"Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy."
- Ben Franklin
I love beer, it's a big part of the reason I have a bit of a belly. I love to brew, because what better to do than spend time with friends while making, talking about and drinking beer? Beer can be daunting to the uninitiated, and understandably so. When you walk into a real, well-stocked, beer aisle how do you know what to choose? What is the difference between a pilsner, a hefeweizen, a porter, a stout and a pale ale? Is there any difference?
First and foremost, to get things straight, let's discuss the main types of beer. In the same manner as wine, beer can be broken into large categories which contain many and varied sub-categories. The two categories of beer, the umbrellas under which all varietals fall, are ale and lager. The main difference in the two is the yeast used to ferment them. Ale yeasts live and feed at temperatures between 60 and 75 degrees, whereas lagering yeasts prefer cooler temperatures, around 48 to 58 degrees. Another difference is the flavor created by the malted grains that are used to make the beers. Ales, as a rule of thumb, have a thicker mouthfeel, more like drinking bread. You can usually taste the malted grain used in ales. Lagers, on the other hand, tend to be much lighter in body and crisp in flavor, I'm not being snarky when I say that lagers tend to have a body closer to water than ales do.
Now, why don't we discuss a few varietals of each, so that you'll have an idea what you're looking at the next time you go to your local purveyor of brewed goods. Personally, I like almost all varieties of ale, it's just my preference, but I'll focus on two: Pale ale and Porter. As far as lagers go, we'll cover Pilsner, my personal favorite.
Pale ales are renowned for being light colored and slightly lighter bodied than most other ales. Another distinguishing feature of pale ale is that it should have a very hop forward taste. Hops, if you are unaware, are a flower cluster that act as a preservative, a perfuming, and a flavoring agent in the beer. The hop is typically that bitter — but in a good way — flavor that you taste in your beer, the nice counter balance to all that malty heavy sweetness from the grains. In a good pale ale, the hop is the first thing you taste and smell — personally I am fond of the Citra variety, which has sort of a grapefruit flavor. My favorite aroma hop is Amarillo; I don't know how to describe its aroma other than just beautiful.
You may occasionally see an India Pale Ale, which is a variety that has extra hops added to the beer, creating a much more apparent and "punchy" hop flavor. India Pale Ale originated in England, not Bombay as you might think. Brewers discovered that their beer wasn't keeping well on the long journeys from English ports to its destinations in India and the other far flung corners of the empire. As a solution to this problem, they used extra hops to make the beer keep longer, thus creating the wonderful, hoppy ale we know today. I find these beers go great with a hot day and a nice, strong cheese.
Porters and stouts are heavy, dark ales, black in color and rich in flavor. While porters use hops, they are less hoppy than a pale and the flavor profile tends towards the rich, malty flavor from the dark grains used to brew it. Often you will get a very oaky flavor from a porter, as they are frequently aged in oak casks. Porter takes its name from having traditionally been served in pubs down by the waterfront, where the local dock workers, or porters, would come in and order the dark concoction at the end of a long day of work. These pubs were sometimes knows as porter houses (yes, that's where the steak got its name from). I like Porter when its cold out and I have a big cut of meat, or a nice piece of dark chocolate, something heavy to go with its weighty character.
As stated above, lagers have a lighter, less bready quality to them. They are great for drinking ice-cold after you've been working in the hot sun all day. A good pilsner, which in my experience means one from Germany, is simple and clean in flavor, a little sweet, a little hops and it doesn't make you feel full and heavy like a rib-sticking ale does. You may wonder why I specifically mentioned German Pilsner above, it's because Germany, for me, has the best lagers of any country. I plan to cover regional and national brewing in different posts, so without getting too in depth I would like to talk about Germany's beer purity laws.
The country has laws on the books stating that beer can only be made of water, hops and barley, and nothing else added by man. This means they usually depend on wild yeasts for fermentation, or they did until the laws were relaxed and they all started using yeast that was not "naturally occuring." Why is this a big deal? It aids in the simple, clean flavor of the beer, giving the drinker a well balanced, beer flavored beer (thanks Denis Leary). As stated, I like pilsners when it's hot and I've been working outside, like after mowing the lawn. I find that Pilsners tend to pair well with lighter food, I like mine with some shrimp or even a salad.
So the next time you go to the store, walk by all the major label American beers (which you should have been doing already), and go to the more exotic micro-brews and imports. I implore you, you will not regret the expansion of your beer drinking palate and your tongue will thank you when it realizes you are not putting a subpar brew on it!