Saturday, September 20, 2008

Someone Called Me “Brewmaster”

If prompted, I am happy to talk beer and brewing with most anyone. Many people are either fascinated with the method or amazed it can be done at home, and almost all are understandably ill-informed of the entire process and subculture that has developed. For that reason, I was caught a bit off-guard when during a recent conversation, someone said to me, "So, you’re a brewmaster, right?"

To the general public, brewmaster is a term that lies somewhere between kids' fantasy toys and overly enthusiastic hobbyists bordering on obsession. However, what this innocent layman actually committed was a rather minor faux pas by using that term incorrectly. Within the brewing community, especially within the professional and commercial realms, this honorific is reserved for a select few.

In Germany, a brewmaster (or rather Braumeister) is a formal title and job position. It reflects a professional brewer who has completed a university course of training for the Diplom-Braumeister, somewhat equivalent of a Bachelors of Science degree in brewing beer. Inspired individuals can even proceed to a Diplom-Ingenieur, something like a Masters of Science with a specialty in biotechnology/brewing science.

In the European world, calling someone a brewmaster or master brewer is a designation of respect. It means that they have mastered the art and science that is beermaking, and have the credentials to back it up. It implies not only a knowledge of brewing but also an advanced education in the chemistry and biology of those involved processes. Although not entirely uncommon, there are but a few schools that offer such programs in both Germany and the United States, and their popularity is growing.

Overall, finding such certified brewmasters in American craft brewing operations is not necessarily a given. Many owners of microbreweries do have a similar academic background, possibly having attended one of the domestic brewing programs such as the University of California, Davis or the Siebel Institute of Technology. Most are simply talented homebrewers who have turned professional, or have apprenticed at other craft breweries. However, few are certified brewmasters of the German tradition.

Because of this, it is much more common to find a head brewer in charge of a small brewery here in the States. There are several variations on this title—such as Head of Brewing Operations, Chief Brewer or simply Brewer—and all reflect more of a journeyman aspect to the profession on this side of the Atlantic. Being the upstart entrepreneurs that they are, some small brewers have adopted more playful titles, such as Chief Zymurgist.

Do homebrewers have any such titles or rankings? Not at all. Aside from being no more than a pastime, homebrewing is a much more egalitarian activity. Even award-winning, long-time homebrewers still make mistakes and are still learning about their devoted weekend diversion. There is much more camaraderie and less status among homebrewers, as the hobby lends itself to teaching and learning across both the novice and the expert.

Given that most American craft breweries are small operations at best, titles and positions are little more than words printed on a business card. With small profit margins and a lot of labor involved, most professional head brewers are as up to their armpits in muck as any volunteer or lowly trainee. What title should these professional brewers use? As more than one has personally told me, "Janitor."

Saturday, September 6, 2008

As Near-Bear as Not-Beer Can Get

Another rising trend in the world of American craft beer stretches the definition of beer to its very limits. This is the appearance of gluten-free beers on shelves, beer made without the traditional malt or grain products. A relatively young and very narrow specialty product, these gluten-free beers are seeing a toe-hold in the American craft beer market.

Gluten is a sticky protein that develops from wheat and related grains such as rye, barley or oats. It is the same substance that gives bread or pizza dough its chewy mouthfeel. Unfortunately, sufferers of celiac disease have a condition in which their small intestine becomes inflamed in the presence of gluten, leading to a host of uncomfortable symptoms and nutritional disorders. Presently, no cure exists except a lifetime of a dedicated gluten-free diet.

An estimated 1 out of every 133 people in the United States suffers from celiac disease. This is enough to merit a commercial response, and the American craft brewing scene is as inventive as they come. However, it does pose a rather major problem for brewers as malted grains are the largest ingredient (besides water) used in making beer.

The leading malt alternative in brewing presently is sorghum, a grass commonly grown for animal feed. Sorghum lacks the protein that becomes gluten when worked but still has enough sugars and fiber to be used as a foodstuff. It is a major crop outside of the Western world, used for porridge, couscous and unleavened breads and cakes. Americans are probably most familiar with it as sorghum syrup or molasses, popular in the South as an analogue of the North’s maple syrup.

Of course, yeast love and need sugar, and are not so particular as to its origin, so sorghum makes them as happy as any grain. Individuals with celiac disease have no problem with hops, so that flavor ingredient presents no difficulties, and water is a neutral and flavorless component. Thus, the only real difference between regular craft beer and gluten-free beer is the grain bill. But what a difference that can make.

I have tried several commercial gluten-free beers—mainly out of curiosity—and I find few that I can recommend. The flavor profiles are very limited by the lack of traditional grains and the flavors derived from their roasting or caramelization in the boil. Residual tastes range from being too sugary (as in table sugar) to saccharine (as in artificial sweetener). Although rarely horrible, some of the strange and unfamiliar off-flavors can be quite off-putting.

Styles available at present are very limited; most commercial versions are no more than amber ales or simple lagers. To maximize their market, few brands are pushing the hop profile, which could be a great assist to this type of beer. The stronger hops flavors in pale ales or IPAs might mask some of the more undesirable components and leave the resulting beer closer to traditional styles.

Some of the best of the gluten-free choices are from outside the United States, but a few domestic craft brewers are catching on to the trend. Lake Front Brewery of Wisconsin produces a gluten-free beer, and one of the oldest of the style is Bard’s Tale Beer of California, which claims to be the first to develop gluten-free beers in the States. The best that I have found currently is Redbridge, an Anheuser-Busch product; it is actually clean enough not to immediately come across as a nonstandard beer.

Regrettably, gluten-free beers are not a variety that excels in flavor or that are highly prized or sought by the craft beer public. Whether they ever will be remains to be seen, but the limitations of using none of the traditional grains severely handicaps their quality and potential. But if you are an individual with celiac disease or some other related food sensitivity, these beers can be an answer to a prayer.