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Beer primer

Here’s a quicky sketch on beer. It’s really meant for some of you newcomers in the biz, so I’m only going to paint broad strokes. I will probably get into more specifics after the holidays.

Beer is basically divided into two categories (excluding such offshoots as mead, hybrids of ales and lagers and other specialty varieties of ales and lagers that include adjuncts like fruit and spices). Those major two varieties are lager and ales.

Lager comes from the German word “to store”. Lager beer is “laid down” for a longer time than an ale is. It’s also stored at a much cooler temperature. The type of yeast used for lagers is a bottom-fermenting yeast. It ferments at the bottom of the tank and requires a lower temperature than a top-fermenting yeast does.

Most of the time, you’re going to see American lagers (unless you work in a restaurant or brewpub that is known for their beer selection). These are your Budweisers, Miller Lites, etc. They are known for their light flavor, light body and lack of complex flavor profiles (which brewers have spun into “drinkability”).

Then you have your pilsners (or pils for short). These are your German style “light” lagers (light in color). They are your Beck’s, St. Pauli Girl (brewed only for export by Beck’s), Heineken, Pilsner Urquell, et. al. These are distinguished by a crisp, slightly bitter, bracing flavor. Still not as complex as ales (we’ll get to that shortly), these have more interesting flavors than American lagers for the most part, although they seemingly have too much character for many americans who are used to a blander beer. 

Then you have your bocks, dark lagers that are a little closer to ales in terms of flavor. Shiner Bock is the most common domestic bock. Quite a few microbreweries brew them, and Sam Adams has a bock as well (including a doublebock as well), but Shiner bock is about the only one that you find in “normal restaurants” nationwide, although you’ll find other regional favorites. Bock is noted for its slightly sweeter, maltier, round flavor. Chocolate is a common flavor profile. there are some subcategories in the bock segment but we’ll avoid them since you really won’t see them in most American restaurants. 

A variation of this is doublebock (Doppelbock in Germany). Despite what the name implies, the beer isn’t “double strength”, although it is generally stronger (up to 10% alcohol). Most German Doppelbocks are brewed in Bavaria and have a “-ator” suffix. Famous ones are Salvator and Optimator, both brewed in Munich. They probably resemble ales the most of any lager in terms of flavor profile. Sam Adams even brewed a famous triple bock  for three years. It had over 17% alcohol and was very very thick, sweet and obviously strong. Some argue that it was only barely a beer. There is also Maibock, which is found around May-June. If you can find Einbeck Maibock or Ur-Alt (Ur meaning original, primitive, forefather in German), you should try them. They have a great flavor.

Other varieties that you are unlikely to see are Märzen, Helles, Dunkles, Export (a specialty of Dortmund, Germany), Schwartzbier (literally “black beer), Rauchbier (smoked beer), and a few others. We won’t talk about them in this primer since you rarely find them in US restaurants. Perhaps we’ll get into more detail later.  Meanwhile, if you are interested in beer, you might do some research on your own, both on the Internet and in your local specialty liquor store or beer-based restaurant. the latter is far more fun and informative.

Now we come to ales

Ales are brewed with top-fermenting yeast. These yeasts operate best at higher temperatures. Ales are more dependent on a stronger malt character than lagers (in general). They are sweeter and more “floral” than lagers. You might consider them more ‘breadlike” in character.

The lighter of the ales is the American pale ale (think Sierra Nevada Pale Ale or Sam Adams Pale Ale, the two varieties that you are most likely to see) . These are sort of the alternative to the lager. They are light and have a more  limited malt character than other, more robust, beers. Then you have Indian Pale Ale, often abbreviated as IPA. They get their name from beers that were shipped from England to India during colonial times. In order to prevent spoilage during the long ocean voyage, they were heavy hopped (hops help depress bacteria due to their astringent properties). This gives them a very strong “piney” flavor. Some people prize the more piney of the varieties. Personally, I prefer a slightly less hopped IPA, but that’s a matter of personal taste. You also have the British bitter, which isn’t bitter at all and is similar to an American Pale Ale. But you rarely see bitter here.

You also have red ale, most commonly represented by Killian’s Irish Red. Obviously, the name refers to the color. Moderately malty, this is sort of bridge between heavy ales and lighter lagers.

Then you have porter and stout. They are kindred spirits, with porter being a bit lighter than stout. Both are very dark beers and have a bready, “staff of life” body. Flavors like chocolate and coffee are often found. Guinness is the most available stout in the US.

Brown ale is a medium dark ale. Newcastle Ale is the most likely version that you are likely to see. It has a good malty/sweet flavor and is a good variety to recommend to someone looking for something with more character than your typical American lager or even American ‘brown ales” like “ambers”, which are similar but don’t offer the same flavor delivery. You also find “nut brown ales” like Smith’s, but you rarely find them in “normal restaurants”.

Alts are German ales that you might come across. They are medium dark, malty beers which go well with hearty meals. But, once again, you’re likely to only run across them in specialty beer restaurants.

Hefeweizen (yeast wheat beer) and Weizen (wheat beer)  are probably the lightest of the ales. They  are the only beers brewed in Germany that are allowed to be brewed from something other than barley, yeast and water. Weizen refers to wheat and Hefe is the German word for yeast. so a Weizen is a straight wheat beer with much of the yeast filtered out, while a Hefeweizen leaves the yeast in, causing a cloudy, more ‘bready” flavor. A variation of this is Weissen, which literally means white in German. You don’t see this very often in the US and it refers to mixing wheat and barley. In Germany, wheat beers are traditionally only served in the summer, as they are light and refreshing, but are really too light to enjoy in colder weather. they are often served with a slice of lemon or orange and are sometimes flavored with orange. A very popular wheat beer in the US right now is Blue Moon, which is traditionally served with a slice of orange. You might see this served year-round, since Americans seem to like lighter beers, even when the temperature drops into single digits. In Germany though, it’s gone by August – October.

And then we come to my favorite of all beers, the Belgian ale, specifically Trappist ales. These beers have a creamy head, a delightful full, balanced flavor and a “drinkability” that put American beers to shame. The two most famous examples are my favorite, Orval, and Chimay. A variation on these beers are Lambics. These are beers brewed using the natural yeasts that occur in the air (the bread corollary is sourdough). These beers have a very strong, pronounced flavor that is prized by beer aficionados. They are also like wine in that they age in the bottle when they are bottled for export. They can also be flavored with fruit (Framboise being a famous variety. 

The Belgians have a nice variety of beers that we won’t get into here. Some of the styles are sour ales, pilsners, saisons, brown ales, red ales, abbeys etc. Trappist ales also have subdivisions as well (dubble and tripel being the best known).

Now, how do you put this info into practice? If someone orders a lager, you won’t bring them a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale or a Sam Adams Pale Ale, even though many Americans won’t know or recognize the difference. If they order an ale (which is rarer), you don’t want to bring them a pilsner.

If someone asks you what the difference between a pilsner/lager and an ale, the short answer is, an ale is generally sweeter and more full-bodied, while a pilsner is lighter and more “tart” (this is of course only the “short answer”).

Knowing the difference in beer styles can pay off in the ability to move someone from a safe, conventional choice to a nicer, more interesting beer. But you have to be careful with this. If someone is used to Budweiser, they probably won’t like an IPA. By learning about the various flavor profiles, you can add to the guest’s dining experience and broaden their horizons.