What is beer? Ben Franklin's answer notwithstanding, beer is a soupy mash of ground up malted grains, allowed to ferment. It's usually flavored with hops, a small, cylindrical green flower from a plant that is a close botanical relative to marijuana. Hops were originally used as a preservative, and people learned to like the bitter taste they impart.
What are malted grains?
Malted grains are seeds that have sprouted a bit, so their starch gets converted to sugar. Then, they are dried in warm air. Barley is the grain traditionally used for beer, wheat is also used traditionally, oatmeal is used in a few beers, and rice and corn are used in cheap beers.
In other countries, grains like millet and sorghum can be used to make beer. Just about any grain can be fermented into a beer.
If you dry your malted grains over a smoky fire, you get a smoke flavored beer call Rauchbier, which is supposed to go very well with smoked food. I have yet to try this.
What do you mean by ferment?
Ferment is when yeast cells take in sugar, and convert it to alcohol and carbon dioxide while reproducing. In essence, yeast cells go wild, multiply and excrete alcohol and CO2 until their environment becomes unsurvivable. Fermentation is used in a variety of
foodstuffs, including beer, wine and other alcohols, and bread. Wild yeast is so prevalent that any uncovered soupy mash will ferment, in general, outside of San Francisco and Belgium, this is not desired.
Yeast is a quick growing hardy organism, and given half a chance can overwhelm its growth medium. Other micro-organisms can survive amidst yeast for a while, which is generally a bad thing, except in Belgium or San Francisco.
What's special about the yeast in San Francisco and Belgium?
The wild yeast in San Francisco gives their sourdough taste it's distinctive tang.
The wild yeast in the valley of Zenne in Belgium makes the wonderful kind of beer known as lambic.
To what do we owe beer?
We owe beer our entire civilization. While some wine snobs will disagree and say wine is responsible for civilization, it's just as likely beer is responsible. Beer making requires grains and watertight containers and time, which is not easy when you have to schlep everything you own on your back. Once mankind desired an alcohol buzz, sitting around instead of roaming became more desirable.
From ancient Sumeria we have a beer recipe and ode to the God of beer. Archaelogists have uncovered evidence of beer in Egypt at the time of the pyramids, it was a staple for the workman. Truly, after spending a day pulling 10 ton blocks of stone, you would appreciate Miller time.
How do you make beer?
Sanitize a large container that can be made nearly airtight. Boil a lot of water mixed with crushed malted grain and hops. Strain into the container, add yeast, cover and fit an airlock, and wait. In as little as a day, you have beer.
This is just a brief overview, to make a good beer takes a bit more care.
Why is American beer so bad?
The most common American beer is a mildly tasting and mildly hopped highy carbonated Pilsener-style lager, made with comparatively large mounts of rice and/or corn, in addition to barley and hops. To most beer snobs, this is bad beer, tasteless, underbodied and too fizzy. When this style is done right (far less or no corn or rice, plenty of hops), you get a marvelous pilsner, such as Pilsner Urquell.
From a technical standpoint, American beer is incredible, in that the Bud you had yesterday tastes just like the Bud you had two years ago, which tastes just like the Bud Percy had in London, which tastes just like the Bud Takeshi had in Tokyo, which tastes just like the Bud Jose had in Medellin. Such consistency is hard when you're dealing with botanically derived products.
True, there are many wonderful microbrews, and in almost any bar in America a beer snob can find a tasty pint, but the average American beer is bad. For this, I blame Prohibition.
The Noble Experiment of Prohibition
The years of being unable to sell beer doomed nearly all but the largest breweries (which survived by making malt products for bakeries and food processors), sending hundreds of recipes to history's scrapheap. After Prohibition ended, World War II started up, causing many former breweries to be scrapped into tanks and Liberty ships, and sending many men overseas. The few large breweries left decided to brew a mild tasting beer that would appeal to women, who weren't a typical beer consumer; this is the pilsner/lager style of beer made by most mass market breweries.
Generations of Americans have now grown up drinking a bland beer that tastes that same around the corner as across the country, many, many local tastes are gone. This is a huge tragedy, given the melting pot nature of America, American beer could have been the best, with influences from Germany, England, the Czech Republic, Belgium, Holland and Ireland.
How did Jimmy Carter save American beer?
It wasn't until October 14th, 1978 that Americans were able to make beer at home. Considering how many of today's microbrewery brewmasters got their start with home brewing, Carter could be considered the father of good American beer.
What American beer do you recommend?
The best American beers tend to be regional microbrews, and thus aren't available everywhere in America. Since I have yet to travel all over America, I can only recommend beers that I've had the fortune of trying.
Samuel Adams is one of the most common craft beers you can find, a cultivated beer drinker should find much to enjoy with their offerings. Even better, many airports have Sam Adams brewpubs (Dulles and Newark do, at least), so you can have a tasty pint before you stuff yourself into a tiny aluminum tube stuffed with kerosene and traveling at high speed eight miles above the ground.
Other commonly found microbrews are Sierra Nevada, and Pete's Wicked, each of which offers several different kinds of beer. I don't have a lot of experience with them, as they cost a bit more than local microbews. I do know I never regretted buying them.
In New York State, I'm a huge fan of Saranac. Yuengling is a notch below (IMHO), and has become available through the northeast. Brooklyn Brewery makes many fine products, and I would be remiss in not mentioning Flying Bison of Buffalo (a cask conditioned keg of theirs was the highlight of a beer tasting fest a few years ago). In my hometown, High Falls (aka Genesee) has released a decent Amber Lager and American Pale Ale.
Further out west you can get Fat Tire Ale, which was a highlight of a recent trip to Houston, though the St. Arnolds there was also very nice. Red Tail Ale was also a very pleasant surprise, and is now being brewed in new York. I don't know how much better it is from their home brewery in California.
I suppose a good rule of thumb when looking for a good beer in America is that if it describes what specific style of beer it is, and costs more than $5 a six pack, it's probably decent.
What is that brown stuff foreigners claim is beer?
The converse to why American beers are so bad. Most American beers are pale yellow with a white head, but the range of beers also runs to light ambers, dark ambers, and beer so dark you can't see through it, with heads ranging from big and white to flat and yellow.
The color of the final product mostly depends on the kind of malted barley used, barley can range from beige to walnut in color, depending upon how it is processed. This is also reflected in the taste, with darker beers usually tasting bolder.
Why do different places have different beers?
In regions where beer has been brewed for centuries, the local style of beer can vary dramatically. One recent theory blames it on geology, which affects the water, brewers used different styles of hops and malt to make a pleasant tasting beer, resulting in highly hopped ales where water was hard, and softer style lagers where water was softer. It also led to brewer's using different kinds of malts, as roasting changes the pH of the malt, and beer is best brewed at a specific ph. It's certainly an interesting theory, but I think more fieldwork is needed.
Nowadays, brewers can add chemicals and minerals to pure water, to mimic any kind of beer they want to.
Are dark beers more alcoholic?
Not necessarily, the Guinness you get in Ireland is very low in alcohol content. Guinness you buy in America has more alcohol. The darkness is a product of the malt used. One could make a beer with lots of light malt and honey that is as alcoholic as wine. One might call that beer mead.
Do people really drink fruit flavored beer and like it?
Yes they do, you should try it, it makes a refreshing summer drink. There are two common kinds of fruit flavored beer, lambics and wheat beers.
Lambics are a sour pale beer made with wheat and male, brewed in a small valley in Belgium (and often imitated elsewhere) where a bit of raspberry or cherry or strawberry added during the brewing makes for a very refreshing taste. Sadly, lambics are on the high end for price, so my experience is limited.
Wheat beers are made with a mixture of malted barley and wheat, and are often flavored with fruit, such as cherries, or various berries. Even without adding fruit, the esters produced during fermentation can give them a banana flavor, and it's common to serve them with a wedge of lemon. If you want to try this, they're commonly labeled Hefeweissen. The slice of lemon in a corona is not just a Yuppie affectation.
Did English schoolboys really drink beer?
Yes they did. Before modern sanitary water practices, drinking water could contain any number of lethal or sickening organisms. No known pathogens can live in beer, so in a case where the water quality is questionable, beer is much less likely to give you cholera. One of the first uses of epidemiology was noting that the closer you lived to a water pump in Soho, London, the more likely you were to get cholera, except for the nearby brewery workers, who took free beer over water.
How safe is homebrew to drink?
See above, safer than tap water, aside from the usual effects of alcohol. But, bad or unusual "rogue" tastes are known to happen from improper sanitizing, as undesireable micro-organisms survive and get a chance to affect the flavor.
How do you brew beer at home?
Homebrewing runs the gamut from just add water to a minikeg like thing to taking malted grain, grinding it and boiling it just like the big guys. I'm going to describe my favorite method, using malt extracts. You have a lot more options when using extracts as opposed to the kits, and you don't need a grinder, mash-tun, lauter-tun and wort chiller. Measurements and times are approximate, please follow a recipe. If you need a recipe, check out a local homebrew place, or an online one, they should have starter kits or beginner recipes.
- Sanitize your fermenting container and airlock with bleach. You can use a clean, unscratched plastic 6 gallon food container, but you will get better results with a 6 gallon carboy. You want to bathe everything that will touch the cooled wort with a bleach solution, so as to kill most of the microbes. A few tablespoons of bleach in hot water should do the job, I rely on a couple of splashes. Be sure to wear your rubber gloves.
- Start boiling 1 1/2 gallons water in a big pot.
- Once the water is boiling, add the malt extract and most of the hops. Hops added at this stage contribute to the bitter taste. I tend to keep these hops in a cheesecloth bag.
- After boiling for 58 minutes, add the finishing hops. Hops added at this stage add to the bouquet (smell). Boil for one or two minutes more.
- Sparge (pour) the beer into a carboy with 3 1/2 gallons of cold water. A filter or strainer is a very good idea here, you don't want hops plant material in the beer. A layer of soggy hops does help to filter the beer.
- When the beer has cooled to a tepid temperature, add the yeast. Dry yeast is typically reconstituted by boiling 1/4 cup of water, letting it cool, and then adding yeast and waiting for five minutes. You can tell if yeast is active by the bubbles and the yeasty smell.
- Seal the carboy with an airlock. After a period of time ( one week, two, a few months), sanitize your drinking containers (bottles and caps or kegs) and bottle the beer.
You should be able to see the beer actively ferment, by the bubbles released through the airlock. Ales can be particularly active, and you may want to use a blowoff tube for the first few days.
Open the pod bay door, Hal. The airlock Hal.
An airlock is a simple method of preventing air from getting into a fermenting tank. A simple one has two u's shaped loops in it, much like the U bend under your sink. Gas (mostly CO2) can get out, nothing can get in.
Is homebrewing worth it?
Homebrewing is a very inexpensive hobby, if you like to drink good beer and your time is free. For about $20 USD and three hours of work, I can make two cases of microbrew quality beer.
What do Nazis and German beer have in common, aside from Munich and the Beer Hall Putsch?
Way back in 1516, German beer became regulated by the Reinheitsgebot, or German Beer Purity Law, stating that beer must only be made of malted barley, hops, water, yeast, and sold for a reasonable amount. Curiously, wheat beer is also a very common beer in Germany.
The Jekyll and Hyde nature of Budweiser
There are two kinds of Budweiser, the beechwood aged mild tasting American ale, and a very fine Pilsner made in Czechoslovakia. Because of copyright laws, the weak tasting American beer often gets the name over in the wonderful Czech beer. In Europe, the Czeck beer is also named Budvar, in America, Czechvar. If you get a chance, check it out, it's just as good as Pilsner Urquell, in my opinion.
What are some common styles of beer?
Giving a nod to the Belgians, there are three major styles of beer. Lambics, made with wild yeast, lager made with bottom settling yeast which ferments best near freezing, and ale with top fermenting yeast which likes warmer temperatures. Within each major category, there are many different varieties, I intend to only mention the most common that I've had experience with, or my favorites. If you see a beer that you like and I haven't mentioned, pleased send me a few bottles so I may properly judge them.
Lambics: These are made with malt and wheat and fermented with wild yeast and other wild micro-organisms, in an uncovered fermentation tank, and have a sour taste to them (due to lactobaccillus, which is a wild bacteria, not a yeast). The brewers will often add fruit to them, like strawberries or raspberries. Brewers outside of a small river valley in Belgium will attempt to make them also, with varying degrees of success.
Unless you're in the mood for a tart and possibly fruit flavored beer, beware.
Lagers: This is the most common American beer, usually a pale smooth beer with it's roots in the Czech republic. It's fermented with a bottom floating yeast, at cold temperatures, just above freezing, for weeks or months at a time (indeed, the German word for store is lager). Until refrigeration, one could only make lager during winter.
The first lager was a pilsener, made in Pilzen in the Czech Republic. It's pale transparency was a novelty in those days, most beer was darker and cloudier.
German pilsener is a little different tasting than Czezh pilsener- pale yellow, enough hops to be bitter and have a bouquet, with some sweetness.
Curiously, Vienna Style Lager's were nearly extinct, and hard to find in Europe. In Mexico they were kept alive by brewers of German descent, particularly in Dos Equis Amber.
American pilsener taste very different than European pilsener, it's a pale yellow in color, highly carbonated, with a mild malt taste, some hoppy bitterness, and usually an odd adjunt taste due to rice or corn used instead of some malt
Our favorite recipe, also made by Michelob and High Falls is a honey lager, with a large amount of the malt replaced by honey. It's a tasty, hoppy and light, I'm drinking one now. If you're curious, google Papazian's Rocky Racoon Crystal Honey Lager.
Other common lagers are Marzen's, which are brewed in March before the weather gets too hot for lagering, and have a pronounced malty taste, and bocks, doppelbocks and trippelbocks, which are a malty, lightly hopped lager, with increasing amounts of alcohol.
Ales: Ales are brewed closer to room temperature, with a top floating yeast. These ferment very quickly, being ready to drink in a week. They range from a pale yellow to too dark to see through, and to be heavier bodied and heavier hopped.
Guinness is the most famous kind of stout, which tend to be dark, malty flavored beers with a generally low alcohol content, though to be contrary I often order a Whatney's. The dark color is from the roasted barley being used. Stouts can also be made with oatmeal, such as in Samuel Smith's Oatmeal Stout.
Porter is a dark ale, like a stout. This is a style that was lost, and then recreated, so there's no telling just how authentic it is. It's lighter bodied than a stout.
Brown ale is a dark colored, mild tasting ale, most common in England.
Red ale is a red colored, medium bittered ale.
Pale ale/India Pale Ale is a yellow to golden colored ale, medium to highly hopped. India Pale Ale more hops, more alcohol, and was developed for shipment to India in age of sail. The brewers needed a beer that would be palatable after months at sea.
Bitter, special bitter, extra special bitter (ESB) are a gold to copper colored, well hopped ale with mild carbonation, with increasing amounts of alcohol. These are often served as cask conditioned ales.
Cask conditioned ale isn't a flavor of ale, but a process. Cask conditioned ale is stored in a cask, and meant to be hand pumped into glasses, and drunken soon after being casked. It will only last a few days, but most pubs go through beer that quickly. Cask conditioned ale tends to be less carbonated and yeasty, and served at room temperature, a real treat for those of us who like the taste of beer. Cask conditioned ale nearly died out, but thanks to the bewhiskered, suspendered members of CAMRA, it's making a come back.
Scotch ale is a sweet, malty low bitterness ale. Scotch Ale often comes in different alcoholic strengths, with Export or Strong being the most potent.
Kolsch is a soft, sweet tasting ale first brewed in Kolsch, Germany.
Hefeweizen is a German wheat beer, made with half malted barley and half wheat, and lightly hopped. Hefeweizen means with yeast and wheat, and it's traditionaly served with lots of yeast still in the bottle. In America, it's often served with a slice of lemon, and is a refreshing summer drink.
Cream ale is an American (or possible Canadian, if you believe Sleemans) invention, an ale made with ale or lager yeast, warm fermented, and then cold lagered.
Steam beer is an American recipe, beer made with lager yeast and fermented at warm temperatures. The keg would "steam" when opened, due to such active fermentation.
I'm traveling to $country, what beer is good?
I don't know, personally. I've only traveled to one foreign country, Canada, and their mass market beer tastes about the same as America's mass market beer.
Were I to be in a foreign country, I would try beers on tap that I had never heard of, they would probably be local, and good.
I want to beertroll citizen of $country, what do I say?
America: American's are easy to beer troll, fer instance, why is American beer like making love in a canoe?
Australia: If you want to troll an Australian, tell them you tried Australian beer, Foster's, and it was terrible, and you don't understand why Australians have such a reputation for beer drinking. Foster's is considered a terrible beer in Australia, with a very good advertising budget. Australians claim there are much better beers than Foster's, but I have yet to try one (a different Australian beer, not a better one, so if you want to ship me some Victoria's ESB...).
Canada: Canadian's like to claim their beer if far superior than American. While some may have a higher alcoholic content, most all the mass market Canadian beers taste only slightly better than American, I suspect Labatt's and Molson's have plenty of rice and corn added. Canadian microbrews don't travel down here very often, I have tried Sleeman's, and liked it, but it never made my top ten. In college, I tried Grizzly and Moosehead, I should revisit them and see if they were just as good as I recall. Getting back to the beer trolling, Molson's and Labatt's are barely beer, and not worthy of Canadian pride.
UK: The British like to proclaim they have the best beer, it's sad that one of their most commonly exported ales is Boddington's. To me, Boddies tasted like flat Budweiser, in that it had a taste that was like water in glass that once contained beer, but was poorly washed. Some British folk also say Newcastle Brown Ale, or Newkies, the most commonly exported brown ale is nothing special, but given the lack of brown ale in America, it's at least something different.
Interestingly enough, maybe you could blame advertising, but much beer consumed in English pubs is cheap lager, like Foster's, served ice cold. If the last beer a UKian tried was Foster's or the equivalent, they're no better than Bud drinkers.
Bavaria, Germany: In Bavaria, each little town and hamlet has often their own brewery. These villagers are very proud of their breweries, so even the smallest mistake in describng their beer, intentional or not, will result in a quick correction.
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