Beer 101

By: Bret Kimbrough,

Beer is almost as old as civilization itself. The ancient Egyptians left beer in the tombs of Pharaohs to ensure a happy afterlife, and barley has been cultivated for thousands of years for the purpose of brewing beer.

The Code of Hammurabi, the oldest known system of written laws, contains statutes governing the sale and brewing of beer in Mesopotamia. Those ancient brews were murky, dark, heavily spiced concoctions few of us would recognize as beer today. Fortunately, considerable energy has been devoted over the past few millennia to refining and codifying the beer brewing process.

Lagers: Clearly Refined
When most people hear the word "lager," their thoughts immediately turn to the mass-produced stuff that comes in cans at the grocery store. While most of these are lagers, they only represent one jewel in the lager crown. The word lager actually comes from the German word lagern, which means "to store." Lagers are subjected to long fermentation and aging periods in order to produce a brew of exceptional clarity and refinement. (As the German saying goes, "Iss, was gar ist, trink, was klar ist, und sprich, was wahr ist:" Eat what is well cooked, drink what is clear, and speak what is true.) A true lager takes at least 30 days to prepare.

Serving Suggestion: try a clean, elegant pilsner as an aperitif--the beer's bitterness is good for stimulating the appetite.

Beyond Blonde
Lagers include hoppy, floral Pilsners, malty helles (blonde) bocks, refreshing Dortmunders and silky Bavarian-style lagers. There are also darker offerings like schwarzbier, dunkels, and the darker bocks. While it is hard to generalize about such a diverse race of beer, all of these brews do have certain things in common: they are all fermented with lager yeast, Saccharomyces uvarum. This yeast likes to work within a range of about 35-50 degrees F and tends to yield a beer of clean, very approachable flavor. Far from being bland, this straightforward fermentation profile allows the ingredients in a beer to really shine through and let the flavors of malt, hops and the native water's character excite the senses.

Suggested Pairing: Bock beers go well with German-style sausages.

Best Served Cold
The herbaceous saaz hops and very soft water of the Czech Republic work with lager yeast to create a wonderful, delicate bitterness, milky malt flavor and pillowy mouth feel. The dark lagers native to Munich, on the other hand, possess flavors of walnuts, caramel and chocolate from roasted malts that add complexity to the assertive sweetness of those beers. Lager is a drink best served cold. Lagers not only ferment at a cold temperature, but age at 35 degrees F or less to ensure purity and clarity. Beer that is produced near freezing is best consumed near freezing.

Suggested Pairing: Munich Dark lager and pecan pie.

An Ales Tale
Ale is the older of the two kingdoms by several centuries. Ales usually take around 10 days to produce, but some stronger varieties may be allowed to age for months. The word "ale" derives from the Norse word Øl, which was a term assigned to any fermented grain beverage. The first "ales" were fermented by wild yeast, like a sourdough bread. Some of these spontaneously fermented beers are still made today in and around Brussels, Belgium and are known as Lambics. Time and practice, however, lead to ways to isolate the good stuff that made consistent, palatable real ales that were desired in other parts of the world.

Suggested Pairing: When cooking your favorite mussel recipe, substitute gueze (unfruited) lambic for white wine. The Belgians have been doing this for centuries.

Warm Drafts
Ales include the golden ales of Cologne, Germany (Kölsch), pale ales, brown ales, porters, stouts, wheat beers, Belgian styles and many others. Ales are fermented by a yeast called Saccharomyces cerevisiae. This fungus likes to work in a temperature range of around 68-72 degrees F. This warm fermentation produces many flavors (fruity, floral, buttery) that complement those present in the other ingredients of the brew and result in a beer of tremendous complexity. Because of the warm temperatures used to produce ales, a good ale is best consumed at cellar temperature: 55 degrees F or so. This allows great yeast-induced flavors and aroma to really step forward during the drinking experience.

Suggested Pairing: English pale ale and farmstead Cheddar are a match made in heaven.

Don't Be Afraid of the Dark
It bears mentioning that within the world of ales dwell a couple of unique inhabitants: porter and stout. These brews are special in that an appreciable amount of heavily roasted (think charred) grain is used to color and flavor the offerings. As a result, wonderful flavors of smoke, chocolate, spice, wood and molasses are woven into the tapestry of these beers. Don't be afraid of dark beers--they can be some of the most captivating beers in the world.

Suggested Pairing: Porter and bittersweet chocolate are a brilliant match. On the savory side, dry stouts (such as Guinness, Beamish, Murphy's, O'Haras) are a classic match with oysters on the half shell.
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