Domestic vs Craft Beer

“With but few exceptions, it is always the underdog who wins through sheer willpower.”
-Johnny Weissmuller

With all this talk about craft beer, it is important to realize what allows it to be considered “craft.” It certainly isn’t sitting around whittling birdhouses, so what makes it so special?

To best grasp what craft beer is, it may be easier to first understand what it is not. Non-craft beers that are brewed in a particular country and circulate throughout are considered “domestics” while those brewed outside and have to be brought in are called “imports.” The imports category can have many different types under its umbrella so, for now, we will focus on domestics.

Domestic breweries tend to be extremely large scale and considerably older than most craft breweries. This is because most of the domestic beer companies that are still around are those few that survived Prohibition.  They are also, generally speaking, cheaper than the majority of craft beers. Examples of this are Miller, Coors, and Budweiser.

This all sounds great, so why even bother with craft brews?

Like most things, just because it sounds good on paper, doesn’t always make it true in execution. The first and biggest strike against them is that most only produce American Lagers, which is not an issue if that is the style you like all the time. But, for most people, the same thing gets boring after awhile. After Prohibition was repealed, a few brewers felt the same way and decided to try something different. From there, craft beer was born and, today, hundreds of varieties are available.

While craft breweries tend to stay small, there is a certain appeal to that. The breweries are able to stay more customer-centric and keep a decisive level of quality. It also allows for more creative brewing, creating styles and variations of styles that would be much more difficult on such a large scale as most domestic producers. The number of styles adds to the inclusiveness of the craft beer world, leading to the phrase of “there’s a craft beer for everyone.”

At the end of the day, it boils down to preference. And no judgements here if domestics are your jam. Be proud of the beer you like. However, personally, I see it as the difference between Wal-Mart and the local mom and pop shops. I know that one is cheaper and more convenient, but the other is going to be run with passion and personal motivation.

And I personally choose passion.

Cheers.

 

 

 

 

 

It’s A Process…A Brew Process, That Is.

Water. Check.
Grain. Check.
Hops. Check.
Yeast. Check.

So now what?

Well, like any recipe, once you have the ingredients, it’s time to put them all together. But just as you can’t expect to get a cake by throwing eggs and flour in a bowl and just baking them, you can’t expect to get a beer just by wishful thinking. If only…

While there are many, many details that go into a brew process, we will keep it simple.

The first step in the process is called mashing. The grain essentially hangs out in a jacuzzi for about an hour, which helps it break down and release the fermentable sugars. This creates a strange tea-like mixture known as wort. But don’t let the gross name fool you- this stuff is liquid gold. Well, liquid pre-beer but…you know…basically the same thing, right? The wort is then strained through the bottom of the container, or mash tun, (a process called lautering) and water is poured over the top to flush out any more sugars (called sparging).

Once all the sugars have been pulled out of the grain, the liquid is then drained off and boiled. This is when the hops are added. Other ingredients may also be added at this point, at the brewer’s discretion.  This is when all those wonderfully crazy chemical reactions happen, including sterilization (good-bye icky bacteria!) , hops aromas and flavors released, etc. In the end, we’re left with the brew liquid (now much closer to being beer!) and a solid mound of hops and residues. The liquid is separated (because who wants to drink something with chunks in it?) and cooled down.

Once the brew liquid has been cooled, yeast is added. And…we’re done! Right? Right? All our hard work has paid off and we get to drink now? Well, yes and no. While the “brewing” portion is technically over, we still have to let the yeast do its job. During the process of fermentation , the yeast eats all the sugars it can and turns it into alcohol. Whereas the brewing process only takes a portion of a day, fermentation can take anywhere from a week to over a month!

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It’s Aliiiiiiiiive!

From here, the now-beer is carbonated. This is the process by which the beer is infused with Carbon Dioxide, which adds the body and the bubbles. This can be done by a CO2 tank or the traditional/homebrew method which is done during bottling. Depending on who is brewing and its purpose, the brew is then bottled, canned, or kegged.

While it may seem like a daunting process (and definitely can be), it is certainly a labor of love, one that yields delicious results.

Oh! And can’t forget the final step, my favorite: Drinking!

Cheers.

 

Beauty and the Yeast

“I am seeking for the bridge which leans from the visible to the invisible through reality”
– Max Beckman

When most people say there’s magic in the air, they’re referring to a scene in a romantic comedy or the first autumn day. When brewers talk about magic in the air, they’re referring to something much different. Yeast.

As unappetizing as it may sound, yeast is the very essence of beer, and the catalyst to making the product we brew and love today. While yeast has always made the brew process possible, it wasn’t discovered until considerably late in the brew game. Yeast is a living organism but is single-celled and practically invisible, which would certainly explain the late find for this pixie dust.

So what’s the secret to this magic act? Well, behind door #1, you’ll find the brew solution, ready for fermentation. And behind door #2, you’ll find the brew yeast…asleep. Until it’s ready for action, yeast stays in a stasis and, much like most people, when yeast wakes up, it’s hungry. When added to the brew solution, yeast starts to snack on all fermentable sugars and, in turn, releases drinkable alcohol and other byproducts. Once it’s eaten its fill, yeast packs up and goes back into hibernation.

While all yeast used in the brewing process is considered “brewers yeast,” there are still different varieties, or strains. My absolute favorite strain is the wild child of the yeast world: Brettanomyces or, as its lovingly referred to, “Brett.” Brett is a wild yeast strain and it certainly behaves that way. It is pretty well the yeast that ate everything. While it probably won’t score itself a horror movie deal any time soon, it is a very important player to keep in mind. Brett eats everything, which means that it will consume all sugars of any kind in a brew solution. This can lead to a higher alcohol content but, more notably, Brett can also contribute a wide variety of flavors.

The Drink Along: The Ghost In Their Eyes | Anchorage Brewing Company

The Ghost in Their Eyes- Anchorage Brewing

First, I would encourage you to seek out any brew from this company because, let’s face it, they all look SO cool. And while you can’t judge a book (or a brew) by its cover, this one certainly is just as cool as its packaging. This is a Brett IPA, however, the hops bitterness is toned down quite a bit.  You definitely get the citrus-y juiciness that you might expect but then, if you let the taste linger, there’s that…funk. There’s honestly no better way to describe it. It’s strange but in a really good way.

Brett proves that he can pretty much hang with any crowd, although his favorite place is back at the farmhouse.

The Drink- Along: All Funked Up: Fruitus The Farmer Beescake | Against The Grain

All Funked Up Fruitus The Farmer Beescake- Against The Grain.jpg

This is a brew in the brewery’s Wild Series and boy, does it live up to that. This is a melon and honey saison.  Just by looking at it, it looks like you’re staring straight into a jar of honey. This gorgeous color is just the beginning of a seamless drink. The Brett, in this case, adds the funkiness in a different way. It enhances the melon flavor, giving a different tone than most fruit beers would. In addition, it carries its flavor all the way through instead of a big punch at the end. There are even bits of a floral feel, which adds more complexity to this already full docket of a beer.

The best way I could ever think to describe Brett is the quintessential movie version of a “bad boy teenager.” Not only does he eat your beer out of house and home (although, can’t really complain about the results in this case,) but he always leaves a funk behind him wherever he goes. He goes wherever he wants, does whatever he wants, and no one can tell him what to do. Everyone wants to be around him, but no one quite understands him.

That being said, just because he’s the stand out doesn’t mean that the other strains are any less important. They’re just overlooked because they don’t demand attention. They’re the stage crew while you’re too busy watching the actors- They’ve made everything happen behind the scenes so that the production goes smoothly. It’s a thankless job, but someone has to do it. So, here’s to you, yeast.

Cheers.

 

 

The Balancing Act (Hops)

“Life is all about balance and following what the universe provides for you.”
-Gnash

For all the sweetness that malt provides for a beer, there must be a balance, otherwise it would be like drinking liquid candy. And while this may not be unappealing to many in theory, in execution it would pretty rough. Thankfully, hops steps in to even things out. You can think of hops and malt as Yin and Yang, or like a Sour Patch Kid. They are complete opposites but it just wouldn’t feel right if one were missing.

Hops are naturally occuring and are plants or, more specifically, flowers (Humulus lupulus.) The acids and oils contained within these flowers are what give bitterness to a beer. They can also add quite a bit of flavor, aroma, and stability. Hops also have the added bonus of being a preservative, which was especially helpful before the dawn of refrigeration.

Hops are a curiously fun part of the brewing process. Like with most ingredients, there are a multitude of hop varieties to chose from. Mixing and matching different hops can lead to some pretty interesting tastes, as can where and when you add the hops to the beer. Some hops additions are primarily to contribute flavor and/or aroma, while others are for going full-on bitter.

Hops is generally suspect #1 when it comes to people stating they don’t like beer.  Most people do not have palates at the ready like Spartan soldiers, and tend to find the taste off-putting at first, especially in hop-heavy beers. It does take some time and it has to be more of a Trojan Hops situation until either you conquer the hops or the hops conquer you. Eventually, once you do develop a palate, there can be something quite refreshing and magical (much like its scientific name sounds) about a hoppy beer. There are even people that fall in love with what hops can do in a beer and subscribe to the philosophy that the more, the merrier- these people are known as “Hop Heads.”

The Drink-Along: Deschutes Fresh Squeezed IPA

Fresh Squeezed- Deschutes

While hops do make an appearance in almost every beer, an IPA is where the hops really take center stage and it becomes evident how large their role really is. An IPA makes its presence known. A very distinct smell of hops is the first thing that will hit your senses. There are several different ways that hops can present themselves and, in this case, it is very fresh and citrus-y. This comes from the types of hops used which, in this case, are Citra and Mosaic. Not only do they make the beer stand out, they have really fun names too. The lovely thing about this IPA is that you know exactly what you’re getting from the name. The citrus notes in both aroma and flavor permeate every sip from start to finish.

However, if this is your first IPA rodeo, it definitely might be too much. So, let’s take a different approach.

The Drink-Along: Mother’s Sunshine Chugsuckle

Sunshine ChugSuckle- Mothers

While this is technically still an IPA, it is a New England style IPA. This particular style has been creating quite a stir in the beer world, quickly evolving into the new up and comer that no one expected. So why all the fuss? Well, for a couple different reasons. First, just by looking at it, it becomes quite apparent that this beer is a little different. It is quite hazy, for one. But, beyond that, most of them look like your typical morning glass of orange juice. And, admittedly, the taste isn’t far off either. The enchanting thing about this particular style is that it bridges the gap between hops lovers and those that would just…rather not. This style allows for all of the flavor and aroma of hops but leaves out quite a bit of that bitterness, all while contributing a surprising juiciness. My favorite brewer likes to jokingly describe this style as “a beer and a mimosa had a baby.” And while that sounds like the wind-up to a really cringy punch-line, this beer is no joke.

So whether you’re a Hop Head or a Hops Shoulders, Knees, and Nope, it’s important to realize their impact on America’s second favorite past-time. And, who knows? With time, maybe everyone will jump on this hops craze-y train.

Cheers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How Sweet It Is… (Malt)

“We did not domesticate wheat; wheat domesticated us.”
-Yuval Noah Harari

If water is the life-blood of a brew, grain is the backbone. It provides the necessary raw materials for yeast to turn water into beer. Unlike some of the other essential elements to the brew process, most of the affects of malt are surprisingly easy to detect, even aside from the sweetness they produce. The types of grain used provide color, flavor, even alcohol content (just to name a few.) The determining factor comes down to the grain bill, or the variations and quantities of malt used.

“Malt” (or “malting”) is technically a process, not a grain. It is the way grain becomes suitable for fermentation, through an arduous system of steeping, germinating, and then drying. “Malt”, therefore, refers to grain post-process.

It is also important to note that many types of grain may be used and certainly have a big impact on the outcome. Wheat, for instance, is going to produce a much different type of flavor than a beer brewed with Rye. The most common grain used, however, is Barley due to both availability and functionality.

When creating a grain bill for a recipe, you start with Base Malts. These are pretty well exactly how they sound- a mixture of (usually) different varieties of malt that offer food for the yeast. That is their main priority and they do it well. Sometimes, they offer slight hints of flavors such as honey or bread but, otherwise, tend to keep to their assigned task. The more base malts used, the more “food” for the yeast, and the higher the alcohol content.

Once these have been determined, other varieties of malt are added. These tend to lend more to flavor and aroma than base malts. These varieties can be categorized into Pale/Light Malts, Caramel, and Roasted/Dark Malts. The categories are named for their levels of  “malted” product. The Pale is only lightly roasted while the Dark is deeply roasted and the sugars in Caramel Malts have been caramelized. These create a spectrum of colors and flavors ranging from very light to very dark and very sweet to very toasted, respectively.

Other materials, such a corn, oats, or rice, may be used as well. These are referred to as “adjuncts” and are used primarily to adjust body and head of a beer.

The Drink-Along: Boulevard’s Unfiltered Wheat

Unfiltered Wheat- Boulevard

As the name suggests, this is a wheat beer. This typically means that this style was brewed with primarily wheat grain. Using wheat instead of barley does impact the finished product. Wheat tends to have higher protein yields which, in turn, makes a longer-lasting, foamier head as well as impacts its mouthfeel (the way the body of the beer feels when you take a drink.) Using wheat also tends to give the beer a slight haze, which adds to the stability of the beer. Many brewers filter this out due to consumer appeal, although some are starting to leave it natural. Usually, a hazy beer is completely suitable to drink and, in this case, will add to the experience and understanding of the beer. This style is malty all the way through, from the sweet aroma to the bread-like flavor.

And if we change the grain bill up just a bit…

The Drink Along: Lazy Magnolia’s Southern Pecan

Southern Pecan- Lazy Magnolia

Southern Pecan is a Brown Ale, which is one of the original styles that brought me to the love of craft beer. In general, a Brown Ale has a much deeper flavor, especially when compared to a Wheat. The grain bill can include a multitude of different malts and has a lot of wiggle room. In general, though, some Amber malts are used, which gives a similar color to its name and some mild roastiness to the flavor. Chocolate malt is also used in varying quantities and, yes, it does provide a chocolate-like taste, although it won’t pass for liquid Godiva without some help. Other dark and roasted malts are added which, as you can imagine, give a roasted or toasted flavor and aroma. Some malts added may even give a Brown Ale a slight nuttiness- especially in this case, where whole pecans are added in and used just like grain.

As I’ve mentioned so many times before, the myriad of possibilities with beer is just about endless. Malt is one of the many examples of how a brewer can quickly turn into a mad scientist. It is quite enjoyable to see how changing just one element of the big picture can alter the end product so drastically- and even more enjoyable to taste it!

So here’s to the one bill no one minds paying.

Cheers.

 

 

 

 

Diving Into The Deep End (Water)

“If there is magic on this planet, it is contained in water.”
– Loren Eiseley

Water is one of the most important and yet most understated resources. It is essential for almost everything on the planet (including the planet itself), and yet, it’s something many people shrug off. If you think about it, one of the major measurements of a civilization’s success is how well it can tame the very thing that makes life possible. Irrigation, for instance, marked the beginning of a new age in society and allowed for the advancement of tribes. No longer was being nomadic the only way of life; populations could stay in one place and not just survive, but thrive. Those that did stay nomadic chartered the world as we know it, connecting people and ideas alike.

One such idea was beer.

Most of beer is water and, without it, our entire history would have been completely rewritten. Although beer tamed us in many ways, we have also learned to tame it. I do believe we are in a new dawning of beer brewing, as we have finally begun to not only understand, but manipulate the water used in the process. So, for now, let’s shift from the globalism of beer to something much more microscopic in nature, if not in significance.

Many people, including some new to brewing, underestimate the impact the water used has on beer created. While you can use any kind of water, that does not mean you should. For example, most would prefer not to drink rainwater once it has touched the ground, and beer agrees. The potential for pollutants is a risk brewers tend not to take, as to keep up the quality and reputation of their beer.

But past the general rule of ‘don’t use dirty water’, what else matters?

Turns out, everything.

While water is considered to be relatively tasteless, quite a few people have opinions on what kind of water has the best flavor- including geographical origins. And this isn’t just in people’s heads. While water naturally has trace amounts of minerals and metals, most places treat their water with additives to either remove harmful or add desired components. Brewers have to do the same thing.

One of the first steps a brewer should take before starting the brewing process is to test the water. This provides data that the brewer uses to determine what needs to be changed about the chemical composition of the water before it turns into beer. The main components that brewers look at are: Bicarbonates, Calcium, Chloride, Magnesium, Sodium, and Sulfates. These minerals at different levels determine factors such as hardness and alkalinity which, in turn, have a substantial impact on the flavor of the beer, which a brewer may have to balance.

Modern day brewers have at their disposal a variety of water treatment options which allows them to change the water composition to fit the style of beer they wish to produce. Brewers of the past had neither the knowledge nor the technology to do this and, therefore, had to use what was available to them and adjust as they could.  The implications of this meant that certain areas of the world produced specific styles of beer, based on how ingredients interacted with the minerals in the water to produce flavors. While it did limit the brew possibilities for awhile, it did allow for distinct styles to come into their own, creating the classics we know today.

One such style is the Pilsner. It orginated in Pilsen, Bohemia where the water is considered very “soft.”  It has very low levels of all aforementioned minerals.

The Drink-Along: Technical Ecstasy by 2nd Shift Brewing

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This beer is a wonderful example of a Pilsner. Just like the name states, it hits all the marks for this style. At first glance, this beer is clear with a very frothy head (“Head”- the foam that forms on the top of a beer when poured into a glass. Try to contain the giggles.) There is a hops taste that comes from the use of Saaz hops, which are traditional to the geographical area and the beer style. With each mineral being fairly absent, this allows a smooth transition between the malt and hops, highlighting each one without over accentuating them. Overall, it is a nice beer for a summer afternoon- refreshing with a very crisp finish.

On the other end of the water spectrum are Irish Stouts. An Irish Stout could not traditionally be brewed in Pilsen without a considerable amount of doctoring due to the needs of the water profile.

The Drink-Along: Guinness

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Originating in Dublin, Ireland, this beer style uses much harder, more alkaline water. Alkaline water is created by having higher levels of primarily bicarbonates. As a way to even this out, brewers used roasted barley. The resulting beer is much darker, drier, and more bitter than a Pilsner, but balanced even so. Instead of a light flavor, however, this brew offers a deep, roasted complexity that is more suited to a cozy winter evening in.

While beer chemistry and its effects may seem overwhelming, the take away is pretty straight-forward. Even when early brewers were unaware, water was shaping the way we live, down to the little details of our down-time drinks. And while we certainly do not have to be able to examine each microscopic detail of the brew water to enjoy the end product, it is a nod to just how far we’ve come, both as a society and as industry.

Cheers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Brief History

“History is not a burden on the memory but an illumination of the soul.”
-Lord Acton

Humans and beer have always had a mutually dependent relationship. In fact, beer has existed in some form or another since shortly after the dawn of humanity. Although it is hard to pinpoint exactly when beer came into existence, ancient texts and paintings showing the brewing process and humanity’s necessity for beer have been found dating back to the times of early Mesopotamia.

This archeological finding is actually much more vital to understanding our history than one would think. Beyond just the interesting facts of how beer came to be, it’s also a look into how humans went from surviving to living.

Although it differs depending on who you ask, beer actually may have come about by accident. Since there is no definitive answer provided by those responsible, there is a theory that barley left out in the rain and subjected to the forces of nature fermented and this mixture was consumed- why, we can’t be quite sure. Either way, accidental or experimental, this was the very first form of beer. Hardly as refined as what we have today but, when you’re busy constructing the backbone of all human civilization, you do earn yourself a bit of grace.

This early beer was found to be both filling and rich in needed nutrients; although, of course, people just realized they were staying healthier-nutrition science was a thing of the future. They also were finding themselves more relaxed and jovial after consumption. For these reasons, beer did become an early form of currency. The building of the pyramids was paid for in beer, for example. But beers’ impact did not stop there. Along with bread, the brewing process gave both need and provision for an end to the nomadic lifestyle.  Math, science, even the written language all have beer to thank, at least in part, for their existence.

Entire blogs could be written on just the history of beer. Historians are finding out new things all the time regarding our mutual dependency. There are many wonderfully fascinating books and documentaries that can provide a more in-depth look into this relationship. One such documentary I would recommend is How Beer Saved The World. It won’t take your whole evening, but it will expand your beer knowledge exponentially.

As one could guess, both the brewing process and its product have changed significantly over time. Most of the main ingredients we know today were either not present or very different in early beers. As previously mentioned, beer most likely just started out as grain, water, and wild airborne yeast (which no one was aware of at the time.) Ingredients to balance the flavors didn’t come into play until later. Even hops didn’t start out as the bittering agent- most were made with mosses or a type of herbal mix  known as gruit. And yeast wasn’t even discovered until hundreds of years later, especially the particular strains used in beer.

With this in mind, one might think it would be very hard for a modern day beer drinker to imagine what their ancient counterpart would have experienced. Or would it?

Cue DogFish Head Brewery.

This brewery took a very adventurous risk and decided they wanted to create a beer that mirrored ancient brews. Instead of relying on imagination and others’ research, they teamed up with scientists that were exploring a (at the time) recently discovered tomb, thought to be the resting place of the legendary King Midas. Using a sample from one of the burial chalices, scientists were able to surmise much of the composition of the drink it once held. From there, Midas Touch was born.

This is a beer I highly recommend, for both taste and experience. Being that close to a part of history is actually quite special, especially if its in drinkable form. This concoction tastes like a harmonious blend of beer and wine, perfectly complementing each other.  It has hints of sweetness but also has a bread like way about it that feels hearty and welcome. Sipping this, it really isn’t difficult to picture someone in ancient times enjoying this as they watched the sun sink over the fertile crescent.

Beer is an ever-changing craft and it may feel like it’s moving too fast to catch up. But it’s also important to remember that we are as much a part of history as history is a part of us. It’s never too late to learn where we come from.

Cheers.