Great Beers from Europe and the United States are Leading a Renaissance of the Brewmaster's Art
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.
To this day, the original pilsner beer, Pilsner Urquell, still defines the style ("Urquell" means "original source"). Burnished gold in color and capped by a rocky, brilliantly white head, Pilsner Urquell delivers up front the sharp hop snap that makes this style of beer so refreshing. A medium-bodied palate full of bready grain flavor and a slight touch of sweetness balance out the bitterness. The aroma is redolent of Bohemia's famed Saaz hops, prized for their floral, perfume-like character. At a modest 5 percent alcohol by volume, this is a fine beer for everyday enjoyment.
Crisp and light, true pilsners are a perfect accompaniment to seafood, from scallops to cold-smoked salmon. The sharp hops cut though briny flavors while leaving the finest qualities of even delicate fish undisturbed. Once off its home turf, the pilsner style is less steady. There is an "international" pilsner style that is brewed around the world, but its pedigree is less impressive than the German-Czech style. These beers tend to be lighter in color and less bracingly hopped, both in the bitterness and aroma. Sometimes adjuncts--rice, corn and other grains excluded from German brewhouses--make their way into these beers, lightening their color and their characters. Many American "pilsners," a style that includes some of the world's best-selling brands, fall into this latter category. Many of these beers are marvels of technology and quality control, but often without the pronounced flavors of barley and hops.
German barley malt remains as unique as, say, Pinot Noir grapes in France's Burgundy region. As German beers, especially those of Bavaria, get deeper in color, the distinctive flavor of that malt becomes more apparent. The caramel and toffee tones start to step forward in the amber Oktoberfest Marzen-style beers, become more predominant in the soft, dark dunkel style and reach their full expression in the powerful doppelbocks. Bocks are strong lagers, and doppelbocks even more so. With an 8 percent (or higher) alcohol content, doppelbocks abandon all pretense of moderation, reveling in the deep toasty flavors of German malts.
From the pretty Bavarian town of Aying we get an excellent example of the doppelbock style, the aptly named Ayinger Celebrator (the names of doppelbocks have traditionally ended with the suffix "-ator" ever since the Paulaner brewery dubbed the first commercial doppelbock "Salvator" in the early 1800s.) Lagered for six months to achieve a silky smoothness, this nearly black beer sports a malt aroma reminiscent of a baking loaf of brown bread. The dark color is derived from heavily roasted malts, which add their own coffee-ish overtones. The bitterness is just enough to keep the sweet palate from becoming cloying, and the beer finishes long and clear, with a certain warmth signaling its high 8 percent alcohol content. Perfect with stews and wursts, doppelbocks are an excellent example of one Bavarian reference to beer--liquid bread.
Long before American megabrewers happened upon the silly marketing concept known as "ice beer," German brewers perfected the stunning pinnacle of the bock range--the eisbock. A doppelbock is lowered in temperature until some of its water is crystallized and harsh-tasting tannins precipitate. Then the ice is removed, concentrating the beer to about 10 percent alcohol by volume. The result is the Sauternes of the beer world. Kulmbacher's Reichelbräu Eisbock shows this style in its full glory, with both the aroma and the palate packed with malt, toffee, coffee and molasses character. The finish is smooth and miles long. An eisbock has no need of food--it wants a warm wood fire and a fine cigar.
Whereas in Kulmbach beer is subjected to ice, in Bamberg it is tempered with fire. From Bamberg comes an even more creative regional specialty, rauchbier ("smoked beer"). The malt used to make the beer is first smoked over a beechwood fire, which suffuses the beer with a smoky aroma and flavor. The reigning prince of this style is Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier Märzen (just "Schlenkerla" to friends). The smoke is in the forefront of the nose of this amber beer, which has an aroma rather like smoked German sausage with a slathering of barbecue sauce. The palate also shows some smoke, but standard malt flavors come through clearly, backed up by a snappy bitterness. In lesser rauchbiers, the smoke is allowed to overpower the beer, but Schlenkerla holds it all together. Smoked beer isn't for everyone, and I must admit that I was fairly dismayed when I first heard of it. Now it's the first thing I think of with a lot of Chinese dishes--the perfect replacement for smoked Lapsang teas.
When the rulers of Bavaria came up with the Reinheitsgebot, they left in one loophole--for themselves. Only the royal breweries were allowed to make beer from wheat, giving the aristocracy a lock on the wheat beer trade. The royal connection is long dissipated, but we are left with tasty reminders of why royalty might have wanted wheat beers to themselves.
Until recently, wheat beer (known in German as weizen, for wheat, or weisse, for white) had been dismissed as a light summer refresher or a style for stodgy old folks. Today, wheat beers are all the rage again and make up more than 30 percent of the Bavarian beer market. Not bad for a beer style that is probably about 800 years old, and is a throwback to Germany's ale-drinking days.
Wheat beers are made from a blend of malted wheat and barley in which the wheat predominates. The use of a high proportion of wheat produces a beer that is light-bodied yet full-flavored, with a slightly tart edge. Bavarian wheat beers are fermented with a special ale yeast strain that produces a wealth of spicy flavors and aromas associated with the style. These beers are highly carbonated, with a lightly hopped yet snappy palate, a huge creamy head produced by proteins in the wheat and a fruity, spicy, clovelike aroma that is more pronounced in some versions than others. Most of these beers undergo a final fermentation in the bottle (called "bottle-conditioning"), leaving the beer robust, flavorful and cloudy with yeast, in which case it is referred to as hefe-weizen (yeast-wheat).
Among the most refined examples of hefe-weizen is the renowned Schneider-Weisse of Kelheim, brewed by the Schneider family for six generations. Schneider-Weisse has a pleasantly aggressive pinpoint carbonation and a finely tuned aroma of cloves, banana bread, smoke and bubble gum. Expansive and grandly snappy on the palate, it complements everything from light salads to roasted chicken to spicy Thai food.
Schneider-Weisse's doppelbock-strength big brother from the same brewery is called Aventinus, and it has even deeper pleasures to offer. The aroma profile is similar to Schneider-Weisse, but the balance is tipped towards banana, with a hint of chocolate backing it up. The flavors burst on the palate, cruising in smoothly to a clean, warming, spicy finish.
Belgium raises the European brewer's art to its most rambunctious and creative levels. In many ways, Belgium is to beer what Cuba is to cigars; Belgian beers are not for everyone, but to the connoisseur they offer stunning complexity and unparalleled richness. Whereas the Germans stick to the tight script of the Reinheitsgebot, the Belgians throw the rule book out the window and do as they please. Brewing in Belgium is idiosyncratic and old-fashioned at the same time; Belgians brew ales in ancient styles, but no two beers are alike. Every brewery has its own flavor-producing yeast strains and even its own specially shaped glassware.
The most famous Belgian beers are those brewed by the Trappist order of monks within its monasteries. Of these, the best known is Chimay, brewed by the brothers of L'Abbaye de Notre-Dame de Scourmont. Of the three Chimay beers, the most prized is Chimay Bleu, or Grande Réserve. Chimay Bleu carries its 9 percent alcohol with grace, showing dark fruit, nutmeg and black pepper in the nose, with a hint of apple peel. The flavors follow through on a full-bodied, slightly sweet palate with an earthy, yeasty backdrop of raisins and chocolate. The hops take a back seat, serving only to provide a bracing balance. A stellar match with roasted duck, Chimay improves with cellaring, and some connoisseurs will not drink it until it is at least three years old. I rarely manage to wait that long.
At the other end of the Trappist ale spectrum is the ale produced by the brothers of Notre Dame D'Orval, simply named Orval. The distinctive bowling pin-shaped bottle contains a pale ale with a startling orangey color, capped by a rocky white head and an aroma of spicy hops and bright fruit. Sharp, focused hop bitterness gives way to a dry, spicy palate with a citrusy fruit finish. Hop bitterness and bready malt linger refreshingly on the palate. Another bottle beckons.
Some beers aspire to heavenly connections, bearing some relationship to an abbey, but are brewed by secular breweries. These are referred to as "abbey ales," and despite the fact that they are not divinely derived, some of them are very fine in their own right. The most popular styles are dobbel (also spelled dubbel) and tripel, the names referring obliquely to their alcohol contents of roughly 6 percent and 9 percent, respectively. The 500-year-old Roman Brewery of Oudenaarde produces the fine Roman Dobbelen, a nice example of the dobbel style. Deep reddish-brown, this beer is redolent of dark fruit, raisins, chocolate and a touch of coffee. The palate is slightly sweet and caramel-like, countered by a broad bitterness and finishing with a clean hop snap.
One tripel is the Affligem Tripel, a deep golden beer with an effusive white head and a perfume-like aroma, showing plenty of pear and a touch of anise and ripe cantaloupe melon. Yeasty, hoppy, fresh and spicy on the palate, the warmth of the alcohol gives the beer an almost spirit-like quality. A long, earthy, fruity finish rounds it off. This beer virtually begs for a pork loin roast, but will settle for pheasant or a free-range chicken.
Some Belgian beers defy categorization and simply become icons unto themselves. One such beer is the popular Duvel, brewed by the Moortgat family of Breendonk. Taking the opposite tack to the abbey breweries, the Moortgats appealed to a lower authority and named their beer after the Flemish word for the devil. Certainly, the beer is seductive and deceptive enough. The very pale yellow color masks a beer that contains more than 8 percent alcohol by volume. The beer is bottle-conditioned and virtually erupts into the glass, raising a massive stark white head. The nose is perfume-like, full of hops, pear, brandy and citrus. Light-bodied but flashy on the palate, the beer is full of spicy flavors backed by hay and a hint of tobacco. The palate signs off with a snap of hops and a spicy aftertaste warmed by alcohol. Brilliant with a wide variety of foods, Duvel is often referred to as the "Champagne of Belgium."
Certain styles of beer evolved to serve the same purpose as rustic table wines. Farmhouse beers were once abundant in the countrysides of Belgium and northern France. Some are still going strong. The Belgian farmhouse, or saison, style is best represented by the Dupont Brewery of Tourpes, which produces the fantastic Saison Dupont. You can still buy fresh eggs at the Dupont brewery, which is admirably close to its farming roots.
The beer is so full of live yeast that the bottle appears vaguely crusty on the inside. The bottle lets loose its cork with champagnelike vigor. Golden, churning, almost chunky and powerfully aromatic, this beer raises up a head so stiff one could float a quarter on it. A blast of apples, yeast, grapefruit and coriander forms an appetizing aroma. The beer is bracingly bitter up front, following through with a dry, sprightly, spicy palate. The finish is clean, dry and refreshing, with a lingering impression of fresh earth and cut hay. I'm still trying to find food that Saison Dupont doesn't go with. A nice garden on a summer's day, some lightly chilled Saison Dupont and a medium-bodied spicy cigar form the cornerstone of my idea of perfect leisure.
Most brewers go well out of their way to ensure that sour flavors do not appear in their beers. For some Belgian brewers, however, sourness is just another paint on the palette. The red ales of Flanders are often mouth-puckering in their sourness, a quality that is softened by aging in wood. Rodenbach Grand Cru is the granddad of these ales; the red color is derived partly from a long maturation in varnished oak vats three stories tall. Rodenbach Grand Cru shows a bit of its sourness even in the nose, but raisins, caramel and Madeira are also prevalent. The sourness hits the palate with a tart smack, but quickly reveals an interplay of oak tannins, bright fruit and rock candy, rolling through to leave a somewhat tannic oakiness in its wake. It is a terrific beer to serve with strong cheeses and gutsy salads.
The Payottenland region of Belgium is home to the lambic beers, the world's oldest commercially produced beer styles. Whereas other modern brewers carefully ensure that wild yeast is excluded from their brews, lambic brewers take the opposite route, flinging the windows open and inviting nature in. This is the way beer was fermented hundreds of years ago, when even the most accomplished brewers didn't know what yeast was, and all beers underwent "spontaneous fermentation" by wild yeast and bacteria. Try this in most places, and you'd probably end up with an unfortunate result, but the microflora in Payottenland produce some of the world's most complex beers.
Lambics are wheat beers of more conventional strength, but spontaneous fermentation and aging in wooden barrels give them fruity, funky aromas and sharp sour palates. Behind the sourness is a riot of earthy, toasty flavors and aromas, comparable to the finest blue cheeses. Lambics are often aged in wood for years, becoming quite assertive in character.
(In the United States, you are likely to find a version called "gueuze," which is a blend of old and young lambic beers; the blend softens the sour edge without sacrificing all the complexity of the older beer. Traditionally, lambic beers are bottle-conditioned and flintily dry, but many brewers have caved in to the public sweet tooth and added sugar to their beers.)
Frank Boon of Lembeek, in Payottenland, produces some of the finest traditional lambic beers available. His Boon Mariage Parfait is his best gueuze blend. Golden and spritzlike, Mariage Parfait has a fresh herbal nose, with an earthy background of wet wool and lemon peel. The palate is pleasantly sour with a focused tang, with a complex interplay of earth and fruit flavors. It finishes very dry and clean. It is the beer equivalent of a great Stilton cheese, which it complements nicely.
Long before anyone thought to put hops into their beer, they experimented with all sorts of ingredients, including fruit. These were lambic beers, and in Belgium, they still are. The most popular additions are raspberries (framboise) and sour cherries (kriek). When poorly made, these beers can be mere cartoons, but in the right hands they become works of art.