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Beer Here

Great Beers from Europe and the United States are Leading a Renaissance of the Brewmaster's Art
Garrett Oliver
From the Print Edition:
Demi Moore, Autumn 96

Benjamin Franklin once said that "beer is our best proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy."

For millions of beer lovers worldwide, Franklin's pronouncement is as close to an absolute dictum as has ever been made. But for most beer drinkers, beer is nothing more than a pale golden liquid pouring through a pop-top. They don't understand its mystery. They don't fathom that, in fact, the product of the brewer's art is one of the most complicated, and oldest, creations in the world.

Americans are just discovering the vast array of beers that are available, both in the world of imported beers and from the handiwork of American brewers on the cutting edge who are attempting to duplicate the styles of many foreign and traditional beers. Whereas there were fewer than 40 breweries left in the United States 20 years ago, today there are more than 800, with another one opening its doors almost every week.

But just what is beer? Before he even turns his eye to technique, a brewer must be familiar with water chemistry and choose among a dizzying array of malts, roasted grains and unmalted grains, dozens of varieties of hops and hundreds of strains of yeast. His goal is to capture some of the many combinations of wonderful and complex flavors, marvelous elixirs worthy of the finest food. His "style" will be determined by everything from the malt and hops used, to the mashing techniques, through the yeast strain, fer- mentation temperatures and the packaging. In the finished product,the style will come forth, often hinting of variations on the basic formula, and almost always making the beer more interesting.

Great beer begins with barley, the foundation of most beers. The barley seeds are sprouted during a steeping and drying process called malting. The barley, now referred to as malt, arrives at the brewhouse packed with natural enzymes. The brewing process starts by mixing crushed malt with hot water at very precise temperatures, becoming a mash. Over the course of an hour or two, the enzymes in the malt convert the malt starches into a sweet liquid called the wort. The malt sugars are rinsed away from the barley husks and the wort is collected in a kettle, where the essence of the hop is extracted by boiling. The flower of the tall, vigorous hop vine (the white sheep of the cannabis family), adds bitterness, flavor and aroma to beer. The hop is basically a spice, and is varietal like wine grapes. Without it, beer would be sweet, cloying and ultimately unsatisfying. The hopped wort is cooled and sent into a fermentation vessel where yeast is added and works its wonders, transforming homely sweet wort into glorious beer. Sound simple? In some ways, it is. But, like many simple things, it isn't.

When it comes to mastering all the tiny details, no one understands beer like the Germans. Whereas German car engineers supposedly have Fahrvergnugen, German brewers have Reinheitsgebot. The Reinheitsgebot, or Bavarian Purity Law, dates back to 1516, when it was decreed that beer could only be made from malted barley, hops and water. The Bavarians later added yeast to the list (when they discovered what it was) and made a special proviso for wheat beers.

German beer is famous for its purity of flavor. Whereas brewers in other countries often add cheap corn and rice to barley, German brewers have stayed the course. Most German beers are lagers, which distinguishes them from the other great family of beers, the ales. Ales, beers that ferment quickly at warm temperatures, derive from an older tradition, and are still the mainstay of England and Belgium.

Lagers burst onto the scene in the 1840s and quickly took the world by storm. Lagers are fermented by a different species of yeast than ales, and this yeast prefers cold fermentation temperatures. After the fermentation, the beer needs to be "lagered," or laid down, to age. This process results in smooth, straightforward malt and hop flavors, without the fruitiness that is characteristic of ales.

The lager yeast was discovered in the 1840s in the deep beer-aging caves of Czech Bohemia and was soon used to produce what is still the world's most popular beer style--pilsner. While the Germans later claimed it as their own and made it popular, pilsner had its start in what is now the Czech Republic.

When the people of Plzen first laid eyes on the beer named for their town, they were amazed. No one had ever seen beer like this before. New technology had allowed brewers to produce very pale malts, and the new lager yeast settled rapidly to the bottom of the fermenting vessel. As a result, rather than dark brown, the beer was deep gold in color and sparklingly clear. Happily, mechanized glass-making was taking hold throughout Europe, and glassware became affordable even to the growing middle class. What better to have in your glass than this spectacular new, clear, golden beer? Out went the clunky old opaque steins, and in rushed pilsner beer.


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