The Perfect Pint: Raising Your Beer IQ
- By Ryan Nelson
- Published on May 25, 2011
Ryan Nelson is a self-proclaimed beer aficionado and mediocre home brewer extraordinaire. Each week in May, he will be sharing his knowledge gleaned after years of working in a beer store, reading about the intricacies of beer and drinking on weekends.
Beer is one of the world’s oldest and most popular man-made concoctions, making appearances in cultures as old as those in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. Despite its omnipotence and longevity, beer has been an enigmatic beverage to many for thousands of years.
It is no mystery that orange juice comes from oranges, wine comes from grapes and Dr. Pepper is made up of 23 “natural” flavors. The Brewmaster’s craft, however, is an ethereal mechanism out of sight and out of mind of the general public.
The following guide aims to shed as much useful light as possible to the uninformed, but curious, beer drinker.
The Brewmaster’s Craft
The magic of brewing beer is somewhat lost once its method is explained due to its simplicity and accessibility. Beer is made from four primary ingredients: malted barley, hops, yeast and water. Each of these ingredients lends a different taste to the final product.
To put it simply, beer is created by adding yeast to a mixture of the aforementioned ingredients that has been boiled, strained and cooled and waiting for the yeast to work the wizardry of fermentation. I like to think of the process as making JELL-O for grown-ups.
[READ why Ryan drinks craft beer almost exclusively - and why you should too.]
Barley is a cereal grain that obtains its “malted” status once it has been allowed to germinate to release sugars for yeast to consume. Malted barley provides the backbone of beer, which takes form in sweet, roasted chocolate tastes, or a combination of similar flavors.
Malt also provides the distinct brown hues of beer. For thousands of years, malts, water and yeast were the only ingredients of beer. Hops were only later introduced as preserving agents with other complimentary qualities.
Hops are the female flowers of a plant of the hemp family. They are used while brewing to introduce bitterness, aroma and other tastes to beer. Who knew two of our favorite pastimes were derived from the same family of flower?
Hops help to balance the sweetness of the malted barley and act as a preservative. It’s rumored that India Pale Ales were originally developed with high hop proportions to be able to survive the long train journey from Europe to India in the days of the Dutch East India trading company.
Yeast is a living microorganism responsible for creating the inebriating properties of beer. Alcohol contained in beer is created through fermentation, the chemical process wherein sugars are biologically converted to form alcohol and carbon dioxide.
[READ which beers Ryan suggests you seek out for festival season.]
Yeast imparts unique flavors on beer. For example, German hefeweizen yeast delivers a slight banana taste while wild yeast used in Belgium creates a pungent sour taste.
Water is the final ingredient and makes up over 90 percent of the final product. For this reason, water is arguably just as important as the first three ingredients. Many cities have became famous for their brewing water, like Dublin, Ireland, Burton-on-Trent, United Kingdom, and our very own Brooklyn, NY.
A pre-prohibition Brooklyn boasted an impressive 48 breweries at the turn of the century, partially due to the water flowing from the Catskill Mountains.
Searching for the Perfect Pint
Beer can be found in almost every corner of the United States in bars, supermarkets, liquor stores, beer stores, bodegas, etc. and with over 1,500 breweries in the United States alone, finding the right beer for the right occasion or mood can be a daunting task.
After deliberate trial and error in my beer journeys, I’ve compiled a list of advice that can help guide a neophyte beer hunter along their quest for that perfect pint.
1. If you find a brewery you enjoy, exhaust it. There’s a good chance they are doing something right and branching out from your comfort zone will expand your taste buds’ willingness to try new flavors
2. Seek out your favorite bottles on tap and especially on cask. Draught beer breathes new life into old favorites.
3. Always opt for the local favorite. If you’re in unfamiliar territory, don’t jump for the first six-pack of universally available Sam Adams or Magic Hat you see. More than likely, you’ll be pleasantly surprised.
4. Don’t judge a beer by its label. Some of the most overrated beers have brilliant marketing and some of the best beers in the world have none – because they don’t need to.
5. Don’t fear dark beer. This is an old inspirational motto from the beer store I had the pleasure of working at during college. Never turn down a beer because it is “too dark”.
6. When in doubt, use your resources. In this digital age there is a plethora of beer resources out there for the confused, indecisive beer drinker. Here are a few of my favorites.
BeerAdvocate – Great Beer metrics and communities. Beer advocate is more my style and is relatively more critical.
BeerCloud – This is a mobile application available for Android devices that allows you to scan bar codes, find descriptions, find food pairings and locate favorites nearby.
BeerMenus – A great resource for finding bars with great beer selections in major U.S. cities.
In reading this, you may have experienced a sinking feeling akin to the earth-shattering discovery that Rudolph and Santa are merely figments of generations of manipulative parents. Do not be alarmed – learning the inner workings of beer will only increase your thirst for knowledge.
Coming next week: Ryan’s last article in the Perfect Pint series.