Beer 101 — it's more than what you find at a gas station
What has been one of the most significant beverages throughout human history? Beer.
Beer has been around for more than 2,000 years. Not only has it been a popular option to drink because of poor water supplies and sanitation, but it also has provided sustenance because it is basically liquid bread.
Many early civilizations’ agriculture centered on beer production besides food.
Unfortunately, many Americans view beer as a low-brow, cheaper alternative to other spirits, especially when compared to wine. But it is much more than a frat party, sporting event and Homer Simpson staple.
One of the biggest misconceptions, in my opinion, is that all beer is the same and hails from Bavaria. Peruse through a well-stocked liquor store and you will find it is nothing of the sort.
A good beer selection can leave many people just as confused as trying to pick out a good bottle of wine. It also can be paired with meals similarly to wine.
So where does a newbie begin this journey? I’ll start with explaining a few of the geographic regions of beer and some beers available in most liquor stores that are not Coors or Bud Light.
First of all, the main ingredients for beer are water, hops, some type of malted grain and yeast — hops for bitter, tangy flavors and malts for sweet flavors.
Beer is generally divided into two main types: ales and lagers.
Ales are top-fermented beers at warmer temperatures with thicker yeast heads after fermentation. These are your stouts, porters and wheat beers.
Lagers have yeast settle at the bottom in cooler temperatures after fermentation and have a cleaner taste. Examples are pilsners, dortmunders and blocks.
WEISSBIER or HEFEWEIZEN BIER (wheat ale) from Germany
Germany is the most recognized country in terms of beer, partly because it holds the world’s largest festival: Oktoberfest. Anyone who has ever been to Germany knows the Germans take beer making seriously.
The basic recipe and the specific yeast used are literally a government-kept secret. Luckily for us, they export. While the country produces many kinds of beer, they are the masters of the weissbier. Translated, it means “white beer,” and its name comes from the color of the wheat. They are mildly hopped and have a slightly sour/spicy flavor with a clean finish.
While Oktoberfest in Munich is an amazing experience, Frühlingsfest in Stuttgart offers the same great beers and fun during the springtime. Many brauhauses throughout Germany allow visitors to make tours.
If you have the chance while in Germany or are lucky enough to find an imported Radler, definitely try it. It is a mix derived from weissbier and lemonade. This delightful pick was originally created for lower-alcohol content so bicyclers could drink and ride (hence its name, shortened from “Radfahrer”) without much difficulty. To some this may sound odd, but it is very refreshing and light; popular among ladies.
Pair with: Spicy pork, chicken and fish dishes Other beers: Hofbrau München, Erdinger, Schneider Weisse and Maissels Weisse
PILSNER (pale lager) from the Czech Republic
This beer was developed in what is now the Czech Republic in the Bohemian city of Pilsen near the German border. While it is lager, many do not treat it as such. Using a slightly malted barley, this beer differs with its light and not-as-smoky flavor compared to many German beers.
Honestly, this is what I believe most people think of when they are thinking of a simple, good beer.
The Czech Budweiser (known as Czechvar in America and Canada; not to be confused with America's Budweiser) is an awesome pilsner. Pilsner Urquell and Tuzlanski are good choices, too.
Pair with: Pilsners are the big daddies of the beer world because you can pair them with just about anything. I think these are the best choice if you’ll be eating fried, fatty or cheesy foods such as pizza. You also could try them with lighter dishes, such as fish and seafood.
IRISH STOUT from Ireland; IMPERIAL STOUT and PORTERS from England
There are many variations of stouts. Historically, there are no major differences between stouts and porters, so I will combine them here. Stouts and porters are a roasted barley beer.
The term “stout” is fairly generic for beers that are heavier and much darker. But you can find chocolate, coffee and other flavored varieties.
Ireland is the most famous for stouts with global brands like Guinness. Keep in mind that these brands are brewed in many countries, and local versions will differ in taste.
If you don’t want to jump on the Guinness bandwagon, look for Murphy’s or Beamish.
Imperial Stout (also known as Russian stout) originates in London and was exported for Catherine II of Russia. It was bought and renamed to Courage Imperial Russian Stout. It usually runs more than 9 percent alcohol content.
Porters also originate from England and evolved from a brown beer. These are dark beers that became less strong after grain restrictions during World War II in England.
English brewers did not change their recipes after the war, and Ireland did not have the same grain restrictions. That’s why Irish stouts tend to be stronger than the English porters today.
Fuller London Porter and Samuel Smith’s the Famous Taddy Porter both earn high marks.
Pair with: Meatier dishes with gravies, stews and desserts to counterbalance the bitter flavors common among stouts and porters; can be really good with apple pie
There are many other types of beer available from other places in the world. Austria, Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark and Poland have popular beers.
Austrian beer tends to be a little darker but similar to the full-bodied German Märzen. Stiegl should please those wanting something a bit fuller than a weissbier.
Belgium and the Netherlands love lighter lagers and Flemish reds. The Dutch brands Heineken and Amstel are easily recognized. The Belgian brands Trappistes Rochefort and Westmalle are good to try.
Denmark deserves mentioning if you are more daring. Carlsberg is a decent Danish beer with average alcohol content, but Denmark offers some with a whopping 12 percent. That’s as much as some wines.
Poland is a quiet haven for some beer purists. The city of Cieszyn has two breweries. Brackie still processes its beer in the medieval tradition. For me, it was bitterer than any other stout.
Mexico has several beer companies. Many tribes had their own fermented beverages made with corn, but European beer processes with barley were not introduced until the Spanish arrived in the 16th century.
The Mexican beer industry took off after German immigrants brought their skills. Many are similar to German and Czech beers. Corona is the top-selling non-domestic beer in America and the UK. Other brands include Dos Equis, Sol and Tecate.
For those unfamiliar with beer and wondering why there is such a difference between imported beers and the big American brands, here’s a short explanation: The big brands use rice instead of wheat or barley. On top of that, they pasteurize the beer and later add the carbonation back into it. It does make a huge difference in the taste.
But for me, there are a few unsung heroes of the American beer industry. I’m glad to see more mircrobreweries.
Sam Adams is a safe choice when you want a good beer but do not want to pay the extra expense for an import. Sam Adams offers seasonal flavors and carries many regular varieties.
Boulevard is easy to find, and the wheat beer is a good alternative to a German weissbier. Another domestic beer that’s a favorite with women is Blue Corn out of Sante Fe.
Oklahoma also produces a variety of local brews, including Choc in Krebs and Coop in Oklahoma City. Fresh from the source is the best way to experience beer.
This is just the tip of the iceberg. There are so many beers in the world with individual flavors and styles, it is impossible to list them all.