The situation is familiar: It’s Friday night, and you’re off to your friend’s apartment to pregame. You’re at the liquor store, standing in front of the refrigerated wall stocked with a stressful selection of beer, and you’re totally amiss over what to bring. Frustrated, you pull the door open and reach for the trusty Bud Light.
But it doesn’t have to be that way, my friend. I know what you’re thinking: So many different names. So many different types. How do I differentiate between them all? Open your notebook and get out a pen because class is in session.
LESSON ONE: INGREDIENTS
All beer is made with four basic ingredients: water, malted barley, hops, and yeast. The barley is soaked in water to germinate, then quickly dried off with hot air to stop germination. This process is called malting, and it's really important in the development of beer because it converts the starches into sugars, which is where the yeast comes in.
Yeast needs sugar to thrive, and the now-converted sugars from the barley allow the yeast to ferment the sugar into alcohol. There are two kinds of yeast used for brewing: lager yeast and ale yeast (but we’ll get into that later). Yeast also helps produce carbon dioxide, which makes the beer bubbly and effervescent, during a second fermentation process.
Hops are the flower of a vine that provide the bitterness to balance the sugars in the barley. Depending on how they're prepared, hops can add a burst of spice or can be more subtle.
LESSON TWO: TYPES
This part's easy. There are only two types of beer: lager and ale. What makes them different? It’s all in the fermentation. Ale yeast needs oxygen to ferment, so it forms a layer at the top. This yeast likes to ferment in warmer temperatures (in the mid-60s) and typically has a short fermentation time. Lager yeast is bottom-fermenting, likes to be stored in a colder climate (in the 40s), and has a longer fermentation time.
Because lagers ferment longer, the yeast adds less residual flavor, producing a cleaner, crisper beer. These beers should be served very cold. Ales, on the other hand, are generally richer, denser beers. The yeast doesn’t ferment as long, so it has a larger impact on the flavor profile. Ales should be served warmer than lagers.
LESSON THREE: STYLE
Beer-drinking regions around the world have their own styles of beer: Burton-on-Trent in the UK has Bass Ale, Plzen in the Czech Republic has Pilsner, and Munich has Maerzen (also known as Oktoberfest). The differentiation begins with what type of beer it is (lager or ale, remember?), the proportion and preparation of the ingredients, and the type of water used. The qualities of water vary depending on the source, and water plays a very significant role in the beer style. Luckily for us, brew masters use additives to recreate, say, the kind of water found near Munich to make an Oktoberfest beer so we don’t have to travel thousands of miles for a taste of Germany.
There are many, many different styles of beer. Here’s a selection of the more well-known styles:
LAGERSAmerican Pilsner: A pale, thin-bodied beer that is one of the most popular in the US. Brands like Coors, PBR, and Budweiser all fall into this category.
Bohemian Pilsner: Darker than its American counterpart and with a more pronounced hop flavor. Pilsner Urquell is probably the most popular brand in the Czech Republic, but Sam Adams brews a Noble Pilsner a lot closer to home.
ALESAmerican Wheat: These beers use a combination of wheat and malted barley to produce a crisp, refreshing taste, often paired with fruit. Wheat beers make for a great summer brew. Sam Adams Summer, Magic Hat Hocus Pocus, and Brooklyn Summer Ale are some examples.
Dry Stout: You’ve seen them before -- they’re the very dark beers that have that pronounced “roasted” flavor. Dry stouts are very heavy and filling. If you’re in the mood for one, Guinness will do the trick.
I.P.A. (India Pale Ale): This pale beer has a very pronounced hops flavor and a generally higher alcohol content. Harpoon I.P.A. and Dogfish Head I.P.A. are two of the more popular beers of this style.
Porter: Very similar to a stout -- it also has that deep malt color but usually has more bitterness due to a higher hops content. Examples include Anchor Porter and Sam Adams Holiday Porter.
Pale Ale: Pale ales produce a balance of bitter to sweet and are smooth and bright at the same time. Try a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale or the Bass Pale Ale.
Now that you’ve got the basics under your sleeve, you can really wow your friends at the party by bringing over something a little different. Show off your beer knowledge and talk about how you “wanted to bring over something that had a nice balance of bitter hops to sweet barley so everyone could enjoy it.” If you really want to impress your friends, you can judge the beer by its aroma, appearance, taste, and mouthfeel -- but that’s a whole ‘nother lesson.
Enjoy your brew!
More of a wino? Check out TNGG's Wine Guide for N00bs!
About Anthony -- I'm a 22-year-old Massachusetts native -- grew up in the 'burbs and now spend my young adult life in the city. I am passionate about cooking and currently assistant manage a restaurant kitchen in Kendall Square. Let's just say that when I invite friends over for dinner parties, no one ever turns me down.
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