Beer: It's Not Your Father's Budweiser
It's not your father's Budweiser anymore. The multidimensional beer market offers a style for just about everyone these days. But the unprecedented availability of imported beers from Japan to Jamaica, from Bavaria to Brazil, coupled with the explosion of American microbrews has created a double-edged sword. On one hand, Americans have never had so many styles of beer from which to choose. On the other hand, with such a dizzying selection, where does one start?
A beer's merit can only be judged by its style, says beer authority Michael Jackson. To say a stout is better than a pilsener is like saying a chardonnay is better than a sherry. What is important for the beer drinker is to be able to differentiate one style from another and to tell quality in each style. In many instances, a style that originated in Germany, England or Belgium has been transported to America, just as a French red Bordeaux wine has become a California cabernet or merlot. Sometimes the raw materials are imported from Europe. As with the early wine industry, which frequently called California products Chablis and Burgundy, American microbrewers (those who make handcrafted beer in relatively small amounts) often take liberties with established styles. For example, pilsener is the name of a specific beer from the Czech Republic, but its style has been imitated in many American brews, which also call themselves pilseners.
As the beer market expands, it becomes more stratified. Samuel Adams and Pete's Wicked are two early microbrew brands that have become so popular that they no longer technically qualify for microbrew status. Yet they have managed to avoid a mass-produced taste. The four largest beer producers-Anheuser-Busch, Miller Brewing, Adolph Coors, and Stroh's-all have gotten involved with microbrews as well as specialty regional beers. Anheuser-Busch has an equity interest in Seattle's Red Hook Ale Brewing. Coors owns the Blue Moon Brewing Company. Miller has a working relationship with the Jacob Leinenkugel Brewing Company and an equity stake in Celis Brewery Inc. and Shipyard Brewing Company. And Stroh's owns Blitz-Weinhard brewing company, which makes Henry Weinhard beers, and G. Heileman Brewing Company, makers of McSorley's.
Leinenkugel's, Henry Weinhard, and McSorley's, as well as breweries like Yuengling Brewing are examples of old-line regional beers that fit somewhere between the microbrews and the mega-brews.
Beer begins with grain (usually barley but also wheat) that is malted (steeped in water and allowed to germinate), then dried, milled and combined with hot water to convert its starch into sugar. This sugar-rich liquid, called wort, is flavored with hops and boiled, then cooled. Yeast is added and fermentation takes place. Once fermented, the beer matures from several days to several months.
One can make a strong argument that because the beer maker has a greater variety of raw materials to work with and more ways to manipulate them, beer is a more complex beverage than wine. For example, while winemakers can't do much with grapes other than let them ripen properly, beermakers can decide on several ways to treat their grain after it has been malted. The grain can be gently dried for a golden pilsener beer, stewed for a nutty brown ale, or roasted for a chocolaty stout. Indeed, beers may be made with a number of different malted grains. (However, the delicious irony is that even the most expensive beers are cheap compared with wine. The great Belgian beers, for example, rarely retail for more than $6 for a 25.4-ounce bottle.)
Hops, the dried blossoms of a vine in the mulberry family, counterbalance the malty richness of the fermented grain with a sharp dryness or bitterness, much like the acidity in wine. They also give an almost infinite number of shadings to flavor and aroma depending on what kind of hops are used and when they are added.
The following beer styles are divided into the two broad categories of beer, ales and lagers. Ales are called top-fermented beers because the yeasts used to make them float to the top of the fermentation tank after alcohol has been produced. Because ales are produced at higher temperatures, they generally have a broader range of flavors and more complexity. Lagers are bottom-fermented beers because spent yeasts sink to the bottom. Created at lower temperatures, most lagers are clean, crisp and thirst quenching though usually without the scope of flavors that ales contain. Still, about 90 percent of the beers consumed in the United States are lagers.
Made by monasteries or by commercial breweries commissioned to make them. Trappist beers are distinctive abbey beers brewed only in one Dutch and five Belgian monasteries. Despite an alcoholic strength, which can exceed 10 percent alcohol (vs. four to six percent for mainstream American beers), they are beautifully balanced with a wide range of styles. These beers can age as long as five years.
Traditionally, the strongest of British ales, the name comes from long maturation in wood casks giving the beer a winy character. Usually dark in color with a malty aroma and alcohol levels that can reach 13 percent, these beers are not for everyone. Young's Old Nick, Fuller's Golden Pride, Bass Barley Wine and Whitbread Gold Label are the best known English brands. Bigfoot barley wine from California's Sierra Nevada has a fruity aroma and rich, nutty flavor that's best savored after dinner.
Relatively low in alcohol (4 to 5 percent), this staple of British pubs is typically served on tap in plain pint glasses. Michael Jackson notes in "The New World Guide to Beer" that England has about as many bitter ales as France has kinds of cheese. The level of bitterness-from hops added in different amounts at different stages of production-ranges from mild to Extra Special Bitter (ESB). But even the ESBs aren't as bitter as the name would indicate. Fuller's ESB, one of England's best, has a nice upfront maltiness and a pleasant bitterness on the finish. Try it with light meats like roasted chicken, pork or glazed ham
The English have two styles of this malty, low-alcohol (4 to 5 percent)
beer, which gets its color and toffee-like flavor from barley that is "stewed" to
concentrate the grain's natural sugars. The Southern type, exemplified by
Mann's Brown Ale from Watney's, is dark and sweet. Newcastle Brown Ale is
a good example of the less sweet, more complex Northern type. This deep amber
beer has lots of caramel and dried fruit flavors with a subtle lemon undertone.
No wonder some suggest it might be good with nuts and desserts like apple
But Robert Levitt of the Brooklyn Brewery in Brooklyn, NY, with whom I sampled a number of beers for this story at The Wall Street Kitchen & Bar in New York, also suggested duck a l'orange as companion for the Newcastle. Brooklyn Brewery's Brown Ale is darker with a more roasted nose and a hoppier flavor that would make it more appropriate for savory dishes of beef and lamb or perhaps roasted onions.
Levitt noted that the Brooklyn version of brown beer is an example of how American beers tend to look for bigger bolder flavors than their English counterparts. "English beers tend to be smoother and rounder with a more buttery character," he said. "Americans, especially the West Coast breweries, like more 'pop.'" However, the ultimate in brown ales-with, and probably without, food-is the ageable and complex Liefmans Goudenband from Belgium.
A mild, lightly sweet American ale such as Genesee Cream Ale.
More copper colored than pale, it was first developed in Burton-on-Trent
in Britain. Classic pale ale is a kind of bottled premium bitter with a yeasty
fruitiness and a dry hoppy finish. Bass is the most famous pale ale, though
it has become a mega-brew (with all that it entails) in the past two decades.
Sierra Nevada, with its pungent Cascade hops-a trademark of West Coast microbrews - is probably the best known of American pale ales. This gives such beers the kind of fruitiness that's similar to the forward fruit in California wines and sets them apart from English pale ales, much the same way that California wines are distinguished from French wines. With these beers, Bruce Aidells and Denis Kelly, authors of Real Beer and Good Eats, suggest California-style fare, such as light and spicy salads, and grilled meat, fish and poultry.
India Pale Ale
Often known simply as I.P.A., this fruity and strongly hopped beer got its name because it was sturdy enough to survive the trip from England to India. As with pale ales, American versions of I.P.A. are bolder, with even more explosive hops. However, Wild Goose India Pale Ale from Cambridge, MD nicely mimics the more refined English style. Marston's Pedigree is an excellent I.P.A. from England, where Cheddar cheese is a favorite accompaniment.
In appearance, porter resembles its beefier cousin, stout. And for many,
it shares stout's affinity for oysters as well as other shellfish. However,
Levitt notes that the oyster-stout (or porter) match is more one of tradition
than culinary appropriateness, like Champagne and caviar. I think beef and
lamb stews, especially those with some fruit (like a Moroccan tagine), would
make more sense.
While many think porter to be somewhat lighter than stout, the truth is that one brewery's porter could easily be more robust than another's stout. Roasted barely gives porter the flavor of nuts, chocolate, and coffee, but a significant fruitiness also comes through. The smooth and caramel flavored Samuel Smith Taddy Porter is a good British example. Yuengling, Anchor, and Sierra Nevada are good ones from the United States. The Sierra Nevada has a funky, cheesy nose, though it doesn't taste as strong as it smells.
In "Beer Essentials," author Paul Pacult says, "If beer has a rough equivalent to single malt Scotch whisky, this is it." Deep amber to dark brown in color with a high malt, low hops flavor, it has a range of strength from 3 percent alcohol (for Light) to 10 percent (for Strong Ale) with intermediate styles called Wee Heavy, Heavy, and Export in between. Best known brands are Newcastle, McEwans, Mackeson, and MacAndrew's. Newcastle Scotch Ale is seriously malty with dried fruit flavors that make it a candidate for desserts. I also found it fantastic with walnuts.
There are three styles of this almost black beer. The Irish style, best illustrated by Guinness, is the dry oyster-friendly stout. Despite its hearty look and great mouthfeel, Guinness is surprisingly light and low in alcohol (4.2 percent).
A more alcoholic stout, which was shipped to the Czar, was dubbed Russian or Imperial stout. Samuel Smith makes one today. English stout like Mackeson is also called sweet stout or milk stout because it is made with lactose, milk sugar.
Oatmeal Stout like that from Samuel Smith, is a variation on English Stout. It's a maltier, denser Stout with a viscosity that makes you think you could almost eat it with a fork. "You could substitute this for breakfast," noted Carlo Schiano, Levitt's colleague at Brooklyn Brewery. Levitt would opt for Porterhouse steak.
Germany (weissbier or weizenbier) and Belgium (witbier) are the best known producers of wheat beer or white beer, so called because of its pale color. The simplest are light and refreshing summer quaffers, often served with a slice of lemon or a dash of fruit syrup. All wheat beers are cloudy but the yeasty German hefeweissen is even more so. Paulaner Hefeweissen has a banana nose and a sweet, fruity flavor that's a bit more substantial than Belgian wheat beers because the Germans, unlike the Belgians malt their wheat. Celis White Hefe Weizen is a terrific American wheat beer from Texas, of all places.
Belgian lambics are also wheat beers but among the most complex and idiosyncratic beers in the world in large part because they are made with wild, airborne yeasts, which produce spontaneous fermentation. Some can improve with age for up to two years.
Among the strongest of German beers, bock was traditionally a malty dark
and dense beer, but today it may pale as well. A long lagering-essentially
a cold storage period during which beer stabilizes-gives bock more complexity
than most other lagers. It pairs nicely with Weisswurst, or veal sausage.
Double bock or doppelbock is more alcoholic-though not necessarily twice
as strong. Paulaner Salvator Double Bock, the original double bock, has the
color of Cognac, an earthy nose with hints of sherry and a complex flavor.
A good match for a fine cigar.
Germans would blanch at the notion of a Triple Bock but Americans aren't bound by such convention. Hence, Samuel Adam's Triple Bock at a whopping 17.5 percent alcohol. This vintage dated (1995) earthy brew is not for the faint of heart. It's like a combination of olorosso sherry and Fernet Branca.
Traditionally the term refers to spicy, malty dark lagers-like Wurzburger Hofbrau-from Munich where special local barely was used. (Dunkel is German for dark.) Despite their color, they have less of a roasted flavor than similarly colored beers. Outside Germany dark beers have come to mean any dark beer, often a routine pilsener with caramel added. Some, like Mexico's Negra Modelo, successfully emulate the German originals, in this case with good body and malty richness that holds up nicely to barbecue and rich Mexican fare.
These medium-to-full bodied, pale lagers are from the German city of Dortmund. While the city produces 30 beers of varying styles, the classic Dortmunder or Export beer is drier than Munich-style lagers and less hopped but stronger than pilseners. A good example is Dortmunder Kronen Classic. Serve it with salads, chicken or fish.
This medium-to-full bodied, malty beer is most associated with Germany's
late September and early October Oktoberfest. So it naturally goes with the
foods of that festival like roasted chicken, pork dishes such as smoked pork
chops and sausages, and spicy dishes like sauerbraten. Marzen was inspired
by the Viennese method of brewing beer, which used an amber-red malt (hence,
the beer's final color) and a long lagering period. Paulaner Oktoberfest
is amber colored, creamy and smooth with a light malty flavor and slightly
yeasty nose. Marzen or Vienna-style beers are common in Mexico and would
seem perfect for Tex-Mex fare. But I found the popular Dos Equis surprisingly
Created in the Bohemian town of Pilsen, this is the prototype for American
mass-produced beer. While the original was golden colored, full-bodied and
highly hopped, American pilseners (sometimes called American lagers), which
often use corn and rice, are lighter in color with less body and hops and
thus much thinner. Pilsen Urquell from the Czech Republic is the ultimate
expression of pilseners with a hoppy nose, medium richness in the mid palate
and a clean snap at the finish. Great with burgers, hot dogs and pizza.
Some beers straddle the lager and ale categories. Amber beer, which gets its name from its color, can be top or bottom fermented. Nicely hopped and quite fruity, it is a popular style with American microbrews. Altbier is made at warm temperatures like ale but aged in cold storage like lagers. This crisp German beer, whose color ranges from copper to rich brown, is a good accompaniment to sausages and strong cheese. Rauchbier or Smoked Beer gets its name and aroma from the barley malt, which is dried in kilns, often by burning a variety of woods or peat. The smoky aroma and flavor makes it a natural choice with smoked meats and sausages. Though German in origin, Steam Beer was made popular in the United States by Anchor Brewing in San Francisco. It is bottom fermented like a lager, but at higher temperatures that befit ales. It's clean and well balanced with a pleasant hoppy finish.
Holiday or seasonal beers may seem like mere novelties but they can be well made and delicious. Buffalo Bill's Pumpkin Ale has delicious pumpkin pie flavors and a good balance of sweetness, fruit, and spice that should go well with any Thanksgiving dinner.
Americans tend to drink their beer like their wines, entirely too cold. Higher temperatures bring out more flavors and aromas. The range is from 45 to 60 degrees with simpler, more quenching brews like pilseners at the lower end and more complex beers like Belgian Trappist ales at the higher end.
Freshness is important for beer, unless it is age-worthy like some Belgian beers. So find a retailer with good turnover and one who stores beer properly-reasonably cool (cellar temperature of 55 degrees is ideal) and away from light.
As with wine, beer deserves a respectable glass. Straightforward, effervescent beers like pilseners and wheat bears should be served in conical glasses known as pilseners. Thick, straight sided, wide-mouth glasses are appropriate for most ales. For more complex ales, wineglasses with good-size bowls will help show off aromas. Belgian lambics are traditionally served in Champagne flutes. Don't ask me what kind of bowl to put the tortilla chips in.