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Thursday, December 29, 2016

Everything you need to know about beer

The exciting thing about beer is that there is so much to enjoy beyond the sensory pleasure of drinking it. Of course, it all starts and ends with flavor, but beer lovers have extended their interests to include the packaging and labeling of beer, the people who make it, brewing history, festivals devoted to beer, and crafts and collections based on beer. We study the stuff, celebrate its traditions, collect its artwork, debate its merits, and categorize its styles.

Here is a manual to build your beer knowledge—practical insights and personal passions that can augment what we already know: beer tastes great.

How To Sound Like A Beer Expert

Master a few basics, and you’ll know more than anyone else at the bar.
Your friends have noticed that you order imported beer at the bar. You always bring a six-pack of something tasty back from vacations. Now, they’re starting to call you “Mr. Beer,” or “Ms Beer” (as the case may be).
They’re kidding you. But they’re also looking to you for leadership. They’ve seen that you take beer seriously, even if the truth is that you are just taking your first steps into the subject, yourself.
Never fear, with this handy crib sheet, you can master the basics, and answer ninety percent of the questions about beer that ever float around the bar. Commit these answers to memory, and you can also qualify for a job answering ninety percent of the questions that come to the staff of All About Beer.
Q: What are pilsners, ales, lagers, etc? What does “bottom fermented” mean? And when you say “lagered,” what exactly does that involve?
A: “Beer” refers to any fermented beverage made from grain. Lagers and ales are the two families of beer, distinguished by the type of yeast and the temperature of fermentation. Lagers are fermented at cooler temperatures by so-called “bottom fermenting” yeast. Beers in the lager family need to be conditioned—or “lagered”—somewhere cool for a number of weeks before they are ready to drink. Ales are fermented at warmer temperature by top-fermenting yeast strains, and are ready to drink sooner.
There are many distinct styles of beer within the lager and ale families: for example, pilsner is one of the most popular lager styles; and porter and stout are examples of ale styles. And in both families, beers can run the gamut from light to dark-colored, and from weak to strong alcohol.
Q: Who invented beer?
A: The earliest records of beer and brewing have been found in Sumeria, which is in modern Iraq. They date back over 4,000 years ago, so there isn’t really a “who.”
Q: Is there a way to turn non-alcoholic beer into alcoholic beer?
A: People who ask about putting the A back in NA beer are generally a) living in the Middle East, b) under age, or c) in prison. I leave it to you to weigh the consequences of breaking whatever law you are up against.
You can add sugar and yeast to NA beer and generate a little alcohol, but it will taste nasty. Homebrewed beer—even bad homebrewed beer—will taste better. Alternatively, our ancestors coped with Prohibition by creating “needle beer”—NA beer with a syringeful of grain alcohol added.
Your best and safest bet is to a) change countries, b) grow up, or c) get released.
Q: How many calories in beer?
A: There are about 150 calories in a 12-ounce serving of standard beer, the same amount as those little pots of fruit yogurt dieters like so much. I know which is my choice: when I want a cold one after work, I don’t mean a cold yogurt. A light beer will contain about 100 calories. Some hefty styles such as barleywines contain about 300 calories. Remember: it’s not the beer, it’s the nachos.
Q: How many carbs are in a beer?
A: Ah, an Atkins dieter. There are about 13 carbs in a standard beer, 5 in a light beer.
Q: I’m allergic to wheat. How can I be sure the beer I drink is safe for me?
A: The basic ingredients of beer are malted barley, hops, water and yeast. Some brewers add wheat, oats, rice, or corn—the last two, in particular, are used by the big brewers to create a lighter flavor and save costs. So, to make sure you don’t get any ingredient you’re sensitive to, look for beers that explicitly say they are made only from malted barley (“malt”), hops, water and yeast. Or look for beers that say they are brewed according to the Reinheitsgebot, or the “Bavarian beer purity laws of 1516,” which stipulates the use of the same four ingredients.
Q: What is the proper way to pour a beer?
A: If you pour the beer slowly down the side of a tilted glass, a smaller head is formed, and more CO2 remains dissolved in the beer. If you hold the glass upright and pour straight into the glass, more gas is released, and a larger head will form. Real aficionados will insist that different beers have different ideal pours, but you are a mere expert, not an aficionado. Pour an ale so that it has about half an inch of head, lagers with a larger one, and allow a wheat beer to throw a big, pillowy head.
Q: My girlfriend won’t drink beer. How can I convert her?
A: When she says she won’t drink beer, the kind of beer she won’t drink is probably the standard light lager that dominates the market. There are another seventy some-odd defined styles out there: persuade her to try a wheat beer, or a Belgian ale. If that fails, tell her that until recently, brewing was the province of women: she owes it to her sex to like beer.
Q: May I have a chilled glass, please?
A: No, you may not.
Q: O.K., Mr. Beer, what’s the best beer in the world?
A: (Dodge this one. Experts avoid this question like the plague, lest they offend the next brewer they want to visit). Say! Isn’t that Michael Jackson over there?
—Julie Johnson Bradford

How To Judge Beer

Sniff, stare, sip, swish, savor, swallow. Simple.
Throughout the United States—indeed, throughout the world—homebrewers have been holding competitions for over 20 years. Of course, in order to have a winner, someone has to judge the beer. An organization formed in 1985 by the Home Wine and Beer Trade Association and the American Homebrewers Association trains and certifies homebrew judges. This group, now an independent nonprofit organization, is called the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP), and it has over 2,500 members throughout the United States, Canada and many other countries.
To become a beer judge with the BJCP, an individual must study for and pass a written test comprising 10 essay questions that cover the history of beer, the many styles of beer, the chemistry of beer, and the techniques for brewing beer, as well as a practical tasting and evaluation of four different homebrewed beers using the official BJCP score sheet. The test takes three hours to complete.
According to BJCP guidelines, the task of judging beer falls into five distinct categories of evaluation in a 50-point scoring system. Here’s how you can judge a homebrew following this system.
Bouquet/Aroma (10 points): Immediately after the beer has been poured, take a sniff while the sniffing’s good. In less time than you think, the volatile esters that make up the beer’s aroma will be gone. What you’re looking for are the dominant aromas of the beer. Is it sweet, sour, roasty, earthy, herbal, flowery, citric or any one of a number of other aromas? A strong malt presence will be sweet. Sourness and tartness often, but not always, are a result of an infected beer. Roasty aromas derive from roasted grains, such as the highly roasted, unmalted barley used in an Irish stout. Different varieties of hops impart earthy, herbal, flowery and citric aromas. Ales are often fruity. German wheat beers and many Belgian ales are yeasty and spicy.
Appearance (6 points): Is the beer clear? Most beers are filtered and should be clear. Or is the beer cloudy? Unfiltered wheat beers are supposed to be poured so that the yeast on the bottom of the bottle is roused and poured into the glass. What color is the beer? Each beer style has its own color parameters: golden for pilsners, amber for most pale ales, orangey-reddish-amber for Oktoberfests, black or near-black for stouts. Does the beer have a nice foamy head and good head retention, or is the head weak and anemic? Does beautiful lace cling to the sides of the glass or does the beer wash down the inside of the glass like dishwater?
Flavor (19 points): Here you’re looking for a number of characteristics, many of them similar in definition to the bouquet/aroma characteristics. Is the main flavor one of malt (sweet or roasty) or hops (earthy, herbal, flowery, citric)? Does an added fruit take over the flavor? Is the beer tart or sour? Wheat beers are often pleasantly tart. Many Belgian beers are tart or yeasty or spicy or something totally different. How does the flavor change from the first impression into the middle and to the finish? Is the finish a slam-bam “That’s all folks!” or does it linger with a particular taste?
How do all these flavors play off each other? In beer-judge talk, that’s called “balance.” Is the balance good, or does one flavor drown out all the others in a nasty show of brute strength? How well is the beer “conditioned,” by which beer judges mean the age of the beer and how the flavors have all come together? Is the level of carbon dioxide pleasant or overpowering?
Body (5 points): What’s the mouthfeel of the beer? Is it thin and watery (like a standard American lager) or full and chewy (like an Imperial stout)? Does the beer sparkle or is it flat and dull looking?
Drinkability & Overall Impression (10 points): Finally, beer judges make comments about how they perceive the beer as a whole, adding kudos where appropriate and constructive criticisms when necessary: “This is a great example of an American pale ale, full of malt body and lots of fresh, lovely Cascade hops aroma and flavor.” “This was entered as an Irish stout, but there’s almost no roasty malt aroma or taste, and the color is brown, not black.”
One thing must be clear from the above examples. In order to judge beer, you have to know beer. Beer styles. The BJCP lists 26 main categories of beer styles with many more subcategories. Study these by buying and tasting as many commercial examples as possible and you’re on your way to becoming a knowledgeable beer judge.
The BJCP website ( will be a great help in learning the definitions and characteristics of all the beer styles you’re ever likely to encounter. Have fun studying.
—Gregg Glaser