Understanding Beer Talk

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Although beer is omnipresent in contemporary marketing, it has a most illustrious history. Garrett Oliver, brewmaster at Brooklyn Brewery, theorizes that the first-known beer was made in Africa nearly 10,000 years ago. The first-known recipe of any kind is for a beer, and the ancient Sumerians worshipped Ninkasi, a goddess of beer. There is an Egyptian inscription that dates from 2200 B.C. that says, “the mouth of a perfectly contented man is filled with beer.” A few millennia later, in 1814, Francis Scott Key wrote “The Star Spangled Banner” over a pint—or three—of beer at Fountain Inn in Baltimore.


Beer’s varied and diverse past may explain why the market today is glutted with so many different kinds of beer. There are hundreds of American micro- and craft-brewed beers vying for shelf space with the usual suspects from the big multinational corporations whose advertising is nearly ubiquitous. Some represent new spins on the Belgian tradition; others have English antecedents; and others derive their production techniques and flavors from Czech-German styles. Let’s have a look at the dominant varieties.


Lager means “storage” in German, and it’s appropriate. Unlike ales, which are often consumed shortly after they are brewed, lagers are stored at cool temperatures for months to allow the flavors to moderate. Lagers are known for their balance, which makes them excellent beverages with many types of food. They have gently vegetable flavors, especially a bit of celery bite at the finish. It is their even-keeled flavor that has made them the most popular beers in America. Budweiser, Coors Light, Corona, Molson, Dos Equis and Heineken are all lagers. The most common beers from the leading American craft brewers, Sam Adams and Brooklyn, are also lagers.


Pilsner is the most popular of several variations of lager. It was developed in the 19th century in Bohemia, which is now part of the Czech Republic. It takes lager’s flavors and balance a step further, which makes it ideal for spicy food or for dishes with aggressive flavors like shellfish. Pilsner Urquel from the Czech Republic is the world’s most-respected pilsner, but in America the best selling variety is Miller High Life and its many variants.


Ale is the oldest form of beer still in widespread production, and there are many varieties. Typically, ales deliver a complex blend of herbal and caramely flavors. Although ales come in a variety of hues, they are best-known to Americans as darker, typically amber or even copper color, rather than the pale yellow of many lagers and pilsners. Many small American breweries make ales because they take less time to age, thus easing the cash-flow pressures that most small businesses face. Many are called Pale Ales or India Pale Ales (IPA) due to the large quantities of hops used in their production (more hops enabled beer to travel from England to India without risk of spoilage). Sierra Nevada makes the best-known American IPA, and Rogue, Victory, Goose Island are among the leaders in ales.


Wheat Beer

Wheat beer is brewed with a large proportion of wheat instead of barley. It is often called weiss or white beer because its color is far lighter than most other beers. The flavor is renowned for overtones of banana, cloves and even bubble gum, and it isn’t uncommon to squeeze a slice of lemon or orange into a wheat beer to allow some acidic tang to balance the intrinsic flavor. Because of its light, fizzy texture, wheat beers are often regarded as refreshing antidotes to hot summer days, but they are consumed year-round. The major North American industrial breweries are only beginning to make a major push into this style, but most of the craft breweries produce some variation of wheat beer. The best-known foreign brands are Hoegaarden from Belgium and Paulaner from Germany.


Porters and Stouts

These rich, dark beers are renowned for their coffee, dark chocolate and chicory overtones and hearty textures. The color derives from roasting the malt or barley. They have become especially popular in Ireland and England. Guinness is the most popular variety by far, though beer lovers favor stouts from smaller breweries.


Belgian Beer

Belgian beer is far more than a single style of beer, though beers inspired by Belgian tradition are known for being slightly sweet, somewhat fizzy and more alcoholic than other beers. There are many monasteries in Belgium, and those abbeys played a vital role in the evolution of the European beer-making tradition. Chimay and Duvel are well-known Belgian styles and Ommegang is a well-regarded American take on the Belgian tradition, but there are many varieties of farmhouse ales and ciders that emerge from Belgium.


Martin Johnson is a regular contributor to The Root. Follow him on Twitter.

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Martin Johnson writes about music for the Wall Street Journal, basketball for Slate and beer for Eater, and he blogs at both the Joy of Cheese and Rotations. Follow him on Twitter