Beer 101: An Introduction to the Wonderful World of Beer

Nov 11, 2002

The Bottom Line There is a wide and wonderful world of beer out there. Let's explore it!

The very fact that you’re reading this suggests that you have an interest in beer. It may be nascent. It may be advanced. But it must be there to some degree if you’ve taken the time to see what this little dissertation of mine is all about. If you’re an experienced beer veteran, I hope you’ll read on. Perhaps you’ll learn something, or perhaps you can leave a comment that others and I can learn from. If you’re a newcomer to the wonderful world of beer, this guide is designed for you, and hopefully we’ll have you on your way to enjoying the wonderful world of brews in no time at all.

There are many myths concerning beer, but the biggest of all perhaps is that it is no more than a fizzy, yellow, bland tasting beverage. Many people think that most beers are much like all the rest, but that simply isn’t the case. The truth is that beer is as varied and exciting as food itself, and that shouldn’t be surprising because beer is food! Yet many people miss the boat on beer, usually sticking to the same brand of beer for most of their lives. Consider, however, what you eat. Would you want to eat the same food and nothing else for the rest of your life? Even if you choose your favorite food of all, this would be a boring proposition indeed.

Fortunately, there’s no need to be so monogamous concerning either food or beer. But if you want to get out and explore the world of beer, where to start? That’s an important question, because trying to jump straight from Budweiser to Bigfoot Barleywine is likely to turn you off the whole idea rather quickly. Instead, a gradual approach is a much better way to expand your beer horizons.

In keeping with the spirit of the topic I’m posting under, we’re going to stick to American beers for the purposes of purposes of our discussion. By no means does this imply you can’t go out and enjoy a good old import. We’ll tackle them at a later date, and I assure you there are treats galore for you to enjoy being imported into the good ole USA these days.

Chances are you’re familiar with Budweiser, Miller, and Coors. Perhaps you’ve tasted Corona, Heineken, and Becks too. These beers, and many like them, are lagers, one of the two main categories most beers fall into. Ale is the other classification, and for the most part they differ in the way that they are fermented and aged. Since you’re likely familiar with lagers, however, we’ll stick to them when suggesting a first step into a wider appreciation of beer.

There are several beers I recommend, many widely available. Saranac Adirondack Amber is a great start, as is Samuel Adams Golden Pilsner. Each of these beers is relatively easy to find and are just a cut above the macrobrews I mentioned earlier. They are certainly more flavorful though, with a bit more malt and a bit more hops. The smooth, slightly biscuity character you taste is malt. The slight bitterness in the finish is the result of hops. Don’t let the big brewers fool you, these flavors belong in beer.

One thing you won’t find in most of these beers are adjuncts. Adjuncts are cereal grains added to beer, usually either because they are cheaper than barley or because they lighten the taste. Corn is a very common adjunct. Anheuser-Busch uses rice, which they say is more expensive to use than barley. It does lighten their beer considerably, however. Put a Budweiser next to your Saranac and you’ll see what I mean.

Now you’re ready for an upgrade. We’re going to try a few bolder lagers that accent just a bit more hops and malt. The first one we’ll try is Samuel Adams Boston Lager, because again it is widely available. Wow! Do you taste the richer malt here? Feel the fuller, thicker body? That’s called mouthfeel, and a beer should have some of it. You’ll also get a good dose of hops in the finish, too. We’ve added a tad more bitterness, but you’ll also note a flowery, aromatic character. Hops can add flavor to beer, not just bitterness, as this wonderful brew shows.

Some Other Examples You Might Want to Try:
Brooklyn Lager (New York)
Casco Bay Lager (Maine)
Dominion Lager (Virginia)
Chesbay Lager (Maryland)
Henry Saxer’s Public Lager (Oregon)
Penn Pilsner (Pennsylvania)
Saranac Golden Pilsner (New York)
Saxer Pilsner (Oregon)
Stoudt’s Pilsner (Pennsylvania)
Troeg’s Bavarian Style Lager (Pennsylvnia)
Victory All Malt Lager (Pennsylvania)
North Coast Scrimshaw Pilsner (California)

Now we’re ready to try an ale! Stop and think for a minute. When you think of ale, what comes to mind? Bitter. Dark. Thick. Warm. Sticky. Many people have such preconceptions about ale, and many people eschew it, generally drinking nothing but lagers. You’re going to learn, however, that there are many wonderful and refreshing types of ale out there that you’re sure to love if you only give them a chance.

As we did with lagers, we’re going to start out on the lighter side of the ale spectrum. It’s easy to find plenty of brews in this vein. I like Redhook Blonde, Saranac Pale Ale and Samuel Adams Pale Ale for starters. Again, these are all easy to find and are a departure from the average macrobrew. At the same time, all are relatively smooth and easy to drink. You might detect a subtle hint of fruit in them, but fear not. Again, that’s supposed to be there.

Now might be a good time to go over the difference between ales and lagers to see why. The first difference is the temperature at which they are fermented. Fermentation is a process by which the natural sugars in beer are consumed by tiny organisms called yeast. As a waste product, the yeast leaves behind carbon dioxide (the bubbles in beer) and alcohol (the stuff that gets us drunk.) In ales, fermentation takes place at warmer temperatures, around 60 to 70 degrees or so. Ale yeast tend to hang around the top of the fermenting vessel while they eat.

Lagers are a little different. They prefer colder temperatures, around 40 degrees or so. They’re also shy, preferring to ferment at the bottom of the vessel where no one can see them. Ales and lagers differ in the way they’re aged, too, with lagers generally being aged longer and at colder temperatures than ales.

What does this do? Well, the colder temperatures tend to smooth out the flavors in beer. Ales can have fruity notes from the warm ferment, while lagers will generally be crisp and clean.

Now lets try a few more robust ales. I can’t think of a better beer for our purposes than Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. It’s an original, a classic, and has been around since the beginning of the beer renaissance in America. It’s also a bit fruity with a touch of hops in the finish, and a great next step in your appreciation of beer. You’re sure to notice the difference between this wonderful brew and a Heineken.

Some Other Examples You Might Want to Try:
SLO Extra Pale Ale (California)
Smuttynose Shoals Pale Ale (New Hampshire)
Dogwood Pale Ale (Georgia)
Spanish Peaks Black Dog (Montana)
Steel Rail Extra Pale Ale (Massachusetts)
Summit Extra Pale Ale (Minnesota)
Sweetwater 420 Extra Pale Ale (Georgia)
Three Floyd’s Extra Pale Ale (Indiana)
Harpoon Ale (Massachusetts)
Victory Populist Pale Ale (Pennsylvania)
Otter Creek Pale Ale (Vermont)
Bear Republic XP Pale Ale (California)
Brewery Hill Pale Ale (Pennsylvania)
Brooklyn Pennant Pale Ale (New York)
Lagunitas Tocoloma Amber (California)
Alaskan Amber (Alaska)
Anderson Valley Boont Amber (California)
Catamount Amber (Vermont)
Deschutes Mirror Pond Pale Ale (Oregon)

These are just a few examples, of course, and don’t forget your local micro! They’re sure to have a tasty, handcrafted lager or ale to please your palate. When you buy your samples, try to get your beer as fresh as you possibly can so you can best appreciate its flavor. Avoid dusty bottles, or ones that have been sitting in direct sun or fluorescent light. Check freshness dating when applicable.

OK, class. You’ve got your work cut out for you. Go try some beers! Post some comments and let us know what you tried and how you liked it. We’ll give you some time to complete your coursework before we move on to Beer 102. Until then, cheers!

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