Neil Walker is a foodie-beer geek who writes the Eating isn’t Cheating blog. I met him on a beer press trip to Ghent last December (below – he’s at the far left, looking away), which was a blast. Recently he contacted me to suggest we do a guest blog for each other. So I wrote an article on wine for beer lovers, which he posted on his blog. Now he’s reciprocated, and this is his article on beer for wine lovers.
An introduction to beer for wine lovers
Britain is in the middle of a craft beer boom. It’s a simple fact that there are far more quality, flavoursome beers available to drinkers than ever before.
A surge in the number of smaller UK breweries producing beers inspired by the American Craft Beer revolution, alongside the increasing popularity of traditional British real ale, means that the options open to drinkers are better than they’ve ever been. In other words, there’s no reason to drink boring beer anymore.
The four ingredients used to make 99% of beer are water, malt, hops and yeast. But because there are hundreds of variations of each, the number of beer styles that can be produced—or the recipes which can be followed—are almost endless. And therein lays the beauty of beer, and the reason that most brewers are generally equal parts gastronomic genius and mad scientist.
Most people who drink beer know the aforementioned four ingredients, but may not know which one is giving the beer a distinctive flavour, which of the four is playing the biggest role in making the beer taste how it does—or how they work together, blend, and create the flavour happening in your mouth.
But understanding why a beer tastes as it does is the first step in really enjoying beer, and will also make it easier to find out your personal preferences, likes and dislikes. So here’s what you’re tasting when you drink a quality beer:
Malt refers in most cases to malted barley, but other grains such as wheat or rye are also used in the brewing process to give different characteristics or flavours to a beer.
Different methods of drying and processing the grain create different types of malt: A roasted malt might impart flavours of dark chocolate, espresso, brown sugar, burnt toast or roasted coffee beans into a finished beer, whereas a lighter malt might may give flavours of digestive biscuit, toffee, berry fruits or even hay.
Beers which show off malt flavour include: Black Chocolate Stout by Brooklyn Brewery, Dead Guy Ale by Rogue Brewery, Old Crafty Hen by Greene King, or Titanic Stout by Titanic Brewery.
Hops are a type of flowering green plant with a tight acorn shaped ‘hop cone’ which is used in the brewing of beer. These hop cones contain aromatic oils, and once dried are added to beer at different stages of the brewing process to achieve different results – early for bittering, later for aroma and flavour, and even during fermentation for particularly hoppy beer (a process known as ‘dry hopping’).
Hops play a particularly important role in the new wave of ‘craft beers’ being produced in the UK and abroad. These beers are often described as ‘hop forward’ – meaning they have a distinctive flavour of hops and a bigger hop bitterness – and depending on the hop variety used can have pronounced flavours and aromas of citrus, orange pith, flowers, grapefruit, mango, elderflower or spice – or even pine needles or bubblegum where more exotic hop varieties are used.
Great examples of ‘hop forward’ beers include: High Wire by Magic Rock Brewing, Citra IPA by The Kernel, Diablo by Summer Wine Brewery, Halcyon by Thornbridge and Punk IPA by BrewDog.
As with wine, yeast is pivotal in the production of beer as the active ingredient which converts sugars in the liquid to alcohol, but in many ways plays a more pivotal role, as specific yeast strains are used to impart particular flavours into a beer.
In a Belgian wheat beer for example the yeast used may be responsible for the flavours of clove, coriander, or white pepper that come through, or that distinctive ‘yeasty’ aroma. In other beers, such as a Yorkshire Best Bitter, a yeast with a more neutral flavour may be chosen in order to leave the focus of the beers flavour on hop bitterness, malt richness, or a combination of the two.
Beers which show the characteristics of yeast flavour: La Chouffe Blonde, Duvel, Schneider Weisse Wheat Beer.
The water used in brewing can have a big effect on the flavour of a finished beer, with certain water types being suited to certain beer styles or recipes.
A great example is that of pale ales from Burton-upon-Trent, which became world famous and played a big part in the now well known beer style India Pale Ale. In the 19th century Burton Pale Ales became renowned for their superior hop character and bitterness compared to similar beers brewed elsewhere, but nobody could figure out their secret.
It is now known that what was so unique about Burton, and which made it so well suited to brewing hoppy pale ales, was the water. The water in Burton is particularly high in calcium sulphate, a substance which boosts the flavour of hops making beers more flavourful and bitter. For hundreds of years since then brewers all over the world have been adding sulphate to their water when brewing pale ales, in a process now known as ‘Burtonisation’.
Why not try Worthington’s White Shield, a delicious traditional Burton style India Pale Ale that is famous for its ‘Burton Snatch’ – the slight sulphurous aroma and flavour caused by the water type.
Of course many truly great beers are a balancing act of all of the above, or push one ingredient to the front but have lots else going on. With that in mind, here is my pick of ten craft beers that are either perfectly balanced, or wonderfully complex:
Camden Brewery – Camden Wheat (UK,keg/bottle) – 5% German style hefeweizen
Brooklyn Brewery – Brooklyn Lager (USA, keg/bottle) – 5.2% ‘Vienna style’ lager
Fuller’s – ESB (UK, cask/keg/bottle) – 5.9% Extra Special Bitter
Magic Rock – Bearded Lady (UK, keg/bottle) – 10.1% Imperial Brown Stout
Schneider Weisse – Hopvenweisse (Germany, keg/bottle) – 8.2% Hopvenweisse
BrewDog/Mikkeller – I Hardcore You (UK, keg/bottle) – 9.5% Imperial IPA
Timothy Taylor – Landlord (UK, cask/bottle) – 4.3% Classic British bitter
Summer Wine Brewery – Rouge Hop (UK, cask/keg/bottle) – 5% Red Hop Ale
Thornbridge – Raven (UK, cask/keg/bottle) – 6.6% Black IPA
The Kernel – Export India Porter (UK, keg/bottle) – 6.3% Porter
I’ve tried to choose a selection of beers here which show the diverse range available to drinkers in the UK. Some are available in the supermarkets, most will be available from specialist beer shops or online merchants, and some are best drunk in one of the many excellent craft beer bars cropping up all over the UK.