88% of the beer consumed in this country is made by macrobrewers - MillerCoors or AB InBev. The really interesting exploration, though, is in the other 12%, where over 3,000 craft breweries across the country are making both traditional, time-honored styles and innovative, epicurean beers.
Think of it like cheese – by far the most popular cheese sold in this country is American Cheese, a processed product made for its light flavor and long shelf-life. If American Cheese were the only cheese we ever ate, we’d never know the vast expanse of flavorful, culturally-specific cheeses from across our country and the world. The same is true with beer. Macrobrews are, for most people, very lightly flavored alcohol delivery vehicles, nothing more. They are the lowest common denominator – the American Cheese of the beer world. Tonight, we’re going to be tasting a small sampling of beers made by artisans, exploring their aromas, flavors, and their cultural and historical contexts.
Ingredients: Flavor and Aroma
Usually barley, sometimes wheat or rye, that has gone through a ‘malting’ process. We call these grains ‘malt’ and they provide one of the basic aromas and flavors in any beer, which we also call ‘malt’. If you’ve ever tasted Grape Nuts cereal, you’ve tasted malt. Malt can provide a bread-like flavor, a drier biscuit flavor, if it is kilned it can provide a coffee or roast character, or a caramel-like flavor.
Hops provide the bitterness necessary to balance the malt, to keep beers from being cloying and unpalatable. In addition, they may lend aromas and flavors to the beer beyond basic bitterness. These flavors and aromas vary by the variety of hop and its origins – American hops often offer citrus flavors, European hops sometimes lend spiciness, English hops may deliver herbal and earthy character, and hops from Oceania typically offer tropical fruit aroma.
Yeast are the micro-organisms that turn sweet malty and hoppy liquid into beer, by eating up most of the malt-sugars and releasing alcohol, CO2, and a variety of flavor compounds. The strain of yeast and the environment in which it works (temperature, for example) impact which flavors and aromas are produced. Lager yeast strains provide ‘clean’ flavor profiles, with perhaps some sulfur, while English yeast strains will enhance esters, which may be perceived as pit fruit. Belgian yeasts tend to lend spice flavors.
Always drink out of a glass. You would never drink wine from the bottle, because you would lose most of the aroma and any sense of what the wine looks like. Our sense of smell deeply impacts our perceptions of flavor and our enjoyment of food and drink – use a glass.
Use all your senses, in this order: 1) Smell, 2) Vision, 3) Taste. Repeat as necessary. Swallow the beer, it will enhance your ability to perceive alcohol warmth and the beer’s finish.
Appreciating and Enjoying Beer
In competitions, judges evaluate beers in these broad categories:
Look for malt and grain aromas (bread, caramel, roasted, coffee?), hop aromas (earthiness, citrus, spiciness, herbal?), esters (pit fruits, plums, cherries?), or other spices or fruit the brewer may have used.
The color of the beer, the clarity of the beer, and the color/size/retention of the head.
Similar to aroma (malt, hop, and ester/yeast flavors) but with the addition of bitterness (from hops). Look for the balance of the flavors, whether the beer is malt-forward or dominated by a strong bracing bitterness, or in balance. Look for both components of hops – bitterness and flavor, they are different. Some beers will have purposeful tartness. Acidity plays an important role in beer flavor. Is the beer dry or sweet? Some flavors hit your palate first and fade, others last throughout the finish and aftertaste.
Is the beer full-, medium-, or light-bodied? Is the carbonation high, medum or low? Is there astringency? Alcohol warmth?
Do all the above components come together into a harmonious whole that you enjoy? Were there any significant flaws or off-flavors in the beer (plastic, medicinal, unintended sourness, oxidation, etc.) How would this beer pair with different foods? How would you enjoy it?
There are currently 115 defined beer styles and categories in the world – a tremendous breadth of flavors and aromas. The distinctions between beers are often much greater than those between wines – a stout has very little in common with a lambic or a hoppy pilsner or a big Belgian Tripel. Styles help us categorize and give us language to use in describing beers. Of course, some of the most interesting beers are those which blend styles or burst the constraints of styles, using unexpected ingredients or processes. Tonight, we’re going to taste five styles (descriptions are from the BJCP Style Guidelines):
Munich Helles (Weihenstephener Original): A clean, malty, gold-colored German lager with a smooth grainy-sweet malty flavor and a soft, dry finish. Subtle spicy, floral, or herbal hops and restrained bitterness help keep the balance malty but not sweet, making this beer a refreshing, everyday drink.
Best Bitter (Fuller’s London Pride): The family of British bitters grew out of English pale ales as a draught product in the late 1800s. A flavorful, yet refreshing, session beer. Some examples can be more malt balanced, but this should not override the overall bitter impression. Drinkability is a critical.
American IPA (Around the Bend’s Villainous): A decidedly hoppy and bitter, moderately strong American pale ale, showcasing modern American or New World hop varieties. The balance is hop-forward, dry, with a clean, supporting malt allowing a creative range of hop character to shine through.
Belgian Tripel (Unibroue’s Fin du Monde): A pale, somewhat spicy, dry, strong Trappist ale with a pleasant rounded malt flavor and firm bitterness. Spice and fruit aromatic combine with the supportive clean malt character to produce a surprisingly drinkable beverage considering the high alcohol level.
Imperial Stout (Hailstorm’s Vlad): An intensely-flavored, big, dark ale with a wide range of flavor balances and regional interpretations. Roasty-burnt malt with deep dark or dried fruit flavors, and a warming, bittersweet finish.