So I have taught you how to order a cocktail
. That will get you through the first (and perhaps second) drink of the evening. But what do you do when it comes time to order drinks that go with food, or if you are not at a cocktail type of place (a wine bar or pub for example). Well, you order beer or wine of course. Here are the (very) basics of beer. Wine will be handled in a subsequent article article
So what is beer?
Well it is any fermented (and therefore alcoholic) drink made from a grain. If it were made from fruit, it would be classified as wine. So let’s start with the ingredients. In addition to water, beer is basically made from three ingredients; a starch such as barley or wheat (though rice, corn, oats, etc. can also be used) which provides the sweeter side of the flavor profile, yeast to promote fermentation of the starch (this is what creates the alcohol), and hops as a flavoring agent. Hops provide the herbal/bitter taste of beer which is what one means when referring to a beer as “hoppy”. Other flavoring agents such as berries, spices, nuts, etc. can be used to create a certain flavor profile as well. That said, there are basically two types of beer. Ales and Lagers and each are distinguished by the fermentation process and each come in a variety of lighter and darker versions.
Lagers are fermented at cooler temperatures with certain yeast that fall to the bottom of the brew and are therefore known as bottom-fermenting beers. In part due to the colder temperatures, Lagers are crisp, delicate, mild, lighter beers with more carbonation. These beers are also best when served cold. Some examples of this are Budweiser, Corona, Coors, Dos Equis, Negro Modelo, Paulaner, Amstel, Yuengling, Stella Artois, and anything with the word Lager in its name obviously. Pilsners are also a type of Lager and tend to be paler and have a hoppier flavor. Oktoberfest beers, Bocks, and Dunkels also fall into the Lager category.
Ales are fermented at higher temperatures with certain yeast that rise to the top of the brew. These are known as top-fermenting beers. They are fruity, full flavored, with a hoppier flavor and less carbonated. They tend to be darker and served warmer. Most types of Ale have the word in their name, so it’s easy to identify. Just like Pilsner is a type of Lager, Hefeweiss, IPA’s (India Pale Ale), Porter’s, and Stout’s (very dark, like Guinness) are also types of ales.
Lastly, there are other unusual categories of beer style drinks such as Lambic, Barley Wine, Cider, and Mead. These are less popular but here is a quick rundown.
Lambic is a type of Belgian beer using different (wild) strains of yeast. A very popular style of Lambic is Framboise (pronounced Fram Bwah) which is raspberry flavored.
Barley Wine is a high alcohol content beer, amber in color with a fruity and hoppy taste.
Cider is a lightly carbonated fermented drink made from apple juice and tends to be lower in alcohol content
Mead is not carbonated and is really more like a wine. It is sweet and made with honey
ABV: Alcohol By Volume
So asking how strong a beer is usually refers to its flavor not alcohol content. And you really shouldn’t be choosing beer based on its alcohol content but many craft beer places list it now so it’s good to know what it means. You will often see ABV listed on a bottle or next to the name of a beer on a menu. It stands for Alcohol By Volume. It is expressed as a percentage, so 6.25% ABV means that in your 16 oz. glass of beer 6.25%, or 1 oz, of that is alcohol. Most beers are in the 4-6% range, IPA’s tend to be slightly higher and there are some beers that approach the 9-12% range making them as strong as a glass of wine.
So, what to choose?
Well, let’s start with what you like to drink. If you like Corona and the place you are at doesn’t have it, don’t panic, just branch out into any other Lager (such as the ones identified above) and you should be satisfied. Pay attention to what you like and don’t like. Same with Ales, find ones you like and branch out and begin to note the differences.
If you are attempting to pair the beer with a type of food, you are in luck. Brewers can really develop more pronounced and complex flavor profiles than a vintner can with a bottle of wine. Here are some guidelines.
You can think of lighter beers, like Lagers to be like white wine and go with lighter dishes such as fish and chicken. In addition, the colder, crisp, more carbonated Lagers and Pilsners go well with spicy foods.
Ales on the other hand tend to be fruitier, complex, full-flavored beers and can be thought of as a red wine that pairs well with heavier dishes such as steak, or even something sweet. Like Lagers, the lighter ales such as Hefeweiss and other wheat beers go well with spicy food.
Try to remember, this “Lager, Lighter, Colder = Light Food” and “Ale, Heavier, Warmer = Heavier Food.”
Whatever the beer, people tend to prefer “Draught” beer or beer “On Tap” over bottles because beer On Tap is from a keg that has not been pasteurized or filtered the way bottles are and is kept cold for its entire journey from brewery to tap. Many argue that the heat from pasteurization and filtration ruins the flavor of bottled beers. Either of these however is preferred over canned beer which tends to pick up flavors from the aluminum.
Behind water and tea, beer is the most consumed beverage in the world. So experiment with different types, flavors, and pairings and enjoy!