Pilsners, European Lagers, German Ales, Stouts, Porters, Weissbiers, Lambics, Bitters . . . the variety of beer available today seems endless. To educate yourself about the different varieties of beer can be as challenging as learning the various kinds of wine. So when you’re searching for the perfect beer for you, where do you begin?
Hard evidence as to when beer was first produced dates back about 5000 years to the Sumerians of ancient Mesopotamia. Ceramic vessels were unearthed with a sticky beer residue from as early as 3400 B.C., including recipes for a nutrient-rich brew that was probably safer to drink than the local water. It was referred to as “liquid bread”. In ancient Egypt, everyone from pharaohs to peasants, even the children, drank beer as part of their everyday diet. These early beers were flavored with things like dates and olives. The beer we know today didn’t arrive until the Middle Ages when we started using hops to season our beer.
Whether you are interested in making your own beer, or simply wish to know what you’ll find on store shelves, begin by understanding the brewing process. You need to begin with the malted grain, either barley, wheat or rye. The malt is made by allowing a grain to germinate, after which it is dried in a kiln. Sometimes it can be roasted, depending on the desired flavor of the final product. The amount of roasting that is done will directly influence the color and flavor of the beer. The enzymes created during this process with eventually convert the starch in the grain to sugar. Most breweries do not handle the process of “malting” and the malt is purchased at this state from a maltster. However, some brands, as well as small micro brews and home-made beer may include this process.
Once in the hands of the brewery, the malt is crushed and the “grist” is mixed with heated water in a large vat. This is known as “mashing”. It allows the enzymes to break down and turn the starch into sugar. The temperature is slowly increased, resting at various levels, until finally topping out at between 149 and160 degrees. The higher the temperature results in a more full-bodied beer containing less alcohol. Finally it will be raised to 170 degrees to deactivate the enzymes.
Next the mash is strained to remove the grain from the liquid. The remaining liquid, called “wort”, is placed in a large tank and boiled with hops and other ingredients such as herbs and sugars. This terminates the enzymatic process and sterilizes the wort. The hops add flavor and aroma. At the end of the process, the hops settle and are separated out.
Finally the wort is fermented with yeast to convert the sugars to malt. After several weeks, the beer is cooled close to freezing and the yeast is purged. The beer is now allowed to rest from several weeks to several months. It may be filtered one last time before it is ready to serve.
There are the four main families of beers, which are determined by the variety of yeast used in their brewing:
• Ales are made with top-fermenting yeasts. Ale yeast ferments more quickly and produces a sweeter, fuller-bodied, fruitier tasting beer.
• Lagers are made using bottom-fermenting yeasts at lower temperatures. Pale lagers are the most widely consumed beer in the world. Examples of a pale lager would be Pilsner or Bock.
• The Lambic beer is our third family. This variety is made with wild yeasts. These beers are referred to as Beers of Spontaneous Fermentation. This variety is only brewed around Brussels, Belgium. The yeast used is a particular strain that only lives in the Zenne River which flows through Brussels.
• The last family of beer are those of mixed origin. They are created by using blends of the other three families of beer.
In recent years, however, beer production and the consumption of beer has exploded in popularity. There are now thousands of new micro breweries in the United States alone. Here in the Twin Cities, some local favorites you may recognize include Lift Bridge, Surly, and of course one of our first micro breweries, Summit. You can choose from hundreds of varieties at any given store. So how do you choose a quality beer?
First learn to distinguish one from another. Determine which beers are bottle-conditioned, or contain a living yeast. You can tell when you examine the bottle and see the yeast settled on the bottom. These varieties are more beneficial because much of the healthy constituents can be removed during the yeast removal process. But some don’t like the taste of the yeast.
Next, note which beers are dark or light in color. Dark beers use dark barley, but also tend to contain some of those health constituents that are lost with the filtered light beers. However, if a light beer appears hazy or you see small particles in the brew, some of these healthy antioxidants may not have been processed out. Some of the European lagers are aged, or lagered, for many months before being bottled and will appear quite clear after the extended lagering period.
Greater quantities of hops create a more bitter tasting beer, but these beers also have richer flavors and aroma. Some of the flavors to look for as you are sampling beers are its crispness, whether there is a delicate fruit flavor or it is malt-accented? Is there a brisk hoppiness? Is it earthy and dry? Or is there boldness, a citric or herbal flavor? The malt may encourage nutty or toasty flavors. Roasted grains may taste smooth and silky. You may taste spicy or meaty flavors in beers created using the smoking process. Sample many varieties and search for these flavors to determine what you enjoy most.
Visit a store that sells a wide variety of imported and micro brewed ales and lagers. Many local liquor stores in the Twin Cities will allow you to create custom six-packs by hand selecting single bottles of various kinds. So take your time and purchase beer from each family and brewing style, simply tasting your way to finding your favorite style. Once there, your can begin to explore the countess flavors that are being used today to enhance the base flavors in craft beers. You may find a chili pepper flavored beer, or even tangerine wheat. You never know what flavors you will find. Enjoy them all, in moderation of course!
Owner & Catering Director
Lake Elmo Inn Event Center