Thursday, June 21, 2007

Le Salon de MitMoi IV: Beer

A salon is a gathering of stimulating people of quality under the roof of an inspiring hostess, partly to amuse one another and partly to refine their taste and increase their knowledge through conversation and readings.

My friend Frreenie is a man of many talents and interests. By profession he's an environmental scientist, by avocation he's a brewer. I wondered how the engineer/hydrologist lined up as a brewer and what he had to teach me about quaffing my favorite brew. So sit back, pour something nice into your glass, and lets talk beer.

So Frreenie, why did you take up brewing as a hobby, and when did you brew your first batch of beer?

Why? Well, I like to make things from scratch. I have a tendency to get nearly obsessed with anything that catches my interest, and then I have to learn everything I can about it. Usually, that means I have to learn to do it myself. Beer became one of those obsessions and I never got bored with it, so the obsession continues.

Plus, how hard is it to like a hobby that provides you with a lot of really good beer?

When? I brewed my first batch on August 11, 1992 (ok, so I had to look that up, but fortunately I take copious brewing and tasting notes. Otherwise, how could I properly call it an obsession?).

Can you provide a list of the major categories of beer and the distinctions between them?

The two broadest categories of beer are ales and lagers.


Ales are typically brewed close to room temperature (65-70 °F, or 18-21 °C) and the fermentations are vigorous, produce a lot of foam, and are usually over in a few days (depending on the strength of the beer, the temperature of the fermentation, and the health of the yeast). Ales tend to be fruity, soft, and often have very distinctive flavors produced by yeast during the fermentation (which means that if you are familiar with the yeast, you might easily identify the yeast strain when you taste the beer).


Lagers are fermented at much colder temperatures, starting around 55 °F (13 °C) and slowly lowered over several weeks while the fermentation is completed. Lagers are then held during a period of cold storage (called "lagering") that serves to clarify and stabilize the beer. Lagers tend to have a crisper, cleaner taste than ales with a less noticeable flavor contribution from the yeast. Most ale yeasts would not be capable of fermenting at the colder temperatures suitable for lager yeasts, they could simply go dormant.

Nothing is cut and dry, of course, and there are beers fermented warmer or cooler than these general guidelines. There are also hybrid styles such as steam beer (a lager fermented more like an ale) and cream ale (an ale fermented more like a lager).

Beyond those broadest categories things get very complicated. A beer judging organization I belong to lists 22 major style categories (yes, you read that right, I am a beer judge. Did I happen to mention that I was obsessed?). Some of the major categories for ales include English Pale Ales, Scottish And Irish Ales, American Ales, English Brown Ales, Porters, Stouts, India Pale Ales (IPAs), German Wheat And Rye Beers, Belgian And French Ales, Sour Ales, Belgian Strong Ales, and Strong Ales. For lagers there are Light Lagers, Pilsners, European Amber Lagers, Dark Lagers, and Bocks. These major categories are further sub-divided into over 70 individual styles. There is tremendous variety in beer!

What is your favorite style of beer?

Well, this is a difficult question because there are so many different types of beer and most of them are easy to like. The beer I reach for at any given time is likely to depend on so many things (including, unfortunately, the rather crappy selection that persists in many bars, restaurants, and package stores).

In general I prefer ales to lagers, although there are plenty of lagers I enjoy. It really depends on what I am doing at the moment. If I really had to pick a favorite style of beer, I might pick Pale Ales because they are so simple, they are usually not very strong, and they are typically hoppy especially if it is an American Pale Ale ("hoppy" means characterized by the aroma, flavor, and bitterness of hops). Pale Ale is an unpretentious and easy to enjoy style, and it is very flavorful.

There are lots of other styles I like, though, and there are some types of beer have seasonal tendencies. In the summer I may more frequently enjoy both Belgian and German style wheat beers. In the winter, I tend towards richer and stronger beers - the kinds that bring a bit of a blush to your face.

Give me some history on the resurgence of the American micro-brew.

Puhleeze, did I really sign up for this? Oh all right, here we go.

  • America is a land of immigrants, and as diverse peoples came here, so did their beer.
  • There used to be a lot of regional breweries and most cities had numerous locally brewed neighborhood beers.
  • Then there was prohibition, depression, and world wars. Few of those regional breweries survived.
  • After the demise of the small breweries, mega-breweries and mass distribution of a very homogeneous product became prevalent.
  • Imports were spotty and usually stale by the time they reached our shelves.
  • We lost our beer culture, yet remained thirsty.
  • Wine coolers and Zima really sucked.
  • Things were so bad we actually liked Canadian imports (Canadians kept the good stuff for themselves).
  • This was a good time to learn how to brew some tasty beer.
  • Meanwhile, Fritz Maytag showed us that good beer was good business.
  • Homebrewers started turning pro, brewing for small shops and restaurants.
  • UC Davis and Siebel in Chicago began offering professional degrees in brewing.
  • Fortunately, our beer culture is coming back now, and there is much more diversity in styles and breweries.
  • There are now also notable American styles, resurrected historical styles, and “in your face” American hops.
  • Most medium sized American cities once again have at least one brewery, or brew pub, or both. Sweet!

Would you/could you discuss the correlation between pure water for brewing vs water quality in our watershed?

Interesting question. Water is certainly an important ingredient in beer. The brewing literature is full of references to the importance of water chemistry, including suggestions that some beer styles have a different and more authentic flavor when brewed with water similar in chemistry to the region where the styles originated. It is not unusual to find modern day brewers that treat their water to more closely match the source water of some of the famous brewing regions. Pilsen, home of the original Pilsner, has incredibly soft water that seems to be perfect for brewing the lightest and crispest of the lagers. Munich, London, and Dublin have carbonate rich waters poorly suited for pale beers, and are all home to some notably dark beers (dunkels, porters, and stouts).

If you were to consider the differences in water quality in major brewing regions and the styles those regions are known for, some questions come to mind: Did certain beer styles evolve in certain regions because the local water chemistry was ideally suited to that style? Are certain water types not suitable for brewing some beers and acceptable for others? Did regional styles evolve as a way of taking advantage of (or masking a deficiency in) these differences in water quality?

An example comes from the Burton area in England which is noted for producing pale ales and IPAs (such as Bass). If you want to take a little diversion into beer-geekdom go here: Burton Salts

Food and beer pairings – what do you look for – how do you memorize flavors and know what's going to go with what?

I have to admit that I am hesitant to suggest general guidelines about how to pair beer with food. In general, I think rules about how to eat and drink are ridiculous and ultimately will only confuse people. If you want a rule, and you only need one, here it is, hereby known as "The Rule":

Drink what you like with things you like to eat!

Having said that, beer goes extremely well with food and I would be lying if I said I didn't think a lot about putting them together. It is just that I have no interest in making a list with "this type of beer goes well with this type of food" because, honestly I think lists like that are pointless although specific examples are fine. This is also a much bigger topic than could reasonably be addressed in this salon.

But, I will give the following few suggestions:

Beer is filling. If you want to serve a variety of beers at a dinner, don't feel compelled to give each guest a whole bottle. Serve 4 to 6 ounces at a time, and serve it in a glass. Serving smaller quantities also makes it easier to share a bottle with friends, and thereby have more variety without drinking a lot of beer. The flavor and aroma of the beer is also much easier to appreciate out of a glass. If you don't have suitable beer glasses, feel free to use large wine glasses. Personally, I'm happy to suck down a cold beer straight from the bottle if I'm at a backyard barbecue, but if you are at a sit-down-dinner - drink your beer out of a glass! You'll enjoy it more!

Beer is also very nice all by itself. You could argue that some wines are much better when paired with the right food than they are by themselves, and obviously in that case it is important to think about food pairings when you serve them. This is much less of an issue with beer, so just relax about it and try something new. Serving different beers with different courses is another great way to introduce some variety. You can also have beer with one course, and wine with another. When in doubt, refer to:

"The Rule"

Courtesy of Mit you will find links to recipes that go well with the following beers.

  • Hefeweizen:
  • Franziskaner
  • Weizenbock:
  • Aventinus
    Irish Stout
  • Dry:
  • Guinness
    American Ale
  • IPA:
  • Harpoon IPA
  • Steam Beer:
  • Anchor Steam
    Belgian Ale
  • Belgian Strong Ale:
  • Duvel

    Now let's compare tasting notes!


    tp said...

    Oh pooh ! A beer's, a beer's, a beer - as long as it's cold. Yes, better in a cold mug !

    Robert said...

    nah, that's like saying Scotch is like any whiskey. Even so, drink what you like!