Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Cream Ale

"Do you have any cream ales on tap?"

I often get this question while pouring pints. "Cream Ale" is a very confusingly named style of beer. It does NOT technically refer to beers such as Boddingtons Pub Ale and Tetley's English Ale. These beers are both in the style of English bitter. They usually served through a high-pressure nitrogen gas line with a de-gassing tap (the same odd tap extension that can be seen on Guinness taps). This gives the beers a creamy head and a flat body that lacks the bubbly carbonation of most beers (it is often replicated with canned beers containing a nitrogen "widget"). It's only logical that most people would term these light-colored, creamy beers as "cream ales". As such, I usually simply ask if they are inquiring about "beers similar to Boddingtons".

Actual "cream ale" beers are quite different. This style of beer was created by ale brewers to mimic the characteristics of popular light lager styles of beer (more on ales vs lagers here). These beers are also light in color, however are often strongly carbonated and lack the creamy flatness of nitro-tap bitters. These ales are very thirst-quenching and often have bodies that are lightened through the use of adjuncts such as corn. One of the most beloved examples of the style is New Glarus' "Spotted Cow", a beer only distributed in Wisconsin that is becoming very popular in the region. For a better idea of what a cream ale is, I turn to the BJCP style guidelines which define it better than I ever could:

6A. Cream Ale
Aroma: Faint malt notes. A sweet, corn-like aroma and low levels of
DMS are commonly found. Hop aroma low to none. Any variety of
hops may be used, but neither hops nor malt dominate. Faint esters
may be present in some examples, but are not required. No diacetyl.
Appearance: Pale straw to moderate gold color, although usually on
the pale side. Low to medium head with medium to high carbonation.
Head retention may be no better than fair due to adjunct use. Brilliant,
sparkling clarity.
Flavor: Low to medium-low hop bitterness. Low to moderate
maltiness and sweetness, varying with gravity and attenuation. Usually
well attenuated. Neither malt nor hops prevail in the taste. A low to
moderate corny flavor from corn adjuncts is commonly found, as is
some DMS. Finish can vary from somewhat dry to faintly sweet from
the corn, malt, and sugar. Faint fruity esters are optional. No diacetyl.
Mouthfeel: Generally light and crisp, although body can reach
medium. Smooth mouthfeel with medium to high attenuation; higher
attenuation levels can lend a “thirst quenching” finish. High
carbonation. Higher gravity examples may exhibit a slight alcohol
Overall Impression: A clean, well-attenuated, flavorful American
lawnmower beer.
History: An ale version of the American lager style. Produced by ale
brewers to compete with lager brewers in the Northeast and Mid-
Atlantic States. Originally known as sparkling or present use ales,
lager strains were (and sometimes still are) used by some brewers, but
were not historically mixed with ale strains. Many examples are
kräusened to achieve carbonation. Cold conditioning isn’t traditional,
although modern brewers sometimes use it.
Comments: Classic American (i.e. pre-prohibition) Cream Ales were
slightly stronger, hoppier (including some dry hopping) and more bitter
(25-30+ IBUs). These versions should be entered in the
specialty/experimental category.
Ingredients: American ingredients most commonly used. A grain bill
of six-row malt, or a combination of six-row and North American tworow,
is common. Adjuncts can include up to 20% flaked maize in the
mash, and up to 20% glucose or other sugars in the boil. Soft water
preferred. Any variety of hops can be used for bittering and finishing.
Vital Statistics: OG: 1.042 – 1.055 (1.050–1.053
is most common)
IBUs: 15 – 20 (rarely to 25) FG: 1.006 – 1.012
SRM: 2.5 – 5 ABV: 4.2– 5.6%
Commercial Examples: Genesee Cream Ale, Little Kings Cream Ale
(Hudepohl), Sleeman Cream Ale, Liebotschaner Cream Ale (Lion
Brewery), Dave’s Original Cream Ale (Molson), New Glarus Spotted
Cow Farmhouse Ale, Wisconsin Brewing Whitetail Cream Ale

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Homebrewing: you can do it!

I am often asked how I learned to homebrew (I learned from a book authored by the great Charlie Papazian). People are bewildered by the fact that you can actually brew your beer. I'm here to give the power back to the people. Brewing can be as or difficult as you want, you chose your own level of involvement. I have only been homebrewing for two years, but have had great fun and success with it. I knew very, very little about beer when I first started.

Every week I will discuss another step in the process of brewing your first beer. Before you get started, there are some things you should know:
  • Is it hard? -- Brewing your first beer is incredibly easy. If you can boil water, you can brew. In many ways brewing is even easier than cooking. I didn't know how to cook anything when I made my first beer.
  • What if my beer "sucks"? -- Simply put, it won't. It's very hard to make a "bad" beer as long as you follow the instructions! You will be surprised by how good your first beer is, I guarantee it.
  • Is it expensive? -- It will take about $150-$200 to start brewing. After this initial investment, your beer will cost you $30-$50 for every 5 gallons (about 48 bottles).
  • How much time will it take? -- Brewing an average 5 gallon batch of beer will take a total of 5-10 hours. Most of your time will be spent waiting...
  • Patience is a virtue! After you start your first batch you will have to wait about 3 weeks to bottle it. After it's bottled you will have to wait another 1-2 weeks for the beer to condition and carbonate.
Next week: Equipment

Thursday, February 7, 2008

What is Light Beer?

While tending taps I often get asked "What is your best light beer?". I always find this be an odd question. "Light" means something different to everyone. Light taste? Low calories? Low alcohol? I will usually recommend something slightly different and more flavorful such as a Munich Helles or German/Bohemian Pilsner style beer. Occasionally I will recommend a Belgian white ale such as Hoegaarden.

In America "light" (or Miller's trademarked "lite") beer usually refers to a pale-colored lager with less calories and alcohol than its non-light version. For example "Budweiser" is 5%abv and contains 145 calories. Its light brother "Bud Light" is 4.2% abv and contains 110 calories. Curiously, in the state of Oklahoma both Budweiser and Bud Light are ~4.0% abv (or 3.2% alcohol by weight).

Two ways of thinking about "light" beer:

Color: Sometimes people use light as a descriptor for color. It should be noted that color does not necessarily say anything about alcohol content. The jet-black Guinness Draught contains only 4.2% abv (the same as Coors Light) while the golden-colored Chimay Tripel clocks in at almost twice the alcohol at 8.0% abv. For more on color and beer, take a look here.

Calories/Carbs: Alcohol is more calorically dense than carbohydrates or protein with 7 calories per gram (compared to 4/gram in carbs/protein). Only fat is more energy-dense with 9 calories per gram, and there is no fat in beer! Naturally, cutting alcohol content will cut calories. If you are looking for a calorie-light beer you should look for beers lower in alcohol, regardless of color.

Light-colored beers with high calories: Belgian Golden Ales (Duvel), Belgian Tripels (Chimay White)
Light-colored beers with low calories: Pale-American lagers (Bud Light, Miller Lite, Coors Light), Bitters (Coniston Bluebird Bitter, Boddington's Pub Ale)
Dark-colored beers with low calories: Irish Dry Stouts (Guinness, Murphy's)
Dark-colored beer with high calories: Belgian Quadrupels (Konigshoeven Quadrupel, Westvleteren 12), Russian Imperial Stouts (Great Divide Yeti, Avery Czar)