Beervana: Everything You'd Ever Want to Know About Beer
WHAT IS IT MADE OF?The short, straightforward answer is that basically, beer is a spiced fermented grain juice. From there on out, the details get a little thicker. The Bavarian Purity Edict of 1516 (the Reinheitsgebot) dictated that beer could only contain three ingredients: water, barley, and hops (yeast's role in fermentation hadn't quite been spelled out back then, so let's count that as the fourth ingredient in these straightforward German styles). The Reinheitsgebot represents the most basic of beer recipes, and to this day, the fearsome foursome of water, barley, hops and yeast remains the sacred tetragram of brewing.It's no coincidence that the nation's craft beer renaissance took strongest root in the Northwest, since it has some of the best hops, grain, and (most of all) water around. Without clean H2O, the only thing you can brew up is trouble. Portland, home of many micro-breweries, is blessed with squeaky-clean city water, which means the brewers have never had to spend much time, money, or energy getting the stink out of the water, neutralizing weird acidities or filtering out impurities. So, if you like to drink good beer, do yourself a little favor, and never let them log the Bull Run!BARLEYBarley for brewing starts out life as barley corns, which are wetted down until they just start to germinate. Like rambunctious tykes, germinating plants need sugar for energy, and as barley starts to germinate, it converts its store of starch into sugar. At germination, sugar levels inside the seeds are at their very highest. When the first little shoots start breaking through the kernels of the barley corn, the barley is dried and roasted, interrupting the germination when the sugars are at their peak. This wet-dry-roast cycle is better known as malting, and it serves the dual purposes of catching and holding the barley at its highest sugar content, and in some cases breaking down the sugars into shorter, more yeast-friendly molecular chains. Like coffee roasting, there are various degrees of roast a barley malt can take, ranging from very lightly-roasted Pilsener malts all the way to the burnt "black malt" which give stouts their characteristic color. The species of barley, malting methods, roast technique, and roast intensity all contribute substantially to the flavor and color of the beer.HOPSHops are a delicate viney plant, humulus lupulus, a cousin of marijuana. Though non-psychoactive, they do grow into fragrant resinous, oily buds, which are used to give beer its bitter taste. Again, the Northwest leads the nation in hop production, with the trademark hops of the Northwest bred at the Oregon State University Ag department and grown in the Willamette and Yakima Valleys. Hop varieties are used at different points in the brewing process to impart flavor to the body and aroma of the beer, and different varieties provide different undertones of bitterness. Cascades, for example, impart a grapefruity character, while my current favorite English hop, Kent Goldings, convey (to my palate, at least) a delicate floral quality. Other hops make their presence felt in tones of spice, pepper, cut grass, and earth.The tiny microorganism that makes it all happen, yeast, comes in a huge variety of species, each of which can drastically alter the overall profile of the beer. I have heard brewers speaking lovingly of old yeast strains with a passion most guys reserve for old girlfriends. Brewers spend much of their time preserving their house yeast strain from interbreeding with exogenous strains, as an ill-maintained or infected strain can reduce a batch of beer to undrinkable swill in no time at all. Brewers (the good ones, at least) are meticulous about sanitizing every surface the beer contacts, because one bad bug can quite literally ruin an entire batch of beer. In addition to alcohol and carbon dioxide, yeast can impart unique qualities to a beer, producing phenols and esters which give tastes as distinct and prominent as those produced by malt and hops.HOW DO THEY MAKE IT?The first step in the process is gristing, in which malt grains are cracked in a barley mill. The mill breaks open -- but does not crush -- the rough husk of the barley, opening its soft, sugary contents to water, while preserving the husk to be used as a natural filter. The grist is dropped into a pot of nearly-boiling water in a vessel called a mash tun. After the hot water liberates as much of the free sugar as possible from the malt, this sweet solution, called the mash, is drained, or sparged, through the bed of barley husks, and pumped into a second vessel, the brew kettle. This is where the actual brewing goes on, with hops infused into the boiling mash. Hops added early in the brewing cycle impart bitterness to the body of the beer and are called "bittering" hops, while later infusions contribute more to the aroma and presence of the beer, and are, unsurprisingly, known as "aroma" hops. The product of brewing, called wort (pronounced "wert"), is then pumped over through a screen (to remove the hop leaves) to another tank, the whirlpool, which centrifugally separates out more hop bits, protein, and other crud. The wort then heads to the fermenter, usually by way of a heat exchanger, which brings the wort down to a yeast-friendly temperature. Yeast is "pitched" into the warm wort, an environment which, to a yeast cell, is the Promised Land. A wild yeast orgy promptly ensues, with the yeast eating sugar, crapping out alcohol and carbon dioxide, and reproducing at a rate which would fatigue an army of undersexed jackrabbits. Depending on the beer, this process can go on for as little as a few days to as long as a few months. Once properly matured in the fermenter, the beer is ready for bottling or kegging, or being suckled straight out of the fermenter like some giant sudsy brood sow.WHY DO AMERICAN INDUSTRIAL BEERS SUCK?The crumminess of "traditional" American beer has little to do with the scale on which the beer is being produced. Large batch sizes make for more product consistency, and there are plenty of examples of large-scale breweries in Europe that make excellent beer. No, American industrial beers suck because they're brewed by accountants. The beer isn't particularly bitter because hops are expensive. Rather than shelling out for expensive barley malt, the breweries use cheaper adjunct grains like corn and rice, yielding a beer with none of the body or flavor of an all-malt beer. These low-quality grains also impart gassiness and off-flavors to the beer, and provide you, the drinker, with a gnarlier hangover. Any actual flavor which might have survived the intentionally insipid brewing process takes another shot to the groin when the beer is pasteurized (which is to say "boiled") and reinjected with carbon dioxide. Finally, the beer gets stuffed into cans, is shipped great distances without refrigeration, and is allowed to sit around in inventory for however long it takes to sell. If you treated your dog this way, you'd be put in jail.WHAT'S WITH ALL THESE DIFFERENT STYLES OF BEER?As with wine, beer styles evolved to reflect regional imperatives, conditions, and tastes. Scottish ales, for example, are high in malt, and relatively spare in the hop department. Not only do these robust, malty beers sit more agreeably with those whose chiseled, haggis-dripping chins break the rough Hebridean breezes, but hops don't grow well in Scotland, cost a bundle to import (from the detested English, no less!), and being Scotsmen, they weren't about to pay for all that. Farther south, British styles tend to be lighter-bodied and more generously-hopped than Scottish ales, taking advantage of a gentler climate commodious to some of the world's best hops. Unencumbered by the German Reinheitsgebot, the Belgians mastered the arcane art of flavoring their beers with non-hop spices. The Belgians have also perfected a technique of open fermentation for their Lambic ale style in which the wild yeast and bacteria native only to the Senne Valley are allowed to infect the wort, in an open fermentation process which terrifies most sane brewers. And so it goes.WHAT'S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A LAGER AND AN ALE?Ales use top-fermenting yeast, which works fairly quickly and at warmer temperatures (around room temperature). When ale yeast dies, it floats to the top, hence the name. Lagers use bottom-fermenting yeast, which works at colder temperatures over longer periods of time. As the name implies, bottom-fermenting yeast sinks to the bottom (Davey Jones' lager?) when its work is done. Since lagers require refrigeration throughout their life cycle, traditional lager styles trace their pre-Freon roots to the Bavarian Alps, where there are enough natural ice caves to make long-term cold-storage a possibility.The vast majority of beer brewed in the Northwest is brewed with ale yeasts, though there are notable exceptions. The Saxer Brewing Company of Lake Oswego brews exclusively lager styles, and Full Sail Brewing of Hood River, Oregon, and Wild River Brewing of Grants Pass, Oregon, and Cave Junction frequently whip up very creditable seasonal lagers. Lagers and ales both go by the generic name of "beer," so if you aren't sure what you're drinking, just call it beer, and you'll get it right.WHAT SORT OF BEER SHOULD I DRINK WITH WHAT SORT OF FOOD?In short, whatever you feel like. Beer is, as yet, unencumbered by the asinine pretensions of the wine world, in which a red wine with fish will bring you japes from midbrow oenophiles. As a rule of thumb, stick with lighter-bodied beers with more delicate foods, ie., a Kolsch or a Pilsener would go great with fish or a light salad, while heftier items like lamb and beef mesh nicely with pale ales, India pale ales, rauchbiers, brown ales, and drier porters. More highly-alcoholic beers, like Belgian ales, barley wines, and strong ales, work nicely with dessert, and it's helpful to think of them in the same way as you might a brandy or a port. Strong cheeses and good chocolate are both very friendly to beer, opening the palate to new dimensions of flavor. Try some English beers with a good, sharp Stilton sometime, or savor the double-whammy of a Belgian geuze or lambic with some dark chocolate. Your head will explode.