the beer and heavily roasted grain makes a darker beer (and generally a little sweeter)

Here is a quick summary of the beers you’ll want to taste to open your palate a bit.

Pilsner or Lager: This was probably your first beer.  Lighter amber in color, and cleaner in flavor, these beers are sometimes divided into Czech and Bavarian style.  They are generally quite carbonated and have less bitterness from Hops.  Most light beers fall in this category, with similar flavors, but lower intensity due to the lower sugar level and dilution required to hit the alcohol target.

Dark Lager: Dark Lagers are very similar to a amber Lager but the malt is toasted to a higher level, yielding a darker brown color.  They are smooth, less bitter and nicely carbonated.

English Ale:  Usually served at cellar temperature, they are fruity and spicy when compared to lagers.  They will be darker and slightly higher alcohol with a limited carbonation.  In England, you better order an Ale, as they call them, a pint of bitter.

IPA: IPA stands for India Pale Ale, which is ironic because it was brewed in Britain and sent to India for the expats and the local population.  The strong hop content preserved the beer for the long sea voyage and gives it the classic bitter flavor.

Wheat Beer: While most German beer is from the Lager family; they are also famous for their wheat beers.  These beers use wheat as the primary grain rather than barley and this gives the beer a wonderful fruity and spicy note.  They have an amber color and are generally well carbonated.

Stouts and Porters: One of the most popular original beer styles, these dark silky beers are a meal in themselves.  They were popular on the docks of London to fuel a Porter for a hard day work (hence the name).  The malt is kilned until it is a dark espresso color, which gives wonderful flavor complexity and color.  Historically, stouts and porters were aged as well to take the harsh edges off the beer and give them the cream texture.

This is list hardly comprehensive.  There are many variations and permutations to beer, just like wine.  But I’d suggest you give each of the above styles a try, although perhaps not in the same sitting.  You might find a beer that really speaks to you and is different than you father’s Coors Light!

Cheers!

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