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Beer 101
Learn how to speak the language of brewers

05/12/16
By Ryan Lessard news@hippopress.com



 Want to appreciate beer like a connoisseur, making note of a brew’s “chewiness” or identifying its clove-like flavor profile? If you’re still not even sure what the difference is between ale and lager, there’s still hope. We tapped two of New Hampshire’s top beer experts to give us a few pointers on how to pick out beer types in a lineup and give names to flavors you didn’t know existed.

 
Imperial what?
During a recent afternoon, Bert Bingel received a special package at his store, Bert’s Better Beers in Hooksett. Local brewer Michael Hauptly-Pierce of Litherman’s Limited, a new brewery that opened in April in Concord, personally delivered a case of 22-ounce bottles of his new beer. When Hauptly-Pierce said he had some of his Simply Red to drop off, Bingel’s eyes lit up. 
Frequent customers of Bert’s know that Bingel, a German-born beer fanatic, has a wardrobe limited to lederhosen and kilts. This day, he was wearing his lederhosen.
Hauptly-Pierce has been the host of a beer-centric podcast called The Tap Handle Show since 2014 and has been a home brewer and official beer judge for years, since before opening his own brewery. So it’s safe to say Bingel and Hauptly-Pierce are two prominent members of New Hampshire’s braintrust when it comes to the world of beers. They took the time during the delivery to share some of their foundational beer knowledge with the Hippo, since their sophisticated descriptions can sometimes leave amateurs scratching their heads.
Hauptly-Pierce is prone to use terms like “banana” and “Bazooka Joe bubble gum” to describe flavors, which he assures are official terms used in the beer community. He also described the beer he delivered as an “imperial red,” though, he quickly added, that’s not a real category. Like with many craft beers, it’s an original twist on some time-honored themes.
Red ales are named for their amber to reddish hue and are usually a bit tea-like and sweet, but Hauptly-Pierce says Simply Red is hoppier and chewier than most reds. 
For the uninitiated, one might replace the term “hoppy” with bitter and the term “chewy” with thick and malty. 
“Beer is made of essentially water, malt, hops and yeast,” Bingel said.
Hops are a plant with antibacterial properties added to beer so it’s not too sweet though it sometimes lends notes of citrus, and malt is the germinated cereal grain (usually barley) used for fermenting. 
This batch of red ale is several steps removed from the most basic beers, an evolution guided by generations of brewers of which Hauptly-Pierce and his contemporaries are only the most recent.
In this case, the beer descended from one of two main ancestral categories.
 
Ales vs. lagers
“Pretty much everything comes under the broad category of ales and lagers,” Bingel said.
When looking at ales and lagers next to one another in a clear glass, the first noticeable thing one sees to differentiate the two is that ales are generally cloudy and opaque, while lagers are mostly translucent. However, both can vary in color and darkness.
This is mostly due to the way the two are made, and it’s one reason why lagers are more often filtered, so particles can’t be seen floating around inside your glass.
“A lot of craft beers are not filtered. Usually, with the American Light Lagers, they are a filtered beer,” Bingel said.
Most of the macrobrews in America are American Light Lagers, like Budweiser, Miller, Coors and Michelob. And Bingel says they are still the largest segment of the global beer industry.
When tasting an ale alongside a lager, one notes that ales, by and large, offer a wider array of flavors and greater complexity than lagers generally offer. Lagers can vary in maltiness, and brewers can still play with different grains and hops, but lagers are much lighter and less hoppy than ales.
Bingel says the thing that truly differentiates ales and lagers is how they’re made. With both types, the hue and darkness can be attributed to the roast of the malts used. The darker they’re roasted, the darker the beer.
But ales are fermented at higher temperatures.
“Ales are beers that are fermented at a higher temperature, typically 55, 60 degrees [Fahrenheit]. They give a more grainy flavor to it,” Bingel said.
Lagers, conversely, are fermented in temperatures ranging from the high 40s to the low 50s. 
For both ales and lagers, Hauptly-Pierce says fermentation takes about one to two weeks, but the process further diverges after that because lagers need an additional six to eight weeks in storage at temperatures around 34 degrees, just above freezing. Bavarians making the original Pilsners would use caves since modern refrigeration wasn’t an option. Lagers owe their name to the German word “lagern,” which means to store.
Lagering gives the yeast time to clean up its mess of untasty byproducts.
“I think that’s why people like lagers, because lager yeast cleans itself up in the lagering process and leaves almost no trace of its passing. It has no flavor that it imparts and the malt that they’re using is 40 percent rice to start with,” Hauptly-Pierce said. “So, I honestly think the people drinking those big American lagers don’t like flavor.”
But Bingel, who carries mostly ales in his store, isn’t so quick to condemn lagers. He says they must be doing something right if they continue to dominate the market. 
 
Say dunkel
There are dozens of different ales and only a handful of lagers at any given beer store. And more often, craft brewers are making ales. Hauptly-Pierce says this is partly because it would cost him three times as much to use vats for lagering when he could be brewing a new batch.
“We’re not going to be doing lagers for a long time, just because I can’t dedicate the tank space. You gotta sit something in a tank for six to eight weeks to lager it, and I only have three tanks in total, so I can’t do that,” Hauptly-Pierce said. 
The main categories of lagers, according to Bingel and others, are as follows:
Helles: a pale lager in which most American Light Lagers and Czech Pilsners are included. 
Amber: This includes Vienna-style lagers like Sam Adams’ Boston Lager and the Oktoberfest style.
Bock: a dark amber to brown-colored beer that’s stored longer and usually has a higher alcohol level than most lagers.
Dunkel: a dark lager that lends a full-bodied and malty richness but is not as heavy as its dark ale cousins. 
There are a few subcategories or hybrids of these main categories and some specialty lagers that use ingredients like herbs, spices, fruit and more. But ale variants are far more common.
The main categories of ales, according to Bingel and others, are as follows:
Pale ale: The lightest ales include the hugely popular India Pale Ales (extra hoppy), Bitters and ESBs (Extra Special Bitter). 
Amber/Red ale: defined as a light and smooth beer with a reddish hue.
Porter: a sweet and darker brown ale sometimes accompanied by coffee notes with a wide range of hoppiness.
Stout: Originally marketed as a stronger and darker type of porter, stouts are creamy and thick, often with chocolate notes.
Wheat beer: As the name suggests, it’s brewed with a high proportion of wheat relative to malted barley; it’s pale to golden in color and often served with a lemon or orange wedge.
Blonde beer: The most lager-like of the ales, it is golden, well-balanced and made through cold fermentation.
For each of these categories there are up to half a dozen subcategories, and some other ales might defy easy categorization because they can be made in so many different ways. There are sour ales, trappist ales, strong ales (like barleywine or scotch ale, which can have an ABV of up to 10 to 15 percent), fruity specialty ales, spontaneously fermented ales (like lambics) and saisons.
“Saison is sort of a very open category. It was originally brewed for Belgian farmhands to drink while they were working. So, it was usually low alcohol and it was only brewed with seasonally available ingredients because that kept it cheap,” Hauptly-Pierce said. 
As far as imperial red goes, the term “imperial” was once ascribed to beer made in England and shipped to Russia, but most craft brewers today use the term to signify that a beer is bolder and stronger, with more malts and hops used and often resulting in a higher ABV. 





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