Sometimes it’s good to step back and remind yourself that the world of craft brewing can be imposing to novices. Aleheads can be a bit snobby and defensive about beer … particularly because the brewing world is dominated by offerings that are simply awful. Take Anheuser-Busch (Please).
My local watering hole (the J. Clyde…an Alehead’s haven) has a ban on all Anheuser-Busch products. It sees these beers as representing all that is soulless and wrong (to paraphrase Office Space) in the beer world. AB’s beers are created to have as little taste, body, or character as possible. The goal of the company is to create brews that are utterly bland and inoffensive…brews that have so little interest or complexity that they’re essentially like drinking beer-flavored water. Rice is added as an adjunct to most of AB’s brews (most craft brewers wouldn’t be caught dead adding rice to their offerings) to create more fermentable sugar, but less body and flavor. Why would they intentionally create something so terrible? Because their marketing department realizes that the only way to sell billions upon billions of bottles of a product as varied, complex, and personal as beer as to eliminate all of that variety, complexity and personality. What’s left is like the hollow shell of a real beer…an empty, meaningless, pointless, watery, insipid, bottle of meh.
AB’s beers are like Sarah Palin…there’s no substance there, but thanks to some clever marketing and packaging, millions of people the world over have been brainwashed into thinking Bud Light is what beer should taste like. One recent evening, while I was frequenting the aforementioned AB-free tavern, a gentlemen walked in, looked at the staggeringly lengthy beer menu, and declared that there weren’t any “normal beers” for him to drink. As frustrating as this reaction was, it wasn’t the man’s fault. Sure, he’s a fucking idiot…and sure, most of the other patrons wanted to strangle him where he stood with his goofy, blue blazer. But the truth is…he had just been brainwashed by decades upon decades of Bud commercials, Bud billboards, Bud magazine ads, Bud store displays…Bud, Bud, Bud. We’ve all fallen prey to the advertising beast in our lives. For many years, I assumed that all beverages should taste like Coke and that all hamburgers should taste like McDonalds. Then I turned 10 and realized that both of those things kind of sucked.
Fortunately, I never fell into that trap with beer…and I suspect the same is true for most Aleheads. For whatever reason, we managed to evade the siren song of the Bud commercials with the gorgeous, half-naked women, the hilarious catch-phrases, the cool music, the popular celebrities, and the gorgeous, half-naked women.*
*Did I say that last one twice? Perhaps I fell for those ads just a little bit.
Of course, we’ve all consumed AB products…pretending otherwise would be ridiculous. In college, they made up 99% of my alcohol intake. I was broke and that’s what was available. I’m no martyr. But after graduation, when I had a little money in my pocket and the goal of my evenings wasn’t to consume 30 beers in one sitting (more like 20), I decided never to drink that swill again. And I’ve never looked back. There’s a great, big, amazing world of “real” beer out there…just waiting to be tasted. It may take awhile to find your way…you may be intimidated by giant hop profiles, or impossibly dark Imperial Stouts. Your head may spin when you’re trying to figure out the difference between the dozens of varieties of pale ales. But stick with it, my friend…your life will be richer, and tastier, because of your persistence.
As part of our goal here at Aleheads to enlighten our beer-brethren and suds-sistren, we will, from time to time, write some brief, pithy beer primers to help usher you towards a new, better understanding of the beer world. Today, the first installment: Ales vs. Lagers.
Peruse your local package store shelves and you’ll see a bewildering variety of beers. What’s an IPA? ESB? Doppelbock? Lambic? Export Ale? Scotch Ale? Barleywine? The truth is…for all that variety, there are really only TWO kinds of beer…ales and lagers.
What separates these two varieties? The yeast!
Yeast is a little, unicellular organism that feeds on the sugar in malt (it does other stuff like make bread rise too, but this is a beer blog). As it feeds on the malt sugars, it creates by-products like carbon dioxide (which makes your beer fizzy) and alcohol (which makes your head fizzy). There are a huge assortment of yeasts that are used in the beer world, but they all generally fall into one of two categories…top-fermenting (or ale yeasts) and bottom-fermenting (or lager yeasts).
What do these terms mean? Exactly what you think. Top-fermenting yeasts do most of their work floating on top of the malt. Bottom-fermenting yeasts (can you guess?) settle to the bottom of the malt to work their magic. That’s all well and good, but why would that make the beers taste any different?
The simple answer, as is almost always the case when it comes to cooking (and yes, brewing beer is a form of cooking) has to do with temperature. Top-fermenting ale yeasts do their dirty work at higher temperatures…usually somewhere between 64 and 70 degrees F (give or take). At these temperatures, ales ferment fairly quickly (usually in a matter of days) and the by-products of the yeast (other than alcohol and CO2) are ester compounds which give ales their characteristic fruity, well-rounded flavor.
Lagers meanwhile, are fermented at lower temperatures…typically between 52 and 58 degrees F. Lager yeasts work best at these temperatures, but the fermentation process is a lot slower. Lagers can take weeks or months to ferment properly. The bottom-fermenting yeasts in lager do not produce the same esters as their top-fermenting cousins (so no fruitiness)…however, they do produce some unpleasant sulfur compounds. These compounds are eventually incorporated into the beer during the long storage period (the term “lager” actually means “to store”). After being incorporated properly, they give the beer its characteristic crisp, clean taste.
Since ales can be brewed more quickly and at higher temperatures than lagers, they have been around much, much longer. And because of that longer history, ales have far more variety and complexity than lagers. Since lagers are smoother, cleaner, and less varied than ales, they are seen as the more workmanlike, accessible beverage. Not surprisingly, a huge majority of beers sold in the world are of the lager variety (and a huge percentage of those are the bland, “pale lagers” of companies like Anheuser-Busch, Miller, and Coors). But for true Aleheads and beer geeks, ales will always trump lagers. Almost every prestige beer in the world is an ale, and the greater complexity, bolder flavors, and mind-bending variety of ales will always win the day over their smoother, crisper cousins. That’s not to say lagers are bad…on the contrary, some of the finest beers on Earth are lagers. The problem is that it’s so hard to disassociate them from their bastard, multi-national conglomerate-produced, watered-down cousins. Personally, I’d rather just stay away from lagers altogether.
So I guess I have been brain-washed by Anheuser-Busch a little bit. Just not the way way they intended…