I'll drink to that: Beers

By GEOFF MORRIS  |  July 26, 2002 at 11:38 AM
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LEOMINSTER, England, July 26 (UPI) -- There are thousands of beers, each with its devotees. It is not possible to write about them all but I will try to explain how beer is made and how the major styles differ.

Beer began in the Middle East. There are Egyptian tomb paintings showing the brewing process. There even are historians who have suggested the concept of having a city was necessary so people could have surplus cereal to make beer. Could it be beer is at the heart and root of civilization? I'll drink to that.

As the influence of Islam grew in the Middle East, less and less beer was produced. The center for the production and consumption of beer moved to Europe.

There are many diverse styles of beer, all of which have crossed the Atlantic and taken on new aspects in the Americas. Britain produced mainly ales while Germany and Bohemia made mainly lagers. Belgium produced beers in styles unique to Belgium -- some of them ales using what in Britain would have been lager malt and hops.

What I aim to do here is a short description of a style of beer, with European and North American examples. I hope my North American examples are up to date. Beer is a rapidly changing market, and from this side of the water it is hard to keep up.

For Americans a beer is a lager. In Britain a beer is an ale. Beer is in reality both. So this piece covers both ales and lagers. A beer is produced by fermenting a cereal and flavoring it with hops.

Large companies dominate the market with global brands. By cutting costs of ingredients and production methods, and putting a small part of the money saved in production into advertising, they actually have succeeded in producing liquids that are just like beer with the color and taste taken out. If you have a small to medium-sized local brewery in your area, their product will almost certainly be more flavorsome.

Beers and lagers have similar ingredients: water, malt, hops and yeast, but there is a huge variation in styles and tastes. The degree of roasting of the malt gives the beer its color and a fruity taste; the hops give beer a bitter taste and contribute to the aroma. The yeast ferments the carbohydrate, from the malt, to alcohol and also contributes to the taste. Top-fermenting yeasts produce ales, while bottom-fermenting yeasts produce lagers.

Malt is made by allowing barley to germinate, turning the starch into sugars that are easier to ferment. The malt is then roasted to varying degrees. To make a pale beer, the malt is lightly roasted. To make a dark beer, the malt is roasted longer. Various combinations of light and dark malt can be used to create beers so beer can range in color from very pale to almost black.

Traditional British beers use two-row barley, low in protein and low in yield. European style beers are made from six-row high protein, high-yielding barley. High protein levels can cause a protein haze. The best way to reduce the cloudiness is by putting the beer into cold store -- lager is the German word for this.

Maize and rice can be added as adjuncts to the barley to lower the protein levels and reduce the need for cold storage, but this is not done to improve the taste. It is done purely to reduce costs, both of ingredients and the length of time in storage. Do not let the advertising fool you -- the King of Beers abdicated some time ago.

Hot water is passed through the malt so the sugars and starch dissolve to produce a wort. Lagers often have complex procedures to make the wort, to reduce protein levels that otherwise would affect the beer after fermentation. The wort is then boiled for about 90 minutes or so with the hops and then allowed to cool before adding the yeast.

Fermentation then proceeds. The bottom-fermenting yeast needed to brew lager needs cool temperatures and more time.

Hops give beer bitterness and aroma. They were introduced into beers as a preservative. In England they were not liked at first, with drinkers preferring the taste of coriander seed, which had been used before the introduction of hops from Europe in Elizabethan times. There still is a great deal of regional variation in the amount of hops used in English beers, at least among the smaller breweries.

Traditional varieties have much more aroma than the bitter hops used in most of the industrially produced beers. Many beers have a combination of aroma and bittering hops. Sometimes beers will say which hops are used. Aroma hops to look out for include Goldings and Fuggles in ales, and Saaz, Hallertau and Tettnang in lagers. Cascade is a new variety from the United States, which gives an interesting citrus character to beers.

The major difference between European and American usage of hops can be illustrated in the following story. A British brewer was on holiday in the United States and was visiting a micro-brewery. When the owner found out he was talking to another brewer, he said, "I hear you grow hops in Britain. What do you do with them? You sure as hell don't put them in your beer!"

European beers are mostly about balance so the hops and malt both can be tasted. American beers, from micro-breweries, use the malt as a platform on which the hops can strut their stuff. Which style of beer you prefer is entirely up to you. I love them both but can only take American beers in small doses. This, I suspect, is due mainly to geography and the sort of beers I am more used to drinking.

An English bitter will be pale in color and have a nice balance of bitterness and aroma. They average about 4 percent or 5 percent alcohol by volume and are sold mostly in cask to be drunk cool -- but not too cold -- in pubs.

Woods brewery in Craven Arms, Shropshire, produces two bottled bitters. Shropshire Lad uses both aroma and bittering hops for a well-balanced bitter. Hopping Mad uses unusually large amounts of a bittering hop for a British beer.

The Anchor Brewery in San Francisco brews Liberty Ale, which uses generous amounts of Cascade hops for a completely American take on a British bitter.

A mild is dark, lightly hopped beer traditionally associated with heavy manual work where the beer was drunk, at least in part, to replace liquid lost through perspiration. Milds are unfashionable at present, representing an old working class drink.

Sarah Hughes Dark Ruby Mild is a British Classic, with the recipe unchanged since the 1920s. The bottled version is 6 percent alcohol by volume, the draught version only available at the Beacon Inn, Sedgley, where it brewed, is 7 percent ABV. I shudder to think how strong the bitters used to be.

A more typical mild is Black Cat 3.4 percent ABV, brewed by Moorhouses at Burnley, in Lancashire. It was Britain's overall champion beer in 2000. Sales have doubled now that they have removed the word mild from the label.

The Upper Canada Brewery in Toronto produces Dark Ale, which is rather like a hoppy version of a mild. The Atlanta Brewing Company Red Brick Ale has rich smooth maltiness, typical of the best milds.

Indian Pale Ales -- IPAs -- were strong and hoppy to last the voyage to India, where the 19th century soldiers of the British Raj would take their beer with their tiffin. My favorite is Burton Bridge Empire. American examples are even hoppier; there are many, but Boston Beer Works Back Bay IPA is perfumed, hoppy and dry.

Stouts come in various versions. The classic Imperial Stouts were brewed for the Russian Imperial Court. They were strong, dark, and very hoppy. Sam Smith's Imperial Stout is one of the last reminders of this style.

Guinness has a bitterness at least in part derived from the use of roasted barley in addition to the malt. Look out for the Guinness Special Export, brewed in Dublin and bottled in Antwerp. It is 8 percent ABV and is wonderful.

Pilsener Lager was first brewed in Pilsen, in what now is the Czech Republic. Golden lagers spread rapidly through Germany and Austria and then the rest of Europe. Czech examples include Pilsner Urquell and Budweiser Budvar. Zywiec, from Poland, is a personal, malty favorite. Jever, from Hamburg, is the hoppiest German lager. Brooklyn Lager is a fine American example, with Jever as its model.

Before Pilsener, most German lager was dark -- dunkel in German. This style of lager still is little known outside Germany but counts for about a third of the German market. Oechsner Schwarzer is a very fine example, as is Paulaner Alt-Münchner Dunkel. The Northampton Brewery in Massachusetts brews a Bock, which is rich dark and smooth.

Belgium has the most diverse range of beers in Europe, from the Trappist Ales brewed by monks as part of their Christian duty of service to lambic beers. Trappist beers use top-fermenting yeasts to produce ales. They use a mixture of British and European style malt and a mix of the hops that would be used in British ales and German lagers. They are some of the most complex tastes in the whole of the beer world.

In a future piece, I will deal with Belgian beers in more detail.

Chimay is probably the most widely available. The Red label is dark and malty, the White label is pale and hoppy, while the Blue label is dark, sweet, and hoppy -- a beer equivalent of port. Orval is the hoppiest and probably closer to the hoppy American style.

Abbey beers are produced by commercial breweries in the Trappist style. Leffe is the best known. The New Belgium Brewery in Fort Collins, Colo., produces an Abbey in the dark malty style and a Trippel in the pale hoppy style.

Lambic beers are produced near Brussels. Wheat is boiled up with 10-year-old hops that no longer have any taste but still have their use as preservatives. The brew is then left to cool and wild yeasts, lactic bacteria and acetic bacteria are dropped in and begin to ferment. The brew can be searingly acidic. It is left to mature in barrels for two or three years. It is blended with some identical but younger brew just before bottling to produce a gueuze. The mixing of the brews is enough to set off an in-bottle fermentation.

The acidity of the lambic can be tamed by the addition of fruit. Raspberry and cherry are the two most popular, making Framboise and Kriek respectively. They are delightfully refreshing on a summer afternoon. The New Belgium Brewery also produces a rather tart Two Cherries Ale using sour cherries, the sort normally used for cooking.

There are beers produced to suit all tastes on both sides of the Atlantic and there is a growing trans-Atlantic trade in beers. For cask beers, you need to speak to your pub/bar to get the type of beer you like. For bottled beers, the world is your oyster.

American readers should note a license from the Food and Drug Administration is needed to import beer. You will find it easier to approach a licensed importer. The exact rules vary from state to state.


(Geoff Morris writes a monthly column for UPI on wines. This time he chose beer instead. Morris can be contacted at Orchard, Hive & Vine, 6 The Buttercross, Leominster, Herefordshire UK HR6 8BN. Email gmorris@ohv.wyenet.co.uk)

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