Beer. It’s amazing what four little letters can sum up in terms of variety, culture, history and beer fan enthusiasm. Did you know for instance that beer production can be traced back not just 1,000 years to medieval monasteries, or 2,000 years to the heyday of the Roman Empire – but to 9,000 years before our era, in other words a full 11,000 years ago? To know all about beer, you’d need a beer bible or encyclopedia, or even a couple of them. But here to help you further your thirst for knowledge about beer is our guide to the essentials. And yes, you can grab a beer while you discover the amazing facts therein!
First of all, let’s talk about the different kinds of beer. More specifically, let’s find out about the different characteristics that make a lager a lager, a bock a bock and a stout a stout. Talking about a beer’s style is a way of labeling it according to its overall character. Trying to categorize beer is a delicate matter. Can your favorite brew really be summed up as a list of ‘scores’ on a grid of scientifically observed parameters? But having some common basis for discussing beer style allows us to compare beers and sometimes even discover new brews that we might otherwise have missed.
Coming In On a Visual
When a good beer lands in front of you, the first thing you notice is what you see. Beer can differ in color, transparency and head. Color intensity and transparency can vary from the pale gold and translucence of a Pilsner to the light cloudiness of Weiss bier, the deeper tan and opacity of India Pale Ale and finally the solid black of Irish stout. This already sets the scene for conversations, reflections and dining, from the carefree to the serious, and from summer salad to winter roasts. Add the thickness and durability of the head and the pattern it leaves on the glass, and you can build a mental picture of any beer you fancy.
Smell, Taste and Mouthfeel
While these are two different factors, they are also associated. The malt, hops and yeast used all play a part. Aroma is then determined by the alcohol content, esters and other volatiles (may include fruit aromas for example in Belgian Lambics). Bitterness can be measured using the International Bitterness Units scale. The thickness of the beer and the degree of carbonation then determine the feel of a beer in the mouth. This is an area where the type of beer glass may also have an impact according to whether or not it has been designed to help beer carbonate (produce small air bubbles).
Beer style is also determined by the level of alcohol in a given beer. Usually measured by volume (ABV – alcohol by volume), alcohol content may have an impact on how a beer may be sold and how it can be marketed or named. For appreciating beer on the other hand, the alcohol content determines above all the type of glass best suited to getting the full benefits of the taste and the aroma.
Some stick to tried and trusted standards like Tulip glasses. Others insist each time on a specific glass to go with each individual beer. Who’s right? It’s simple. If drinking your beer from the glass you chose gives you a great beer drinking experience, then you made the right choice (of glass and beer!). But there’s no shortage of different styles, catering to both visual and gustative appreciation. The fundamental parameters are:
- Height and width of the glass. Pilsner glasses are typically long and slender, releasing the delicate aroma gradually at the top. Chalice glasses are shallower and have a wider drinking surface for the aromas of heavier beers to rise out of the liquid.
- More highly aromatic beers often do well in a beer glass like a tulip glass that has more of a spherical shape to let aromas build – or in a rounded snifter glass that uses the warmth of the holder’s hand underneath to help liberate smell and taste.
- Degree of curvature. Weiss bier glasses have a characteristic ‘S’ shape to trap sediment at the bottom and promote good carbonation and head. Tulip and thistle glasses have flared upper parts for good beer heads too.
But you can also find novelty and special occasion beer glasses, like the Yard of Ale glass, the beer boot, the Toby Jug and even the ‘naked’ beer glass (shaped like a torso, backside and all!).
How to Store and Pour Your Beer
Storing beer properly is not difficult. Brewers suggest a few golden rules to follow, the first being to store bottled beer upright, not on its side (so not like wine). Keep it in a cool, dark place out of the light. Beer doesn’t like light and becomes ‘skunked’ if overexposed (suggesting it then tastes as bad as a skunk smells). And don’t keep it in the fridge for months on end. It’s unnecessary and may even damage its qualities. Check any specific brewer recommendations too about storage. When the time comes to pour it, your aim is for a rich head of foam on top of a good liquid base. Don’t rush it! Put the neck of the bottle (or opening of the can) over the edge of your beer glass. Aim at the bottom of the glass or the brewer’s ‘pour mark’ on the glass if there is one. Pour to create a good, dense head, then ease off to keep that head and add liquid for it to rise to the lip of the glass. Then stop, admire and enjoy!
You can travel the world from the comfort of your own home, by sampling different beers from different regions. You can buy at least two bottles of each to see how they taste at purchase and then after a while in storage (follow the tips above). You won’t know all about beer in one day. But with family, friends and other beer fans, you can explore the rich, sometimes surprising but usually rewarding beer universe, and become truly wise in the ways of this remarkable beverage!