Written By Chef Peter Martin
Having grown up in the restaurant business and being surrounded by great food, I am hard pressed to think of many food related revelations or epiphanies that I have had. Sure there have been some great moments such as my first taste of Foie Gras, my first bite of a Maine lobster, or the first truffle I ever tasted, but these events were not life altering. No, these events haven't had nearly the same impact on me as my first experience with great beer. I wasn't 2 months into my culinary education at New England Culinary Institute, when, one weekend, looking for something to do, we decided on doing a beer tasting. The week before we had scrounged enough money to do a modest wine tasting and we were looking for something that would allow us to stretch our dollars further. Of course, this was really just an excuse to drink some beer, but hey, we were in culinary school, so this was educational. Luckily, the person we sent on the beer run took us half seriously, and along with the usual big name beers, he picked up a few beers I had never heard of before. The first beer I drank that night was a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, and to say the least, I was dumbfounded! I had never known that beer could be so complex. There was this wonderful sweet maltiness, balanced by this bitterness that I had never experienced before, in a beer. And all these aromas; pine, citrus, and floral notes all playing against each other. I was like nothing I had ever tasted before. But it was the second beer that I tasted that really made a convert out of me. The Catamount Porter I drank that night is something I will never forget. This dark, rich, malty beer started a lifelong passion. And how could it not, with its full body, sweet maltiness, spicy hops, and complex flavors ranging from dark chocolate, coffee, and hints of licorice? From that day forward I swore off American mass marketed beers, except in cases of extreme emergency, in favor of beers produced by small breweries and brewpubs and in favor of imports from countries that had not forgotten the art of brewing flavorful, complex beers.
Beer is often taken for granted. It is the everyman's beverage, while wine is noble, but beer has a wonderful complexity; a complexity that rivals that of wine. It comes in hundreds, if not thousands of styles, each one unique, from light and effervescent to dark, creamy and rich. With such diversity, there is a beer out there for everyone. The key is understanding the role that each ingredient plays in the making of beer and how each of those ingredients effect the end result.
Beer in its simplest form is pretty straightforward, with only three ingredients; barley, yeast and water. Barley is the traditional grain used for beer though other cultures have used other grains for brewing beer-like beverages, and wheat is often used in conjunction with barley in weisse, wit, and wheat beers. Corn and rice are often used by large scale producers, but they don't add much to the flavor and often result in light-bodied, sweeter beers. To be of any use to brewers the barley must first be malted. In this process the barley is allowed to germinate then is quickly kiln dried. This causes the starches in the barley (not fermentable by yeasts) to be converted into sugar which the yeasts then eat, creating alcohol. By roasting the barley, the brewmaster can give the finished beers different colors and flavors, but as the roasts get darker and darker there is less sugar for the yeasts to consume, so oftentimes the brewer will combine 3,4 or 5 even different malts to create their beer. In lighter beers, lightly roasted malts are used with very few of the darker roasted malts resulting in lighter tasting beers with flavors of dried grains. With the addition of medium roasted malts nutty flavors start to appear along with other flavors such as caramel, toffee, brown sugar and toasted grains. As the malts get darker you might experience flavors like coffee, chocolate and licorice. These darker roasts also add their own bitterness to a beer.
Yeast is probably the single most important ingredient to affect a beer's flavor. In ancient times open vats of wort (the unfermented beer) were left to spontaneously ferment by yeasts in the air. This was unpredictable and sometimes lead to wonderful beers, but more often than not lead to beers of rather dubious quality. In the Middle Ages monks "discovered" yeast, and though they didn't really understand what it was or exactly what it did, they understood what it created. They started to develop strains of yeasts, local to their area, that produced high quality beers. It was the development of these local strains that help to give beer its endless variety. All these different yeast strains affect the beer in different ways, creating different flavors and aromas. It was also in the monasteries that one of the most important discoveries, in brewing, was made; the discovery of yeasts that could ferment beer at lower temperatures. Up until this point all beers where ales, meaning that the yeasts that produced them worked at room temperature, producing beers within 1-2 weeks. These beers tended to be fruitier, richer, and contained many more esters (aromas). The use of the cold loving yeasts allowed the monks to lager, or store, and to ferment their beers at lower temperatures. These lagers tended to be more crisp, light, smoother, and more subtle than their ale counterparts. These beers could be fermented slowly, sometimes over 2-3 months, ensuring a steady supply of beer all year long.
With these three ingredients, beer was produced for thousands of years, but again, in the Middle Ages, there was another breakthrough, the discovery of hops as a brewing aid. Hops had been around for centuries and were a part of any herbalist's garden, but had not been used in the brewing process until this point. Hops did two important things. First off the bitter resins in hops help to offset the sweet maltiness of beer and these same bitter resins helped preserve the beer, giving it a "shelf life" of months rather than weeks. Hops are the flowers of a vine that are shaped like little green pinecones. They contain a bitter resin, that when boiled with the unfermented beer, add a characteristic bitter flavor. Besides the bitterness, hops impart a number of aromas and flavors, ranging from pine, to citrus, to floral notes. There are hundreds of varieties of hops, each one with it's own characteristic flavor and aroma.
From these four basic ingredients, grains, water, yeast, and hops, beer in all its endless variety is created. Of course brewers haven't stopped there, they have gone on to add fruits, herbs and spices, and even vegetables to create new and unique beers. There are beers out there to please everyone, so next time you are out, don't just ask for one of the old standbys, be adventurous and try something new. There is a whole world of great beers out there just waiting for you to try.