Beer and wine are probably the two oldest man-made benerages.
Which is older? Who knows. Some reason that beer is older
because man would have learned to grow grain before learning
to tend grapes. At any rate, both beer and wine are several
thousand years old. A recipe for beer was found on
Mesopatamian tablets dating to 7,000 BC.
Both beer and wine are a result of fermentation. Fermentation
is a natural process in which yeast converts carbohydrates
and water into simple sugars, carbon dioxide and alcohol.
Beer and wine were most likely both discovered by accident.
Grain or bread (or slightly crushed grapes in the case of
wine) were probably stored in a container with some water
(rain?) and when the folks came back to eat – TA DA! Sour
stinky water! The first alcoholic beverage.
Of course no one today would recognize what the ancients
drank as “beer”. In fact modern beer, which uses hops as a
primary flavoring, is relatively young, perhaps only a few
hundred years old. Henry VIII actually made the use of hops (a
new fangled crop brought to Britain by Belgian immigrants)
Then there is the famous German Beer Purity Law of 1516 which
limited the ingredients in beer to grain, hops, yeast and
water. Of course brewers could add anything else they wanted,
but they could not legally call the result “beer”.
Actually, that is not as limiting as it might seem. Variety
can be achieved simply buy using different types and amounts
of each ingredient. Then the grains and hops could be left
green, or dried, roasted, charred or aged. Many different
strains of yeast exist and experimental strains are being
tested even today. Water could be from springs, rain,
filtered, high in mineral content and infused with other
flavors by soaking other ingredients (kind of a cheat!). Then
the ingredients could be added in various forms at various
times during the brewing process to bring about different
flavors and qualities. Then after the brewing process was
complete, a beer cold be consumed right away (young) or aged.
The vessel a beer was aged in could add flavor, aroma and
color. Clay pots, wooden casks and metal drums were all used
to age beer. Minerals from the clay or metal and resins from
the wood as well as the possibility of residue from previous
batches of beer or wine or liquor and barrels that had their
inside surfaces charred could all change the final product.
And last but not least a brewer could have used any combination of
the above techniques until he achieved the beer he wanted.
Okay, enough with the history. Let’s talk about beer itself.
Just as there are two basic forms of wine, red and white,
there are two basic forms of beer: Ales and Lagers. The
difference comes from the location of the yeast and
temperature during fermentation.
Ales are “top-fermented”, meaning that the yeast floats to
the top or surface of the liquid once fermentation is
complete. Top-fermentation takes place at temperatures from
about 59 to 77 degrees Fahrenheit. Therefore, since ales are
brewed at “room temperature”, they are often served
Lagers are “bottom-fermented”, meaning that the yeast stays
at the bottom of the vat throughout fermentation.
Bottom-fermentation takes place at temperatures from about 45
to 55 degrees Fahrenheit. Therefore, lagers are often served
chilled. The word lager comes from the German verb “lagern”
which means “to store”. Often German and Eastern European
brewers would brew and store their beer in natural ice caves.
All beers can be categorized as either ales or lagers
depending on the style of fermentation used during brewing.
Ale brewers experiments usually produced darker colored sweet
beers that were higher in alcohol content than most lagers
(remember they were stored at room temperature, so a little
bit more alcohol worked well as a preservative). Lager
brewers experiments usually produced lighter colored clearer
dry tasting beers that were a bit lower in alcohol than ales
and had to be stored with care. Of course there were
exceptions to this generalization, with light ales and dark
If you are a beer novice think: ale = UK, lager = Germany. What about the USA? Unfortunately, and because of many socio-economic and historical reasons which we will not go into,
USA = weak bland lager.
Okay. Let’s take a look at three descriptive beer terms, then
you can take a break. The terms are: alcohol content,
bitterness and body.
Alcohol content is simple. It is a measure of the amount of
alcohol in a beer by liquid volume and is abbreviated ABV. To
a real beer snob, this can hint at certain facts concerning
the brewing process, but for you and me it just means, “How
many can I drink before I pass out?”
Bitterness is more complex. As you might assume, it is a
measure of how bitter a beer tastes. I have to point out that
bitterness and sourness are two different things and they are
both different than dryness. Confused? Not suprising. I won’t
make this post longer by comparing and contrasting these
terms. Get a good brewer’s or vintner’s reference and look
them up yourself. I’ll just say that it is possible for a
beer to be bitter, sour and dry all at the same time. Oh
yeah, the same beer can also be sweet – go figure!
Bitterness comes from hops. Hops are the flowers of a vine
that is related to hemp, nettles and elms. Bitterness is
measured in International Bitterness Units (IBU’s). The
higher the IBU rating, the more bitter the beer.
Body comprises everything else about a beer. This is an
abstraction that I am using to avoid having to list all the
descriptors that beer snobs have come up with over the years.
Body relates to the consistency, smoothness, texture, aroma,
level of carbonation and overall taste of the beer. If you
hear someone describe a Belgian ale as “creamy and spicy with
a hint of coriander and orange”, they are talking body.
Enough! That is your basic introduction to beer. Any more
detailed terms will be included in the individual reviews.
Wow! That was a long post. Gimme a beer!