Saturday, January 24, 2009

Glassware Matters

Most fans of craft beer collect branded beer glassware like stray dogs. Shelves are filled with all shapes and styles of beer glasses, most with brewery logos etched on their sides. Such brewery paraphernalia has become the currency of the craft beer market, bought and traded as often as the beers made to fill them.

Of course, every brewer will want you to drink their beer out of their particular glass—that is simply basic business marketing. Many will also claim that their glassware possesses specific design elements that can enhance the drinking experience, and bring out the flavors of the beverage to their fullest. But how much of this is true and how much is just promotional hype? Is specialized glassware even needed at all?

To start, you should always consume your beer from a clean, room temperature glass. Your palate can only detect five different flavors, which means that the majority of your tasting is done through the aroma. (This is why food tastes bland when you have a cold.) Sucking a beer through the narrow neck of a bottle robs you of much of the flavor of that beverage.

Pouring a beer into a glass also stirs up the carbonation in the beer, releasing even more aromatic elements as the head is formed as well as slightly oxygenating the drink. Think of pouring beer from a bottle to a glass the same as decanting a bottle of wine. No one would swill a wine directly from the bottle, and neither should you treat fine beer with any less respect.

Proper glassware should also only be kept at room temperature, or at the most lightly refrigerated. Serving beer in frozen mugs does nothing but crank down the dial on flavors, as cold suppresses the taste the same way that warmth facilitates it. In addition, a glass with frozen sides will only freeze the water out of the beer, leaving thin ice chunks floating in a beer that dilutes as they melt.

However, contrary to the multitude of glassware designs foisted upon consumers today, only two types of glassware are truly necessary to enjoy the vast majority of beer styles available. First and foremost is the basic tumbler or shaker pint, the standard serving vessel for most pubs and restaurants today. It is heavy, sturdy, functional and durable, and easy to replace if broken.

Many variations on this basic design can be found, such as the tulip pint glass or the nonic. The basic design is a roughly cylindrical shape that widens slightly at the top; thick sides are a plus but any further filigree or design elements are irrelevant and contribute nothing to the drinking experience. This is your basic, everyday, serviceable glass for most beer styles.

But for your more aromatic beers, one additional glass is necessary. This type would be your basic tulip stemware, which could also be a snifter, a goblet, a thistle or even a wine glass. This glassware is far more delicate, with thinner sides and a more intricate intent, and should be cared for accordingly. Breakage is common, and some particular items are not so easily replaced.

This tulip stemware has two attributes the basic, ordinary pint glass does not. The material is thinner than most glasses, which will allow the warmth from your hand to gently warm the cold beverage included therein. Many aromatic beers, especially the high-gravity barleywines or imperial stouts, only reach their full flavor potentials at cellar temperatures—temperatures about 10° to 20° warmer than the common storage medium of the refrigerator.

But the most important attribute of the tulip stemware is the shape itself. Unlike the pint glass—which is wider at the top—good stemware should narrow slightly at the rim, creating an overall bulb-like shape to the glass. This allows the aromatic nose to be better contained within the glass and sampled with a deep breath prior to each sip.

Anything beyond these two styles of glassware is vanity. There is nothing wrong with collecting many interesting and varied beer glasses, as we all have shelves lined with such beautiful brewery swag. But there should never be more than two that do not collect dust—the pint glass and the stemware—because there is no proven functional benefit beyond these two designs.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

What Makes Beer: Part 1 of 5

Beer is made of some rather common, everyday ingredients, and out of these few items literally thousands of styles and flavor profiles are possible. But do you really know of what your favorite beer is made? Could you explain and describe—on a fundamental level—each of the simple elements in the brewing process? Let’s try to do just that.

Brewing begins with malt, the primary taste component and flavor backbone of every beer ever made. But what is malt, besides an additive for milkshakes or a creamy breakfast cereal? Essentially, malt is cereal grain that has been malted, a process that renders the grain suitable for fermentation and a few other applications.

Remember that all cereal grains are grasses, the same type of plant that grows in your yard. The “grain” that is harvested from the whole plant is a seed kernel, whether that comes from wheat or oats or corn. Like all seeds, these small bits contain the genetic material of the plant and are used for reproduction. Put it in the soil, add a little water and sunshine, and you have a whole new plant.

Seeds are a complex little package in and of themselves. By nature’s requirement, they must be self-sustaining, meaning they should be able to sprout and grow wherever they land. To this end, included along with the genetic material of the plant is a fair amount of starch to be used as “starter” fuel once the seed germinates. This starch is intended to last long enough until sprouting leaves and roots can provide food of its own.

Malting is the process by which humans are able to take advantage of the seed’s starch reserve. It involves steeping the grains in water at a temperature just hot enough to activate (germinate) the enzymes in the seed without cooking it. Once these enzymes are activated, they set about their designed task of converting the starch present to sugars for use by the nascent plant. Ultimately, it is these grain sugars that brewers are after, and detailed recipes and parameters have been worked out for proper starch conversion.

These seedlings are well on their way to becoming plants, and would eventually bud leaves and consume all the available sugars if allowed to continue. However, at this point the grain is dried in ovens to stop the germination process and preserve what sugars are present. It is these sugars that will eventually provide nutrients for the yeast to consume later in the brewing process.

A specialty type of malt exists named crystal malt that consists of sugars converted to starches without the benefit of enzymes. Crystal malt relies solely on the heat of the ovens to caramelize the starches, and as such the resulting sugars are left unusable by yeasts. The addition of crystal malts in a recipe lends a sugary sweetness to the final beer, as the caramelized sugars persist through the fermentation process.

The brewer is left with usable malt at this stage but there may still be several options available, depending on the desired qualities of the final beer. Malt may continue to be roasted in ovens far past its dry stage to caramelize the sugars, adding a depth of flavor and color by heat and oxidation. Desired color, taste and aroma components can be developed by further roasting, in a similar fashion to that of processing coffee beans.

What is available to the brewer today is a wide array of malts from dozens of different base grains, each with its own character and fermentable sugar content and each with an additional flavor and color process. In particular, barley has been the favorite of brewers for thousands of years because of its superior enzymatic power of producing usable sugars, and almost all beers contain some amount of barley.

However, wheat, rye and oats also remain popular grains used for brewing. In theory, anything from maize to millet, sorghum to rice can be used for brewing, with each bringing its own elements of flavor and body to the palate. A skilled brewer with a notebook of proven recipes can produce a wide range of final beer styles by no more than combining the qualities and quantities of various malts.