It’s a fair question: What exactly is beer? Strictly speaking, the conversion of starch to sugar to alcohol constitutes beer. But sake isn’t beer (though technically it could be considered such); so what is it? Well, beer is the third most popular beverage in the world after water and tea and has been such for hundreds if not thousands of years. In modern terms, beer is the fermentation of the basic cereal grains (malted barley, oats, and wheat) with the addition of hops as a natural preservative and for the purposes of adding bitterness to the brew. Everything else in beer is under the discretion of the brewer, and this is where beer gets interesting. For a nerd like me, beer isn’t just a beverage; beer is history.
When water was untrustworthy, there was beer. Where an army stood victorious, it’s beer at the very least shared credit for its victory. Agriculture, religion, enlightenment; where major shifts in thought or power have gone over the centuries, beer has followed or led the way. There are a great many misconceptions about beer these days; what with the rise of microbreweries and the idea of artisan beer as some sort of luxury or oddity. The basics of beer however are enduring and absurdly simple.
1. The heart of beer is a blend of grain, yeast, water and hops. There are some more esoteric styles that don’t necessitate hops, but for all intents and purposes, we can go by these simple ingredients as the base of what beer is. The Germans have run with this basic allowance since the 16th century and to this day, the German Reinheitsgebot, the beer purity law, has only allowed for variations within this strict set of ingredients.
2. Beer is, and shall always be, a beverage of the people. Beer production dates back far beyond that of wine or spirit, and played a great role in humans becoming an agricultural society. Look at any civilization, and you’ll find some form of what we call beer among them, and not in an abstract sense, either. The production of beer requires time, materials, and the farming those materials demand; where there is an organization of peoples, there is a beer that they drank as a regular part of their diet.
From there, discussion of beer and its principles tends to devolve, unfortunately. What is certain is the many styles of beer developed over time and the advancements made by bold visionary brewers who dare to see beyond tradition while simultaneously harkening to it. The trick for those new to craft beer is to not be defensive; to understand that there are style and brews that won’t be for them, or that they may not have the experience to fully appreciate. For those entering the world of craft beer, keep this in mind: The beer you’ll be trying will be fuller in flavor and body than what you’re used to. Start by asking your neighborhood provisioner for recommendations for beers that aren’t too intense and representative of their style. Take note of what it is you enjoy or don’t in each beer, and go from there.
In the coming weeks, we’ll be taking a look at various styles of beer, how they came to be and where they’re going. In the meantime, here’s a list of beers that I feel showcase various styles well and are approachable by the craft beer newcomer and devotee alike:
Lager: Weihenstephaner Original; Bell’s Lager Of The Lakes; Victory Prima Pils; Jever Pils; Lagunitas Czech Pils.
Pale Ale: Bell’s Pale Ale; Port City Pale Ale; Victory Headwaters Pale; Schlafly American Pale Ale; St. Peter’s Organic English Pale Ale.
India Pale Ale: Dogfish Head 60 Minute IPA; Port City Monumental IPA; Heavy Seas Loose Cannon; Bell’s Two Hearted Ale; Founder’s Centennial IPA.
Porter: Port City Porter; Samuel Smith’s Taddy Porter; Founder’s Porter; Troeg’s Dead Reckoning.
Stout: Bell’s Kalamazoo Stout; Oskar Blues Ten Fidy; Founder’s Breakfast Stout; Dogfish Head Worldwide Stout; Sixpoint Diesel.
Amber: Bell’s Amber; New Belgium Fat Tire; Troeg’s Hopback Amber; Troeg’s Nugget Nectar.
Hefeweizen: Weihenstephaner Hefeweizen; Schneider Weisse; Lagunitas Doppel Weizen.
Belgian Ales: Ommegang Witte; Port City Optimal Wit; Westmalle Tripel; Gouden Carolus Classic, Tripel; Rochefort 6, 8, and 10; Duvel; Orval; Delirium Tremens; Tilquin Gueuze; Duchess de Bourgogne; Scotch de Silly.
This should get you started down the path to beervana. Remember that no matter what anyone tries to tell you — it’s just beer. There’s no need to feel like you have to like something; either you do or you don’t. There are enough styles and beers to go around; never allow yourself to be told what you enjoy.