A Heretical Guide to Classifying Beer
Growing up in a household in which beer and wine were never served, or even kept in the house, I never acquired an appreciation of beer. To me, there was one kind of beer – very light in color, served out of dirty, plastic coolers, and consumed by very distant and strange relatives at picnics. In high school, this beer was also consumed by a certain crowd: those who played baseball and lacrosse and talked about the kegger at which this straw, light amber, highly carbonated beverage was served in abundance. The lack of a model at home, the exhibition of poor behavior by those who consumed beer, and the general smell and color of the beer was enough to make me turn my nose up at the idea of drinking beer altogether. That is, until I tried my first beer almost an entire year after I turned 21.
My friend and I were at a Mexican-themed restaurant chain near the college. It was here that I bought my first drink. Deciding to commit all the way, I ordered one that came in a 25 ounce can. This, a pilsner lager I would later learn, had a light golden amber hue and gave off a mild malty aroma. As I drank it, it had just a hint of sweetness with just enough bitter to categorize it as beer. Of course, being my first drink ever and having nothing to eat prior to drinking, I received the full force of its 4% alcohol per volume and felt the buzz almost immediately. This, of course faded as my friend and I ate. Later we would go back to this restaurant and partake of the same food and beverage again.
I didn’t know much about beer then, and I can’t say that I know a lot about it now. But if I did know more, I could talk to you about how beer has been ingrained in cultures throughout the world since Noah’s Ark with the most earliest recorded recipes dating back to 4300 BC. I could talk to you about how the ancient Egyptians brewed beer commercially and had various social traditions associated with beer, such as an Egyptian gentleman offering a lady a sip of his beer, thus announcing their betrothal. I could also talk to you about how the early brewers used balsam, hay, dandelion, and even crab claws for flavoring. I could even go into detail about beer’s various uses during the Medieval period beyond its use for nutrition and celebration. These include tithing, trading, payment, and even taxing. Furthermore, I could go into some depth about how hops were added to the brewing process in 1000 AD, and how 200 years later it became a substantial commercial enterprise in Eastern Europe. I could even share with you some very fun facts like how kings used beer to toast victories and how Queen Elizabeth I of England drank strong ale for breakfast. Furthermore, in the colonial period, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson had their own private brewhouses. Then, as the discussion looms upon modern history, I could even go into some depth about how prior to the 1800s, most beer was really just some variation of Ale. And, of course, Louis Pasteur’s discovery of yeast in 1876 significantly impacted the fermentation process for beer (as well as wine), thus leading to over 2300 breweries in the U.S. in 1880 and Pabst’s ability, alone, to brew 1 million barrels in a year. But, I won’t go into these fun historical facts because this information is easily accessible on beerhistory.com where, in addition to a concise timeline, one can find a list of well over twenty books and articles on this very topic.
If beer were a religion, it would probably the oldest religion in the world with various offshoots and sects preferring barley over wheat, hoppier beers versus sweeter beers, light beers over dark beers, stouts or porters over ales and lagers, and so forth. If beer were a religion, then the prophets of this religion, who describe their beers with terms like “sessionable” and “malt-driven” or “having a balanced interplay between malt and hop bitterness” would cry heresy and burn me at the stake for refusing to adhere to their strict standards of description, all of which can be found on the Beer Style Guide at craftbeer.com.
Now, in my earlier years as a beer novice, I would have given a person a blank stare at the mention of such phrases. Though I don’t anymore, not because I lay claim to any real expert knowledge on the matter, but because I’ve experimented with various beers over the years, mostly at parties that are just as much about trying new and interesting beers as they are about meeting new and interesting people. Here I’ve come to conclude that beers, regardless of the family in which they fall (i.e. lager, pale ale, brown ale, stout, porter, and so forth), all of them, like people, can fit into the following categories: The Eccentric, The Nice Guy/Gal, The Life of the Party, and The Asshole. Hence the almost heretical way in which I intend to set out to describe beer, purposefully moving away from any terminology that demands some technical expertise into this world and choosing instead to describe beer in terms that would be more accessible to the common individual who, like myself, enjoy a good beer and tend to further categorize their beer as follows: Another Round, I’ll Drink it if There’s Nothing Else, or Hell no!
For the purpose of demonstrating this thesis, I chose Sierra Nevada’s Beer Camp Across the World, a collection of collaborative projects containing twelve different kinds of beers. For the sake of brevity and to eliminate redundancy, I have chosen four of these twelve beers to illustrate exactly how these categories might work for the average beer drinker.
Simultaneously intriguing and off putting, the West Coast Style DIPA gives off an aroma almost identical to peeling a grapefruit. However, upon taking your first sip, you experience bursts of sweet citrus in the same way you would if you were biting into a slice of tangerine. The sweetness lingers for a brief moment before it’s overwhelmed by the taste of a sour grapefruit, causing your eyes to squint and your lips to pucker. Upon swallowing, the aftertaste is bitter, but not unbearable. Like meeting an eccentric person at a party who holds your attention until the conversation begins to lag or veers into topics in which you have no interest, you wonder whether this West Coast Style DIPA, boasting of 8.3% alcohol, is something you can, or even should, actually finish. But finish it you do because it feels like such a waste, this far into the pint, to stop. Not only that, but you have no one else to pass it off to and you just feel bad about leaving it alone. To this beer, you might say, “Eh… I’ll drink it again if there is nothing else around.”
The Nice Guy/Gal
The Dunkle Weiss, a German-Bavarian style beer, tries very hard to be well-liked. It is neither inoffensive, nor off-putting. With 5.7% alcohol, this beer smells like a cool spring breeze across a field of grass sprinkled with patches of newly blossoming flowers. Upon your first sip, you are greeted by the familiar taste of cherry candies, like the ones that the old ladies at church carry in their purse. Molasses, mild and watered down, are also noticeable within your first few sips. As you continue to drink this beer, you will also notice hints of cocoa powder, like the air you breathe in through your mouth while pouring hot cocoa mix into a dry mug. This is the mild chocolaty finish you get upon swallowing your first sip, and everyone thereafter. Like the Nice Guy or Gal at the party, everyone spends some time with this beer. Some, like myself, will ask for another round, while others are content with the experience of the single round. However, at some point, you will go back to this beer because it is just perfectly sweet.
The Life of the Party
f the nice guy or gal should suddenly develop charisma, this person would become the one who makes everyone laugh, yet does so in a way that offends no one at all. The Atlantic Style Vintage Ale is one such beer. Upon giving it an introductory sniff, a faint plummy aroma wafts through your nostrils, much like the mist of body spray from five feet away. Upon your first sip, you are greeted by fruit punch and you are taken back to your childhood, sitting on the back stoop in the hot sun, sipping a straw stuffed into a box of juice. It’s pleasant. Yet there is a mild bitterness to this fruit punch taste that enhances, rather than overwhelms the experience. It is much like the taste of tonic water added to the bowl of fruit punch for the purposes of livening up the drink at a dry party. This beer, with its 8.5% alcohol per volume, is a beer that everyone at the party will likely want to drink because the taste is truly something to be experience. The harbinger of this experience – the one who encourages everyone to have a sip – will also be elevated to the same exalted level of “Life of the Party”, even if he or she didn’t even bring the beer. Because of the higher alcohol content and the taste, to this beer I would say, “Another round!”
The Dry Hopped Barley Wine Style Ale clothes itself with the appearance of The Eccentric. The asshole has opinions and makes various and unfounded claims all of which are initially intriguing, but the more you are around the asshole, the more uncomfortable you feel because the asshole has complete disregard for anyone but himself. This beer gives off the sweet, citrusy aroma of orange blossoms and you think, “Yeah! This is gonna be great!” However, when you sip it for the first time, you are reminded of that one time when you insufficiently peeled an orange and suffered the bitter consequences of chewing the remnants of said peel.
However, the bitterness is initially offset by a sweet citrus taste and leaves you with the aftertaste you get when you eat a sour grapefruit. Oddly, there is a mild toffee, almost caramel flavor within each sip, but it’s more like someone decided to further compound the taste by stuffing a Werther’s Original (the chewing kind) inside a slice of the most sour grapefruit they could find. Then, after all of this, you realize how much this beer mimics The Asshole Personality. It boasts a whopping 9.4% alcohol per volume that is guaranteed to turn any well-intentioned person into an asshole as well, should said person decide to have another round. I, for one, never want to put anything even remotely resembling this to my lips and therefore say, “Hell no!”
So from one novice to another, the preceding is a simple way of categorizing your beer. You don’t have to be an acolyte, a beer connoisseur, or even a master-beer craftsman to fluently discuss why you prefer one beer over another. Simply take a sip, take mental notes of its affect on your senses, and categorize the experience accordingly. But I’d recommend trying it at home first with a beer sampler pack and a notebook so as to avoid the distraction of a pesky party filled with assholes who would be delighted to lord over you their claims that they know exactly what a well balanced beverage of malt and hops actually tastes like. Because, you know everyone can go to the produce section of their grocery store and buy hops (whatever that is) so that they can sprinkle it on their salad, toss it into their smoothie, or just eat it raw. But malt, in all serious, can easily be picked up. Go down the Ethnic aisle of your grocery store and pick up a few bottles labeled “malt beverage” and you will know exactly what malt tastes like. But, as for everything else, simply stick to food associations that are familiar to you. Even if some eccentric looks at you like your head is filled with barley, the nice guy or gal and the life of the party will smile with appreciation that you even dared to describe the taste of beer in simple, plain language.