Craft Beer For Beginners (Part 1)

What do you know about beer?

Relax, it’s a rhetorical question.

Over the last few years choosing a beer became a lot like choosing a bottle of wine. There’s just so many breweries, so many different colorful labels and weirdly named new styles. The chances of buying an unknown amazing product are as great as buying something completely opposite to your taste.

The question “what do you have on tap?” now leaves servers out of breath, trying to list 20+ beer brands and costumers utterly confused trying to understand whichever ones are in between brands number 1, 2, 19 and 20.

Tap-Room-With-All-Beer-Styles
Pour Taproom, in Wilmington, North Carolina. Image from: wilmingtonbiz.com

I get that in the collective mind still thinks “it’s just beer” and we’ll leave the complexity of styles, vintages, and other subtleties to wine.

As it happens, we live in a hipster world where hipster local breweries and brewpubs make a dozen styles and then some more seasonal products. And it’s AWESOME!!!

This surge of information, brands, styles and frankly “artistic labels” can and will leave you with a big question mark on your forehead, looking at that server like you just had a stroke.

This post will try to help you out by beginning to explore the many beer styles.

The first decision is between Ales and Lagers. What the hell are those?

Throughout the years I’ve heard many answers to that question:

  • Ales are heavier and lagers are lighter.
  • Lagers are straightforward and ales are complex.
  • Ales are fruitier and lagers aromas are grain forward.

None of those generalizations is entirely true. Yes, the majority of lagers available on the market is lighter, simple (easy to drink) and grain forward. But lager beers can be just as intense and complex and expensive as ales can. The core difference between them is the yeast strand that is used to ferment the wort (malt juice) into beer.

Ales, therefore, are beers fermented with the Ale type of yeast (its scientific name is Saccharomyces cerevisiae for the more technically minded individuals) which happens to be the same yeast used in winemaking. This “guy” like to ferment at higher temperatures, it also likes to float around the tank (which is why it is referred to as top-fermenting).

Lagers are, on the other hand, fermented with a slightly different type of yeast, the Lager yeast (that goes by the scientific name of Saccharomyces pastorianus), and this “dude” like to ferment at lower temperatures and it “chills underwater” (being referred to as bottom-fermenting).

And if after this explanation you still have no idea what I’m talking about (don’t worry) here goes a play-by-play:

How beer is made

  1. Yeast (a tiny being or micro-organism) has one mission in life, to eat sugar and excrement (“poop”) alcohol, bless him! To make beer then, we must “cook” a very sweet “juice” (called wort) made of malted barley (and sometimes other grains) and let him feast on it.
  2. The yeast will start eating away that sugar and begin converting it into alcohol. During that process, it will also create some other chemical compounds, which we call aromas, that smell like fruits and other stuff. Cool, right!
  3. This is where it gets really interesting. The fermentation process is only partially responsible for how the beer will taste.  The other defining factors are
  4. Hops and
  5. Maturation (or conditioning).
  6. And finally bottling, serving and drinking!

Hopping

Hops are some really cool herbs, that are very bitter and smell nice. Think of hops like seasoning, and they will be added to beer the same way you would add oregano to a tomato sauce.

HOPS
Hops impart aromas, flavor, bitterness and most importantly preserve the beer.

The other really neat thing about hops is that they have some oils, a natural perfume sort of thing, and those oils are a natural preservative.

So back in the day (like a long time ago) we didn’t have refrigerators and beer would spoil quickly. Someone noticed that when they seasoned their beer with those hops it lasted longer, and also tasted better.

Now the same as with seasoning, the amount of hops, and the time you add them (during cooking, after cooking, etc) will affect the body and the aromas of the beer.

Maturation (a.k.a. conditioning)

After the beer is fermented there is a final step that is very little talked about when making beer.

Lagering-beer
Lagering beer in caves, an “old school” technique. Image from: draftmag.com

How long the beer “rests” before it’s consumed also affects how it will taste. It works a lot like it does for wine. You let it “age” and it improves. The question is for how long? And this is when the Ale and Lager “styles” began to be defined.

This is why we think about Ales and Lagers the way we do!

A long, long time ago, before we knew how fermentation worked and Pasteur figured out that yeast was a thing, people made beer throughout the year because people were thirsty all the time (sounds familiar?).

During the hot months, when beer was being made, only the Ale yeast would survive (because of the temperature threshold) and the beers would be Ales. They were generally consumed right away since during those seasons grains were readily available. Those beers would be more robust and fruitier.

During the cold months there are no crops, so beer would be made and stored in caves to be consumed until it got warm again. During that period something would happen to the beer. It would mature, some of the proteins and heavier compounds would settle to the bottom, the beer would be lighter in color and it would taste less fruity and more like the grain, or “fresher” as it was described.

This difference was first noticed in the Bavarian region, in Germany (smart dudes). The process of storing stuff in German is called “Lagern”, and the beer resulted from this process was called “Lagerbier” or literally translated “stored beer”.

Do you see a pattern here? Ales were consumed right away and maintained the fruity heavier compounds and darker color, whilst lagers were stored for the winter and became lighter in color and aromas.

According to the Oxford Companion to Beer, the main reference to beer aficionados, enthusiast, scholars and well-educated drunks, lager beers represent 9 out of every 10 beers consumed in the world. They have become a style of beer as much as a type of yeast.

But don’t get too set in those descriptions. In the amazingly creative craft brewery scene, many heavy and aromatic lager beers are being made as well as very light and crisp ales.

Did I help or made you even more confused???

Anyway. Just crack one open, sip and enjoy!

Cheers!

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