People love regurgitating statements they hear other people say with confidence. If you’ve heard a few people say the same thing confidently it’s gotta be true right?
These are the statements I am always most wary of because often it seems confidence outweighs evidence, especially in politics and mansplaining. This had led to widespread beer ignorance. I’ll address some things I hear a lot now.
Lagers and ales!
Every beer is either a lager or an ale, even if those words aren’t mentioned on the label.
The bitterness, color, alcohol content, “lightness”, body, “drinkability” etc all have nothing to do with whether a beer is a lager or ale!
Lagers ferment slowly at the bottom of the brewing vessel at low temperatures(usually around 50 degrees). And it takes a while, usually over a week.
Ales ferment quickly at the top of the brewing vessel at high temperatures of 60-(rarely)90 degrees. Fermentation can be very quick, even just a couple of days and you’ve got beer. This is how most beer was made for thousands of years.
That’s about it! Lagers can be pitch black and thick and 15% alcohol.
I will elaborate soon, but I need to give a piano lesson.
I care about beer too much. There are many products in the world that most consumers do not understand and sometimes they even believe completely false statements about these products because people have been saying them for years. Beer is undoubtedly one of these products and the consumer’s understanding of beer is pretty abysmal. Even young, supposedly enlightened craft beer drinkers still mostly think like their dads did, they just like tons of American hops.
I’m not saying that beer is the important issue, nor that it is even really important. Will a correct understanding of beer amongst the general public make the world a better place? No, but it’ll be a less annoying place for me(I’ve worked in the beer retail business for a couple years) and anyone tired of consumers being brainwashed by marketing or a separate culture of misunderstanding. Some other products that are misunderstood in similar ways are MSG and coconut water. I won’t go into detail about them, but MSG got a bad rap because of an anecdotal story which invented the term “Chinese restaurant syndrome.” Everyone seemed to love the idea of that term so much that when it was disproven there was no effect on anyone.
What I’m passionate and knowledgable enough about to help set it’s record straight is beer.
So I shall begin.
The beer style that everyone has had, and likely drinks the most of, is what I’ll call the American adjunct pilsner. Budweiser, miller, coors, rolling rock, corona, red stripe(it doesn’t need to be made in America, even though red stripe is now made in Latrobe, PA) all of these beers fall under this style. The defining characteristic of these beers is the pale yellow, fizzy, but clear appearance and very un-robust flavor. What are called adjuncts by brewers are the source of this character. Corn and/or rice are the adjuncts used in all of those beers.
Budweiser somewhat pioneered the use of rice in brewing in the late 19th century when the pilsner style had become extremely popular and everyone was making their own version of a pilsner. The first pilsner was brewed in 1842 by Josef Groll in the Bohemian(now Czech) city of Pilsen. It used no corn or rice, just barley malt, local saaz hops and lager yeast. Before then, pale beers did exist, but not in the delicate, crisp manner of the pilsner. English pale ales existed mostly in England and were also not a lager(which I’ll define in a later post) while the pilsner’s specific, subtle flavor and aroma are so distinctly of the ingredients from its home. German and Czech pilsners are even seen as different styles today, even though they often use almost the same ingredients.
Where I’m leading with all this is to how different the first pilsners are from the more modern American adjunct pilsners they influenced, and to how recent their invention was. So many beer drinkers seem to think that the definition of beer is a light-bodied, yellow lager with low bitterness, low sweetness and 4-5% alcohol by volume. Beer like that has existed for a fraction of the history of beer. So isn’t it peculiar when someone drinks a style of beer that dates back to hundreds of years before the pilsner and exclaims “this doesn’t taste like beer!”
Beer is the most popular and widely drunk beverage in the history of the world; it’s probably the oldest alcoholic beverage, too. It is offensive to all the different cultures of brewing throughout the world to assume that beer is defined by the pilsner and its imitators. It is even more offensive to assume there can be no better beer than the pilsner and its imitators.
Now please don’t get the idea that pilsners can’t be world class beers, many are, and I love the great European and American examples, but they take advantage of the simple yet distinct ingredients of a pilsner. Czech saaz and German hallertau hops are the most traditional hops for pilsners. They aren’t nearly as bitter and pungent as American varieties but still display complex flavors and aromas which are displayed perfectly in pilsners. The use of one pale malt allows the contrasting floral, grassy, herbal and sometimes berry-like flavors to come out from the hops. This is what made the pilsner world famous and so influential. The influence they made on Budweiser was a little too good, or too bad depending on how you see it.
The already subtle pilsner grain bill was even more “subtled” by the use of about 30% rice instead of barley. Using quality malted pale barley can add bready, biscuity and crackery notes to a beer along with a little honey sweetness, a rich silky body and a stunning golden sunset color. Most craft brewers agree rice reduces flavor, body and color, and thus the pleasant character I described above. Though great beer made with corn and rice is out there, it often uses these adjuncts and their subtle character with intentions to highlight the flavor of a distinct yeast strain or hop variety. Bud and the like do not do this. I would love to taste the hallertau hops that are apparently in Budweiser, but there isn’t enough. All of the methods and ingredients involved in making these American adjunct pilsners seem to attempt to reduce the flavors of hops, grains and fermentation. So, isn’t it odd the the most popular beer in America, that many Americans would say defines the taste of beer, is brewed to avoid the flavors of its ingredients?