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.

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