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Four fundamentals for answering beer’s questions

8 mins read

Welcome to 2012, the year beer takes over. Slowly over the past two decades, beer as an artisanal endeavor and as an environmental and lifestyle choice has made a triumphant return. Last year the Brewers Association, the nation’s largest trade association of craft and microbreweries, reported that America is now home to more independent breweries than at any time since before Prohibition — in 1913. It took the better part of a century to recover from the Noble Experiment of prohibition, but America has finally bounced back.

For consumers, and U.S. college students, this means that there are more choices on supermarket and liquor store shelves than ever before — not only in terms of brands but also in the form of flavors that were almost extinct. Porter as a style was rarely found in its native British regions and it took the American brewing pioneers Anchor Brewing to reintroduce it to the world. Michael Jackson, a world-renowned beer critic not related to the pop star, remarked before his passing in 2009 that America brewed the best beer in the world — essentially warning European brewers to watch America to rediscover their own roots. However, how does one make sense of all these new technical terms, brands, and styles and turn it into an enjoyable and special tasting experience?

This column will introduce readers to the complicated and often intimidating world of beer. Pieces will range from historical exploration, brand spotlights, reviews and tasting notes and a survey of brewing techniques, including home brewing. To begin exploring the art and story of zymurgy (the study of brewing), it is best to start with what seems to be an elementary question: what is beer?

Beer is generally composed of water, hops, malted barely, and yeast — with a few stylistic and technical exceptions. This formulation has been the result of centuries of tradition, chemistry, and, surprisingly, civil cases involved in beer’s evolution.

For example, the Reinheitsgebot, a purity law created in 1516 by the state of Bavaria, acted as an early form of our FDA, requiring brewers to restrict their additives to what was seen as healthy and natural — namely the first three of the aforementioned ingredients. Yeast is noticeably absent from this list due to the fact that its existence and place in fermentation was not to be discovered until 300 or so years later.

Yeast is the microbial workhorse that makes beer beer. Brewer’s yeast, a strain distinct from baker’s yeast, consumes sugars and produces ethanol and carbon dioxide as its metabolic by-products. Until the 19th century, however, this chemical reaction had little scientific basis and was explained by a variety of natural and supernatural causes.

Louis Pasteur, the inventor of pasteurization, pioneered a process we now associate with commercial milk production in an essay on beer, leading to the discovery of yeast and its place in beer. Before that revelation brewers had little control over how and when they used yeast in the brewing process. Fermentation had to begin spontaneously and according to the whims of nature; beer was often left in open containers overnight, exposing it to wild airborne yeast. However in the modern setting, brewmasters have the ability to tailor yeast to work according to their needs, like producing more alcohol or unique flavors.

Yeast provides another important distinction to make when talking about beer. Regardless of what certain state governments like Texas decry, ale and lager are both two related but distinct types of beer. These two terms represent both stylistic and biological differences deriving mainly from the types of yeast used in fermentation.

Ale yeasts thrive at a higher temperature range (between roughly 65 and 75 degrees) and live at the top of a fermenter tank, while lager strains sit on the bottom and work best at around 55 degrees. These differences have historically resulted in unique brewing traditions along climate differences. For example, the cooler caves of the Rhein valley offered the perfect natural storage for lager beers — pilsners, weizens and others. Tellingly, the industry term lager takes its meaning from the German verb “to store.”

Alternatively, the warmer clime of Britain was the natural place for ales like pale ales, porters, and stouts. In terms of flavor, ales tend to be a bit sweeter and fruitier due to the chemical compounds produced at these higher temperatures while lagers are crisp, clean and bright.

The body of the beer, unfermented before the yeast is able to do its work, is composed of the sugars released from sources like barley. Malt is a product of sugars from germinated cereal grains, usually plants barley, rye, wheat, and even oats. Barley provides the food for the yeast as well as protein and other nutrients that contribute in their own ways to beer’s flavor. The cereal grains are first steeped in water, or mashed, in order to release the natural sugars in the grain and then boiled, sanitizing the unfermented beer as well as the water added to the malt.

Having a mixture of only sugar water would make for a sickly sweet beer as well as provide a breeding ground for all kinds of bacteria. Gruit, a mixture of spices, including coriander and orange peel, was used in many European countries as a flavor balancer and preservative for beer. This mixture was usually controlled by the Catholic Church in a manner similar to domestic liquor licenses. However around the 1500s, hops became the primary preservative additive to beer.

As a conseuence, modern brewers now generally use the cone-like fruits of the Humulus lupulus plant, commonly known as hops in the place of historical gruit. These vines are actually cousins of the Cannabaceae family, which includes cousins Cannibus sativa and hemp. The cones when boiled with unfermented beer produce a resiny oil that containing compounds called alpha acids — the substance that provides bitterness along with preservative effects to beer. Different strains of hop flowers can create different flavor profiles, ranging from citrusy to grassy or spicy.

These four elements are the basis for almost any beer you could see on a shelf and knowing what you’re find is the first step to finding something you like.

The next column will discuss the history and flavor differences of beer styles and how these ingredients compose and define them.

Brad is a junior. He can be reached at blenox1@swarthmore.edu.

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