Monday, October 29, 2007

Beer Myths Bested

There is a wealth of misinformation, half-truths, and out-right lies swimming in the sea of beer consciousness. One of my goals in this blog is to continually educate and inform on beer and brewing. I've compiled a list of common misconceptions many folks hold about beer:

    That's right. There are only two types: Ale and Lager. Ales are fermented at higher temperatures (generally 60F-80F) with top-fermenting yeasts while Lagers are fermented at colder temperatures (50F-60F) with bottom-fermenting yeasts. All of the other 'types' you may know of are really just styles of ale and lager. A statement such as "Would like an ale or a stout?" is akin to saying "Would you like a dog or a German Shepherd?"

    Types of Ales:
    Pale Ale, India Pale Ale (IPA), Lambic, Tripel, Dubbel, Quadrupel, Porters (occasionally brewed with lager yeast), Stout, Barley Wine, Hefe Weizen(occasionally brewed with lager yeast), Kolsch(occasionally brewed with lager yeast), Altbier, Witbier, Scotch Ale(occasionally brewed with lager yeast), Saison, bitter, Extra Special Bitter(ESB), etc.

    Types of Lagers:
    Light American/Pale Lager(most all macro beers produced in North America), Euro Pale Lager (similar to the American, more skunky, usually comes in green bottles), Oktoberfest/Marzen, Bock, Doppelbock, most Malt Liquors, Pilsner, Munich Helles, Dunkel, Rauchbier, etc.

    The notion that the color of beer necessarily indicates alcohol levels is false. Guinness clocks in at slightly less alcohol (4.1% abv) than Coors Light/Bud Light/Miller Lite (4.2% abv). In fact, the roasted barley that gives most beers their darker colors is not even very fermentable as it is unmalted. Some Belgian styles such as the Tripel similar to American macro lagers in color but pack 9+% abv.

    There is an elephantine misunderstanding as to what exactly hops are and what role they play in the production of beer. Many casual beer drinkers seem to think hops and water are fermented to make beer. Hops only contribute bitterness, flavor, and aroma to beer. They also act as a mild preservative. The alcohol content of beer is determined by the amount of sugars present prior to fermentation. These commonly come from barley malt but can come from other sources as well (wheat, molasses, honey, cane sugar, corn, rice, even potatoes!)

    Higher bitterness is often desired in some higher alcohol beers (Barley Wines, IPAs and IIPAs, Imperial Stouts, etc). These types of beers have higher amounts of residual sugars left in them after fermentation. To prevent the beer from becoming sickeningly sweet (this is termed "cloying" by beer geeks), more hops are used to balance out the flavor of the beer. There is even a measurement system for bitterness called International Bittering Units (IBUs), more on that at a later date.

    Malt liquor is actually a type of beer. As a style it is usually a high alcohol lager with minimal hop presence and a high amount of "adjuncts" (fermentable sugars other than barley malt, typically corn and even corn syrup!) Malt liquor is able to maintain such low prices because a large amount of its alcohol is derived from these cheaper sugars.

    Ever notice that some beer has a "skunky" quality to it? By skunky I mean a pungent aroma similar to a skunk, gasoline, or burnt rubber. Contrary to popular belief this has nothing to do with temperature. Fluctuating temperatures have little effect on the flavor of most filtered beers (read: refrigerating it, letting it cool, and refrigerating again will not 'skunk' it). It also has little do with shelf-time. Old beer or beer stored at warm temperatures(which decrease the aging of beer) will become stale and lose it's fresh taste, but it will not become "skunked".

    This skunky problem is caused 100% by the bottle type. Green and clear bottles allow for UV rays to hit the beer. This causes a chemical reaction with hops and creates a "skunky'"aroma and taste in the brew. Many European lagers are grossest offenders in this department, and these beers often taste better out of kegs. (Stella, Heineken, St. Pauli Girl, Becks, Pilsener Urquel, etc.) Even fluorescent bulbs can skunk the beer. This is not a problem with wine and cider bottles because they do not contain hops.

    Some beers can dodge this problem by using hop extracts immune to skunking. MGD by Miller is one such beer (it is bottled in clear glass).

    This is mostly untrue. Beer from the UK is often much lower in alcohol content than similar American beers. The average "regular" American beer clocks in at 5% abv while the average UK brew is closer to 4%. 40% of all beer sold in Australia is less than 4% alcohol by volume. In Ireland most stout is less than 4.5% abv. The average German beer (often pilsner and Munich Helles) is only slightly higher in alcohol content than the average American pale lager.

    *7 of the top 10 highest alcohol beers in the world are American. With the most alcoholic beer ever produced and the highest alcohol beer in current production both hailing from the states.

    Most American beer from the 'big three' (soon to be 'big two'?) is incredibly boring, watery and similar tasting. However, there are many microbreweries thoughout the US that offer beers just as flavorful(and often more-so) than their European counterparts. In fact, the US contains more breweries than any other country in the world!

    At least part of the myth that Brits drink their beer warm comes from US soldiers stationed in the UK during world war II and in the years following when rationing was in full swing. Refrigeration was regulated, and so many places served their beer warm. The myth perpetuates to this day largely because it is passed down from parents to their children, many of whom have never been to the British Isles or continental Europe.

    Ale in the UK is served at much warmer temperatures than it is in the US, it can properly be described as "cool" not "cold". The statement that ale in the UK is served at "room temperature" is correct. However, the "room" that ale is stored in is a cellar which maintains a temperature in the 55F-65F range. Lagers are often still served at temperatures much closer to freezing, as they are in the US. In touristy destinations Guinness often comes in regular(cellar temperature) and "extra cold" varieties.

    British ales (often termed "real ale") are served out of a cask that is not pressurized (as keg beer is). Beer must be pumped out with a hand pump which pushes air into the cask, drawing out the ale. This gives the beer a creamy, velvet mouthfeel and there is almost no stinging carbonation. Nitrogen widgets, specialized keg taps, and nitrogen tanks like those used for Boddington's, Tetleys, and Guinness attempt to replicate this texture using cans and kegs. An advantage to this approach is that the beer will not spoil as fast because air is not being pushed into the keg.

    Note, beers in Germany, Netherlands, Switzerland, Belgium, etc are all usually served relatively cold, only slightly warmer than the serving temperatures of beer in the US.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Beer, Food, and Cooking

I began cooking a bit less than a year ago. My interest was sparked when a friend of mine told me about a book he had about pairing food and beer. I had always heard about using beer in marinades and eaten my fair share of beer can chicken in college.

I missed a seminar at the GABF regarding beer and food by author Lucy Saunders. She was at the festival promoting her book "The Best of American Beer & Food: Pairing and Cooking with Craft Beer" I arrived home from Denver late Sunday night to find a package waiting for me back in Oklahoma. I opened it up and it was Saunders' book! I had pre-ordered it months earlier and forgotten my purchase.

This afternoon I made my first recipe from the book. An omelet entitled: "Smoky Haystack Omelet". I made some modifications to the recipe. Here is the procedure I followed if you want to re-create it at home:

  • 12 ounces of a bottle-conditioned(has a yeast cake in the bottom of the bottle) wheat ale, a bottle conditioned Belgian ale will work nicely as well (I used a bottle of my Belgian Pale Ale)
  • 3 large eggs
  • 1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper
  • 6 drops of hot pepper sauce (I used Tabasco Habanero Sauce)
  • 1 tbsp butter
  • 4 strips Turkey bacon
  • 1/2 cup smoked Gouda cheese, freshly shredded
  1. Let bottle set at room temperature.
  2. Decant beer slowly off yeast in the bottom of the bottle. Leave about one ounce, or half an inch of beer in the bottle. If desired, you can cool down the remaining beer in the freezer or refrigerator and drink it later.
  3. Add the 3 eggs, hot sauce, and pepper to a mixing bowl. Vigorously shake up the bottle of beer to mix the yeast into the remaining beer and add this to the bowl. Whisk ingredients vigorously together.
  4. Cook strips of turkey bacon on a skillet under medium heat (about 4 minutes on a side or to desired crispiness). Remove bacon, and set aside. Begin melting butter on skillet.
  5. Once butter has melted, pour egg mixture onto skillet. As eggs begin to set, rip bacon into small pieces and sprinkle onto the egg. Shred smoked Gouda onto the setting eggs.
  6. When cheese is starting to melt, flip the egg over on itself using a spatula. Cook until golden brown on those sides and enjoy! Serve with a citrus juice of your choosing or, in the tradition of second breakfast, you can serve the omelet with a wheat beer of your choosing.
The omelet turned out great. I had to omit some ingredients (chives, milk) from the recipe and I substituted turkey bacon for the Black Forest smoked ham the book calls for. It was very flavorful and creamy with a nice little bread-like spice in the finish, complements of the yeast. Next time I will probably add some sauteed green peppers and onions into the mix.

I've skimmed through the book a couple of times and I highly recommend it. It makes me excited about cooking and even (gasp) going to the dreaded grocery store!

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Amber Waves of Grain

Everyone knows what water is, but what about malt? Malted grains make up the bulk of a beer recipe. Malted barley is the most common, followed by malted wheat. Other cereals such as oats, rye, corn, and rice are sometimes used as well.

Grains give beer:
"Mouthfeel": How does a beer feel in your mouth? Dry? Sweet? Thin? Creamy? Grainy? Grains contribute to the overall feel of beer on the palate. Some grains are processed for the sole purpose of adding thickness and "texture" to the body of beer. Some grains are less fermentable (harder for yeast to process into alcohol) than others. There are types of grain that will leave components in beer, thickening it without adding alcohol content.

Flavor: Grains can add dark chocolate, biscuit, dough, coffee, caramel, toffee, cracker, wheat, astringent, burnt, sweet, sour, or even smokey pit-BBQ-like flavors to beer. The number of grains available to the brewer are varied. Furthermore, varying their quantities can change the flavor profile entirely.

Alcohol content: Simply put: the more grain the more potential alcohol a beer can have. A beer made with twice the amount of grain can theoretically yield twice the quantity of alcohol. This is why high-alcohol beer are often more expensive: they simply require more material to make.

Color: Grains can be thought of as paints or dyes in the way they affect the color of a beer. All paintings must start out with some sort of canvas or base from which to work off of. In brewing, the "base grain" is used in the largest quantity and other grains, called "specialty grains", are used to add color and flavor. The base grain can be though of as the canvas and the specialty grains as the palate of colors. A grain such as "pilsner malt"(used in pilsners, light lagers, and Belgian ales) contributes a marginal amount of color while a grain like "roasted barley" (a grain that is kilned in ovens until black in color and used in stout beer) will contribute a large amount of darkness to beers, even in small quantities.

Contrary to popular belief, the darkness of a beer does not necessarily denote the alcohol content or even the thickness of a beer. A small amount of dark dye can be used to make a beer dark in color (the German "Black Pilsner" beer called Schwartzbier is made in this way). Alternatively (and less commonly used in brewing) a large amount of lighter dye can darken a beer. The latter approach certainly does contribute massive amounts of alcohol to beer, and the "barley wine" style of beer is made in this way.

Various grains have the been assigned "Lovibond" units according to their color contributions in beer. From the examples above, Pilsner malt is rated at 1-3L while roasted barley can be rated as high as 500L. The Standard Reference Method (SRM) is used to the determine the color of beer. Below I have compiled a sample of some hues and their respective SRM ratings:

SRM values vary from a pale straw lemonade to a jet black opaque. Various styles of beer can be found within this rainbow of colors.

Pilsner beers (Pilsner Urquell, Spaten Pils), American pale lager beers (Budweiser, Bud Light, Miller Light, Coors, etc), Kolsch beers

Belgian Tripels (Chimay White, Tripel Karmeliet, Westmalle Tripel), Blonde and Golden Ales (Duvel, Leffe Blonde)

Bitters (Boddingtons), ESBs (Fuller's ESB, Redhook ESB), English Pale Ales (Great Divide DPA), American Pale Ales (Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, Red Seal Pale Ale), India Pale Ales (Pyramid IPA, Bridgeport IPA), Imperial/Double IPAs (Dogfish Head 90 minute IPA, Russian River Pliny the Elder), Amber Ales (Full Sail Amber, New Belgium Fat Tire), American Dark Lagers (Killian's Irish Red, Shiner Bock, Amber Bock)

Brown Ales (Newcastle), Porters (Boulevard Bully Porter, Fuller's London Porter, Left Hand Black Jack Porter), Barley Wines (Great Divide Old Ruffian, Sierra Nevada Bigfoot, Anchor Old Foghorn), Belgian Dubbels (Grimbergen Dubbel, Westmalle Dubbel)

Dry Stouts (Guinness), Sweet Stouts (Left Hand Milk Stout), Imperial Stouts (Great Divide Yeti), Belgian Abts (Westvleteren 12), Schwartzbier (Köstritzer Schwartzbier)