In the fourteen years I've been with All About Jazz
, a lot has changed in the world. One can no longer get on an airplane without undergoing an MRI and a colonoscopy; the Internet now lives mostly on smartphones and tablets (and phablets, whatever the hell those are) instead of desktops and laptops; Madonna is no longer a completely soulless media whore, she's now more like one of those 'active grandma' types you see in ads for bladder control products.
For all the changes in our world since '01, some things have remained comfortably constant. AAJ has remained a stalwart, bringing you the most and best of Our Music. Starbucks still sells overpriced coffee and acts like they're doing us a favor. Elvis is still dead. And Your Own Personal Genius still has a deep and abiding love of redheaded women and beer.
While I cannot expound upon my love of auburn-haired members of the fairer sex, on the advice of my attorney, beer gives me a virtually inexhaustible resource from which to draw the inspiration to drink more beer. And then write about it.
While my love of beer has not changed one iota (8 iotas = 1 bit. 2 bits = 1 damned bit) since the day I came of legal drinking age in the Commonwealth of Virginia, as far as you need to know, beer has in fact evolved a great deal since the turn on the millennium. The craft brewing revolution has taken the nation by storm (which, while anthropogenic, was not caused by global climate change), replacing the insipid pale yellow 'premium' lagers with any one of 8,000 IPAs distinguishable only by their semi-artistic labels and quasi-clever names.
It does seem like hip little breweries have sprung up virtually everywhere in the last 5-10 years and, like anything, some are better than others. What is astonishing about the new breed of microbreweries is how many good ones there are opposed to how many solidly mediocre ones. Within 2 hours of my hometown of Roanoke, Virginia, there are no less than a dozen very good craft breweries. In fact, there are hundred or so pint factories in my beloved Old Dominion, and each has at least one brew that makes it worth the while (1 while = about 4 bucks) to give them a go.
Undoubtedly, wherever you are, dear readers, there is something interesting happening in the beer scene. Be it a new microbrewery, or just a vastly better beer selection in your local market of choice. Some of you may be, like Your Own Personal Genius, old soaks who've enjoyed beer since the time they were of legal age (as far as you need to know) in their state or country of record. In which case, you don't need my help; but you may want to keep reading anyway because there's a really clever joke coming up. You don't want to miss that.
Some of you may be new to the whole craft beer thing. You may even be a recent pilgrim to the Land O' Suds, one who up until recently "didn't like the taste of beer." That's like saying, "I don't like movies." What kind
of movies? Can you actually say you've tried a large enough sample to rule out all movies? Have you seen Gone With the Wind
, or The Godfather
? Or have you just seen movies where a black comedian plays a hip, fast-talking dude who's surrounded by stuffy and/or racist white folks but eventually wins them over with his wit/wisdom/extraordinary deeds?
Meanwhile, back on the original topic.
One day, maybe a worldly friend showed you the myriad of tastes that can be conjured by a deceptively simple combination of water, malted grains, yeast and hops. You decided you do
like the taste of certain kinds of beer. You've now embraced the world of beer with the passion of a newly enlightened convert. And don't forget, you also have to pick up the kids at 3:30 and then swing by a get your coat from the dry cleaner.
For those of you just discovering this magical Brewtopia, let Uncle Genius give you a brief guide to knowing just enough about beer to get the most enjoyment out of it but not so much pedantry that you become an insufferable asshat.
The Bavarian Purity Law (Reinheitsgebot) of 1487 proclaimed that beer could only contain three ingredients: water, malt, and hops. Yeast was added later, but not officially until 1993. If the Germans have learned anything from the 20th century, it's not to rush into anything. Especially France. But within those simple ingredients lies a virtually limitless number of possibilities. Toast the malt a little longer, get water from a another source or add a different kind of hop, and you've got a different beer.
At this point, the first question most people have is what is the difference between beer and ale? The short answer is, shut your gob and just drink it. Moving past that, though, you will learn that all ales are beer, but not all beer is ale. Ales are the oldest style, made with a top fermenting yeast. This is because early brewers didn't know the important function of yeast, so they didn't think to add any. They simply added remnants of the last batch's sediment as a 'starter' for the next batch. And ale, being resourceful, could simply pull wild yeast from the air around it and become a liquid party all on its own.
Generally speaking, ales are more robust and hearty than lagers. They also ferment faster, due to the type of yeast used, and can be fermented at room temperature. This is why they were the predominant beer for centuries, since the earliest humans discovered the potent brew just in time for their annual Hunter-Gatherer Mixer. They later proceeded to build Stonehenge for no good reason, and construct giant pyramids out in the middle of the damned desert. Those are not the acts of sober people.
Later, once brewers figured out the role of yeast, they discovered a bottom fermenting yeast that could produce a clearer, lighter beer that ferments slower and at cooler temperatures. The lagering process, as it is known because I said so, created a beer that became a huge hit in the United States in the mid-19th century. German and Czech immigrants brought the style over with them and gave people an alternative to the heavier English-style ales they had traditionally consumed. Thus America's passion for lager beers was created, which spawned a concurrent rise in the popularity of massive public sporting events, manufactured housing, and country music.
So, to surmise, ales are robust and low maintenance, while lager beers are crisp and finicky. Think of it as the difference between Kate Upton and Taylor Swift. These are generalizations, of course; there are Swiftian blonde ales and Uptonish black lagers. Then, there are wafer thin Kate Moss-ish ultra-light American beers, like the vaguely beer-scented Michelob Ultra. And don't get me started on the voluptuous Christina Hendricks-ian Imperial stouts and bottle-conditioned quadrupel ales.
When sampling new beers, you may see certain abbreviations. And you might ask, "What the hell's with those abbreviations? ABV? IBU? GMT?" If you'll just calm down for a minute, I'll explain. The first one is fairly simple. ABV means 'alcohol by volume.' Your average can of American macrobrew (Bud, Miller, Coors, et al) is usually around 5% ABV. Craft brews can run anywhere from 3-4% 'session' beers to 10-12%. Paying attention to the ABV can help you regulate your intake. If you can drink a sixer of Bud Light and get a pleasant buzz, six pints of a Belgian strong ale will have you completely pie-eyed and trying to get digits from the St. Pauli Girl poster.
IBU stands for International Bittering Units. A beer with low IBUs is often said to be "malty." A more bitter beer can be said to be "hoppy." And yes, I've already copyrighted the names "Malty" and "Hoppy" for characters in my series of educational cartoons for children, explaining why mommy walks funny after she comes home from an evening out with her friends.
GMT is Greenwich Mean Time, and has nothing at all to do with beer.
The question of what beers to try can be a thorny issue. There are so many catchy names and confusing similarities out there, it can be hard to make the decision which beers to lay out your hard-earned Bitcoins for. The best thing to do is to go to a local microbrewery taproom and order a 'flight' or a 'paddle.' This is a small 4 oz. sampling of their wares, usually served all together in a small box or a wooden board. It's a good way to try 6 or so different beers before committing to a whole pint. Plus, it gives you a weapon with which to ward off that jackass who just downed six pints of Belgian strong ale.
After a while, you will begin to single out several favorite styles. Myself, I like hearty porters and stouts. But I also like Belgian bottle-conditioned abbey ales, German Schwartzbiers, Flanders red ales, English ESBs, Belgian blonde ales and German Kölsch. But that doesn't exclude me from trying as many different beers and styles as I can. Which is probably why my liver is suing for emancipation.
Beer festivals are also becoming increasingly popular, and attract a good sampling of regional brewers. This past summer, I attended both Roanoke's Microfestivus and the Virginia Craft Brewer's Festival (and remember, kids, they're festivals, not carnivals. Don't be expecting thrill rides). This allowed me to try over 70 different beers, in 2 oz. sampling pours, and come home with a new appreciation for several beers I might never have considered before. Among them, a ginger and honey ale, a rye ale, and an Imperial stout made with horopito peppers and then aged in used pinot noir barrels. Go ahead and giggle at the word "horopito," get it out of your system.
You probably also have a pretty decent beer bar nearby. Providing it's not swarming with PBR-sipping hipsters, this is also a good place to get some knowledge. The beertenders have sampled all of their offerings and can guide you through their sometimes daunting beer lists. Once they get to know you, they'll be able to hone in their recommendations based on what they think you'd like or by what is most likely to loosen up your tipping hand.
Don't be afraid to take a chance every now and again. Don't fall into habit, even with your absolute favorite beer in the world (mine is LaTrappe Quadrupel, the Beer in God's Refrigerator®). This is the absolute greatest time in Our Nation's history to be a beer lover. Take in the bounty. Try the style you can't even pronounce, pick up a sixer at the grocery store just because the label looks cool, tell your brewmonger "Bring me something interesting." Just be sure you specify 'beer,' because that's an open-ended request that might just take you somewhere you don't want to go.
Before we dismiss you from reading this article to go and drink some beer, let's cover some of the minutiae it might be handy to know as you build your beer knowledge: Pretzel Necklace
No, this is not some weird sexual position you might try out the next time you've had a few too many. A pretzel necklace is what it sounds like, a piece of string with pretzel twists on it that you wear around your neck at any mass tasting event. The pretzels allow you to cleanse your palate between samplings. And no, guys, having bigger pretzels on your necklace than the other guy does not impress the ladies. Unless they're those big, soft Bavarian pretzels, that'll turn a woman's head. Try it. Growler
A growler is a container that you can purchase at most taprooms which you can bring back and get filled with your favorite for a modest fee whenever you damned well feel like it. They range in size from 32 to 128 oz., though the most popular size is 64 oz. Craft brewing is still a fairly cordial business, so most taprooms don't have a problem filling a growler from another brewery as long as it has the requisite Federal label on it warning that drinking is bad for your health and more lies, lies, lies. Hops
Hops are the female flowers of the hop plant that act as both a natural preservative and flavoring agent. They are known as the 'spice' of beer, so you'll often see different kinds of hops touted as a feature of a particular beer. Commonly used varieties include Willamette, Hallertau, Cascades, and Golding. They can impart anything from a grassy to a citrusy to a bitter note to the beer. It's not necessary to memorize all of them, none of this will be on the quiz. Serving Sizes
A pint, of course, is 16 oz. Unless it's an Imperial pint, in which case it is 20 oz. And craft beers can come in a variety of sizes, such as the previously mentioned 2 oz. and 4 oz. samplers. The average can/bottle of beer is 12 oz., and a 16 oz. can is a tallboy. The 22 oz. bottle, known in brewing circles as a bomber (best known here in the South as a double-deuce). Growlers, we've already covered, but if you've forgotten it already, just scroll up.
Some of the more complex ales may come in a 750 ml. bottle that may look like a wine bottle. Some of them may be bottle conditioned, meaning that there is live yeast added to the bottle and the beer in continuing to mature. These are generally topped with a champagne-like cork which is easily removed by hand, or with your teeth if you're powerful thirsty or unacceptably sober.
Some more complex, higher ABV beers may be dispensed in 10 oz. servings, often in a fancy-looking tulip glass. The tulip glass is to concentrate the aroma, which is imperative to taste, and allow for a fuller experience of the beer. The smaller serving size keeps you from being that jackass who gets hauled out in handcuffs after you decided that pants were just slowing you down.
Well, kids, that should be enough to get you started. Perhaps in a future column, I'll break down different styles and answer any questions you may have about beer. Send questions to me through AAJ. And if you have any beers you would like me to try and give you a rundown, upload them as a .ale file and send them on. Till next time, exit to your right and enjoy the rest of AAJ. Special thanks to local brewers Devil's Backbone, Big Lick Brewing, Blue Lab, Parkway, Sunken City, Soaring Ridge, Chaos Mountain, and Blue Mountain for providing me with the life-giving beer which kept me going through the arduous process of composing this piece.