Thursday, May 1, 2014

16 Beer Misconceptions (Part 2 of 2)

In my travels and discussions over the years with other beer lovers I've stumbled across some perceptions that are a bit off.   They are all basically harmless, but nonetheless it doesn't hurt to point them out.  Some of the topics on the list are general, some are specific, and others quite random.

This blog takes a look at 16 common beer-related misunderstandings relating to our favorite drink.  I've split this into two posts.  This second entry will discuss the final eight. 

Click here to read Part  1 of 2.

I'm sure I missed dozens.  Do you have any to add?  Feedback is always welcome!

To continue...

9)  All Trappist Ales come from Belgium.  When I think Trappist, I think Belgium.  But not all Trappist beers are from there.  Koningshoeven is brewed north of the border in the Netherlands.  And two years ago a new player entered the market - Stift Engelszell from Austria.  Out of the eight Trappist breweries, the remaining six are indeed from Belgium - three from the French speaking south (OrvalChimay, and Rochefort) and three from the Flemish north (AchelWestmalle, and Westvleteren).  For more about Trappist breweries please reference my blog post from last year.  

(After posting this I was notified by Jim E. that St. Joseph's Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts also joined the list.  I knew they were coming, but didn't realize their Spencer Trappist Ale was out yet.  Good catch Jim!  And we can all welcome the USA into the Trappist ranks.)

10)  Wine is harder to make than beer.  I'm not out to start a fight here.  Nor am I saying beer is better than wine.  Nor am I saying fine wine is easy to make.  But fundamentally, wine is fairly simple.  Grapes already contain sugar, and the skins are covered with yeast.  (I know, maybe not the yeast you want, but…)  Press the grapes, and let it ferment!

Beer is produced by the fermentation of sugars derived from starch-based material.  Typically barley, but also wheat, rye, and to a lesser extent other grains.  In other words, a seed needs to be malted and mashed in order to get to the sugars that wine makers start with from nature.  Malt production and mashing take precise conditions such as moisture content, pH and temperature.  It is a fairly complex and scientific process to perfect the production of a good wort.  

Beer may be a commoner's drink, and wine may have an air of nobility, but in reality your Pilsner may have taken more skill to produce than your Pinot. 

11)  Germans drink their beer warm.  The British are famous for drinking "warm and flat" Ales, but the Germans don't drink their beer warm.  I would call it cold/cool.  Not ice cold beer out of a cooler like Americans drink at a tailgate, but definitely not warm.

12)  Brettanomyces is bacteria.  Actually brett is a form of super-attenuating wild yeast.  It is not uncommon for brettanomyces to end up in beers that are also partially fermented by bacteria, so some mistakenly think it falls into this group.  Styles such as Lambic and Sour Red Ales are examples of beers fermented with "traditional" brewers yeast, brettanomyces and acid producing bacteria.  

If you want to learn more about this much loved bug, read my November 2012 entry on Anchorage Brewing and brettanomyces.

13)  Light lagers are not good beers.  I am not the biggest fan of mass-produced light lagers.  (Though I don't object.  My father grows 2-row barley for Coors.)  Light lagers, whether mass produced or brewed by your local craft brewer, are in my opinion the most difficult beers to perfect.  

Think of a delicate Helles, or brilliantly fresh Pilsner.  Those beers need to be clean to allow the yeast to get out of the way and showcase the malt and hops.  Any minor flaw will jump out in these beers.  Dark ales and hoppy beers on the other hand are more forgiving.  Fermentation flaws often get buried underneath stronger flavors.  When is the last time you had a "flawed" Porter?  
Kloster Mülln (Monastery) in Austria

I'm not saying it doesn't take skill to make that over-the-top IPA, I'm just saying light lagers are the most challenging beers to brew.  That is my opinion anyway.

14)  Beer and religion don't mix.  I think this perception comes from religious teetotalers.  We all know one.  But I completely object to this generalization.  If not for the church beer would definitely not be what it is today.  Monks were of the few learned people of their times, and their science, experimentation and documentation helped perfect brewing practices.  We owe our great ales & lagers largely to their effort, trials and tribulations.  And think of the most sought after beers today.  Tops on that list has to be Westvleteren - brewed by monks.

Additionally, religion would not be as strong as it is without beer.  The church (often intertwined with the ruling powers) controlled beer production and distribution in much of the old world.  This strengthened their establishment.  

Throughout history religion and beer have gone hand in hand.

15)  Bock beer comes from the bottom of the barrel.  I've even read this in reputable bar guides.  I don't even really know what it means.  Is the thought that the stronger/thicker beer settles to the bottom?  

Bock beers are simply stronger, higher gravity beers.  They are brewed like any other beer.  (By German law to be classified as a Bock the wort requires a minimun starting gravity of 1.064, and 1.072 for a Doppelbock.)  

The only other explanation for this misnomer that I can think of is that most Bock beers are lagers.  (though there are Weizenbocks)  Germans call lagers untergärig, which means "bottom fermented."  This simply refers to the slow, cool fermentation carried out by yeast that have settled.  In the old days I suppose
"Funky" Cantillon Lambic in Belgium
this would mean settled to the bottom of the barrel.  But the bock beer we drink is racked off this yeast before packaging, just like any other beer.

16)  All sour beers are awesome!  Just because a beer is funky or sour does not mean it is good.  Just like hoppy beers, sour beers still require balance.  And some beer souring bacteria (like enterobacter) are down right sickening.  

Some of the world's greatest beers make use of spontaneous fermentation and/or barrel aging.  These practices lead to inoculation by brettanomyces and other souring microorganisms.  But funk alone does not guarantee greatness - or even drinkability.  Sour beer brewers should prepare to get an ear full if you want a Belgian lambic brewer to critique your beer!

Well that concludes my list of 16.  Did I miss any?  I'm sure you have some to add… please comment!