If someone were to ask you what the very best day of the year was, you might say Christmas Day, because you love your family and the spirit of togetherness that goes with the holiday. You might say your partner’s birthday, because spoiling the love of your life is the purest joy you can think of. You might even say ‘every day’, because you can’t stop yourself marvelling at the miracle of life and the beauty of nature, and your gratitude for just waking up each morning knows no bounds.
Well, you’d be wrong. It’s 5 August: International Beer Day. An occasion dedicated to imbibing the noblest drink on earth, hopefully in great quantities.
But what if you don’t know your pilsner from your pale ale? Your lager from your stout? What if you favourite beer since teendom has been Stella? With London’s Craft Beer Festival on the horizon, we think this is the perfect opportunity to buff up on your lager lingo and hone your taste for hops. So pour out a pint and sip with our bluffer’s guide to beer.
Want to start a bar fight? Ask a roomful of craft beer enthusiasts to define their favourite sup. Depending on who you ask, both the definition of the beer itself and the very need to officially characterise the amber nectar is a deeply contentious issue. But even among diehards, if you can push them to explain, any definitions will be similar in their fundamental lack of information.
In a nutshell, a beer is considered ‘craft’ when it is made by a small, traditional, independent brewery. If you want to get more technical (or add your two cents to the punch-up), craft beer tends to rely heavily on hops, a variety of yeast types and adjuncts – added, non-beery ingredients (chilli, tobacco, sourdough yeast). The one firm rule is that it isn’t brewed by multinational companies who then stick a hipster label on the bottle.
Craft Beer vs. Real Ale
You only need to know one thing: they’re not that different. Historically, real ale was classified as cask-conditioned, locally made beer, served traditionally, without additional gas pressure. This went some way to distinguishing it from the mass-produced, bland beers chugged out by big-name breweries.
However, as said breweries jumped on the real ale bandwagon, the term has become a tad diluted, if you will. ‘Craft’ is actually an American term, but it essentially means the same thing. What you will see, however, is that craft beers are branded very differently to good ole British real ales: yes, there’s beards, but they’re better groomed.
What Is Beer Made Of?
Simple: beer contains four main ingredients, and one of them is water. In fact, 95 per cent of beer is water. Depending on where you are in the world, and the minerality of your local H2O, your beer will taste different. Cool, eh?
The good stuff happens when hops (a conical flower) are added, bringing along bitterness and delicious aromas. Did you know, there are more hop varieties than there are types of wine grape? Malt is another key ingredient, as is yeast, the helpful little soldier who converts sugar into beautiful alcohol via a process known as fermentation.
What’s Your Type?
Now you’re ready to get down to the business of drinkin’. But what should you order? Where do you start? Well, craft beers fall roughly into five categories.
These sexy little numbers are hop-heavy, and due to their light, clean notes, go well with most food. See also India Pale Ales.
Tasting notes: citrus, berries, tropical fruit, biscuits, grass
Order: Firestone Walker DBA, Bear Republic Racer 5
Will often rely on a combination of yeast and added flavours (spices, brown sugar, tobacco). Some are light in colour and taste (pales, singles, tripels) while some are dark in colour and body (dubbels, quadruples).
Tasting notes: warm, sweet and autumnal, toffee, caramel, nuts
Order: Allagash Tripel, Delirium Tremens, Saison Dupont
Most beers use 100 per cent malted barley: these fellas, on the other hand, incorporate between 40-60 per cent wheat, resulting in a lighter, fresher, cleaner taste.
Tasting notes: bubblegum, banana, citrus, coriander
Order: Schneider Weisse, Allagash White
Warmer, darker and maltier than their blonde cousins, these tawny brews tend to be sweet and rich. Reds, ambers and browns will have a light-to-medium body, where porters and stouts will have a medium-to-heavy body.
Tasting notes: toffee, caramel, chocolate, coffee, toast
Order: North Coast Old No. 38 Stout, Hangar 24 Alt-Bier Amber Ale, Alesmith Nut Brown, Deschutes Black Butte Porter
Light, crisp and bright, lagers and pilsners are the cheeky chappies of the bunch: will probably get on with everyone, enjoyable without being offensive.
Tasting notes: citrus, herbs, caramel
Order: Victory Prima Pils, Spaten Lager
When tasting beer, although it’s tempting to neck the Godly ambrosia like it’s 6.05 on a Friday afternoon, you’re better off taking your time if you want to get the most out of it. Focus on four key things: flavour, aroma, mouthfeel and appearance.
Taste from a glass where you can, and swirl the drink around a few times while sniffing. See what scents you can pick up: smell is particularly subjective, so don’t worry if your mates can smell coriander and all you can smell is beer.
Take a small sip, and make sure you swallow. Focus on the flavours you pick up at the back of your tongue. Pay attention to the ‘viscocity’ of the liquid (the thickness), and how it covers your tongue. Does it have an aftertaste? Is it dark or light in colour?
What To Say
Given the myriad combinations of ingredients that could end up in your beer, it’s easy to be wing it. However, there are a few things you can say for extra craft kudos.
Hop-forward: for when your brew is extra hoppy. Like ‘fashion-forward’, but better, because beer.
“America makes the best craft beer”: the US rules the craft game. Sorry ’bout it.
Black IPA: order one. It’s a big, black hoppy fella that’ll knock your socks off and impress your chums.
Single hopping: like single-origin coffee. Be disdainful, though. Most single-hop beers are dull, dull, dull.
International Bitterness Units: the higher the better. Bitter is king. IBU for short.
Brett yeast: Brettanomyces, to be precise. A funky, rogue wild yeast that makes unpredictable brews.