Saturday, December 27, 2008

Beer Myths, Part 1

"Ales and lagers are the same thing."

Other than both are beer, nothing is further from the truth. What distinguishes an ale from a lager is the yeast strain used and the particular method used to ferment the beer, which again depends upon the particular yeast. This yeast is the only ingredient differentiating the two, but it is important enough to make all the difference.

Ale is brewed with a yeast family known as Saccharomyces cerevisiae, a "top-fermenting" or "warm-fermenting" species, whereas lagers use species of the Saccharomyces carlsbergensis family, which prefer cooler temperatures and tend to cluster at the bottom of the tank. Although hundreds of variations exist on each, ales tend to be fuller in body and heartier, whereas lagers have a cleaner, lighter body and finish.

"Beer from a can tastes like a can."

Beer tastes like beer; cans taste like cans. One of the most prevalent problems with canned beer is drinking it directly from the opened can. With your lips and tongue in direct contact with the lid of the container, of course you are going to taste aluminum and steel. Pour it into a glass.

In the industrial past, canned beer did have a problem with the can material contributing to the flavor of the beverage it contained. However, modern beer cans are coated with a thin layer of food-grade plastic so that beer never comes into contact with metal at any point. Any contributing flavors detected are flaws in the beer itself, or else purely psychological.

"Bock is made from the leftover dregs of other beer."

The origins of this myth are puzzling but they may be attributed to the seasons of the year in which the style of bock beer itself was consumed. Bock was typically brewed in the spring for fall consumption, with a long and quiet lagering time unlike the relatively quick-fermenting ales produced year-round.

The darker color and stronger flavors of bock may have led some to believe it was manufactured from the remnants of other ales brewed in the meantime. But bock is brewed no differently than any other beer, with an initial ingredient list of malts and hops and a specialized lager strain of yeast.

"Dark beer is stronger and heavier than lighter beer."

This myth is most likely traceable to the many decades-long Guinness marketing campaigns that claim "Guinness gives you strength" or it is "A meal in a glass." While it may be true that Guinness is more full-bodied than most commercially popular light lagers today, it is by far neither stronger nor heavier.

The color of a beer is wholly a function of the initial roast of the grains used in the mash. As in coffee, darker roasts produce a darker color in the final product, and the use of adjuncts such as rice can significant lighten the final color. But neither of these has any connection to body or final alcoholic strength.

"Craft brewing is just a fad."

Modern American craft brewing has been around since the 1970s, and is presently enjoying a healthy growth curve. More to the point, what we today consider "craft brewing" or boutique products are simply what has been standard practice for centuries of local and artesianal brewing operations.

The Brewers Association tracks such growth annually, and the craft beer industry is relishing a healthier growth than their large corporate counterparts. Our sincere hope is that someday the specialty market of "craft beer" will indeed disappear, and that such quality brewing will simply be referred to as the norm.

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