Beer is one of the most well known alcoholic beverages and outsells all other alcohols on a global scale. It is considered to be the third most popular beverage after water and tea and can be found at any backyard barbecue or outdoor event but even at fine restaurants.
Over time, beer has developed a reputation for being a “hooligans” drink of choice. From the straw sucking beer hats worn at football games to the keg being guzzled at a frat party, the less expensive, yet more popular beers are somehow a sign of good times and have become intertwined and weaved into popular culture and social traditions.
In this particular guide we’re going to focus on all types of beer but I’m going to try and place an emphasis on some of the more respectable craft beers that should really be savored rather than slammed. I will be leaving out the cheap bargain-shop style brews and focus on ones that leave you in a state of bliss and reflection, not in the back of a police car singing to yourself.
If you’re like me and enjoy a cold beer on a hot summer day while you stand over the grill, this could be the guide for you.
The History of Beer
It is without question that beer is one of the oldest beverages in the world, dating as far back as pre-pottery Neolithic. In fact, when historians located The Ebla tablets, in 1974, they found that the City of Elba had produced a range of beers as far back as 2500 BC. If that wasn’t enough evidence, scientists found chemical evidence that proved barley-made beer was regularly produced as early as 3500 BC at Godin Tepe in the Zagros Mountains near western Iran. There is documented findings that show people even prayed for recipes for beer to the goddess Ninkasi. The song called “The Hymn to Ninkasi” was both a prayer to remember the recipes as well as a reminder of the recipe itself.
In 9500 BC, cereals began to be harvested and records from ancient Egypt and Iraq have led historians to believe that not only was this for the purpose of crafting beer, but it even led to colonization and the development of complete civilizations of people who gathered around the farms for access to the beer.
It wasn’t just in these part either that beer was made. Another form of beer was being produced across China in 7000 BC using a recipe that featured malted rice and fruit.
Four thousand years before China, beer was being spread across Europe by tribes who brewed it as they traveled. These Celtic tribes used fruits, plants, spices and honey they found and created this fermented beers without any hops being added. While it is certainly classified as a technical beer, it is unlike anything you would find on the supermarket shelves today.
In fact, it wasn’t until 822 that hops were first added to beer by Carolingian Abbot and later in 1067 by Abbess Hildegard of Bingen. Prior to that, narcotic herbs were used as well as various starches and plants.
Then, in the year 1516, William IV, the Duke of Bavaria introduced the Reinheitsgebot (purity law) which became the oldest quality control regulation still used to this very day. Since there was such a wide variety of production methods and it was unlikely you could find a consistent beer in the market, William IV, a lover of beer, decided to mandate that all beer met only be made with three ingredients which included and were limited to water, hops and malted barley.
Beer was so popular that not only was it made domestically, but European monasteries even began to take a part of the pie.
During the industrial revolution, the beer industry took a swift turn and went from being produced by small batch artisans to industry production where it was manufactured in bulk for sale.
Since then the process of brewing beer hasn’t changed significantly. The only four feats worth mentioning include the creation of an industry-changing technique known as coke-fired malting which allowed the brewer to create the modern pale ales we find today with far more control and ease. By employing this technique, brewers had far greater control over the finished product which allowed them to create a greater range of beer styles.
Arguably more important than that was Louis Pasteur’s work in the 19th century which gave breweries an in-depth understanding of exactly what role yeast actually played in the fermentation process. If not for Mr. Pasteur, there would still remain an inability to control biological contamination. In addition, his work was instrumental in developing modern pure-strain yeast culture techniques. Then, in the early 20th century, brewers were given new ways of controlling the results of their product on a more consistent level with the invention of hydrometers and thermometers.
Today the beer industry is a global empire, led by a few global companies and followed by thousands of small batch, local breweries. Each year, the industry sells more than 135 billion litres of beer around the world with revenues that exceed $300 billion. There is no alcoholic beverage on the planet that comes close to outselling beer, regardless of where you are in the world.
Regardless of what style of beer you drink, the production process and ingredients remain virtually identical no matter where the beer is brewed.
Unlike other alcohols, the production process of making beer is called Brewing. Beer that’s made for commercial use is made in a building that is referred to as a Brewery, whereas beer produced for non-commercial use is called Home Brewing, regardless of whether or not it’s actually made in a home. While many countries still outlaw home brewing, some developed countries capable of restricting it have relaxed their regulations and laws which allow regular people to purchase home brewing kits and make their own beer in the comfort of their residence. While some home brewers have managed to successfully create stunning beers, to do so takes an incredible amount of patience and hard work, and most people who buy these all-in-one kits will never achieve the level of quality found in even the most basic of domestic beers.
In fact, the ability to home brew as a hobby only became legal in the United States in 1978, trailing a decade later than the UK and six years after Austrailia. Since the restrictions were lessened, it has become a popular hobby, even resulting in some micro breweries opening on a commercial level based on recipes perfected by the home brewer.
In order to make beer, the starch source is converted into a sugar based liquid called the Wort which uses yeast to convert the wort into beer.
The starch source in the beer you drink is what’s primarily responsible for the flavor profile and strength of the brew. This is an important thing to note as you can often figure out what types of beers you enjoy based on the starch in the product. This way, when you decide you want to try something new, you can narrow down the search by eliminating beers that contain the same type of starch used in any beer you don’t thoroughly enjoy.
Of course the most common type of starch found in beer is grain. Like water, grain can take on a variety of flavor and aromatic profiles based on its geographical location. The grain is malted by allowing it to soak in water which causes germination. Once it’s partially germinated, it’s dried in a kiln which produces the enzymes needed to convert the starch into a fermentable sugar. A steadfast rule for determining the level of germination is the color of the beer. Darker beers are caused by a darker malt.
The first step once a starch is selected, is to prepare the wort by mixing the starch with hot water.
Beer, like the human body, is mostly made up of a water source. While most people don’t sit back and think about it, the source the water comes from, like with whiskey, pays a very important role in how the beer turns out. As an example, the reason stouts like Guinness are so thick and malty is because of the hard water in the region. The same can be said for most lagers and pale ales. This is why some regions are more suited to making beer than others and why many of the top rated beers sold today are found to be made in the same geographical locations.
The process of mixing the starch with the hot water is called “mashing”. The hot water (called “liquor” by the breweries) is mixed with a crushed malt or a selection of malts (called “grist”) in a mash tun for around 1 or 2 hours at which point the starches convert to sugar. Once it’s converted, the sweet wort is drained and the grains are washed in a process called “Sparging”. What this does is allows the brewer to obtain as much of the liquid from the grain as possible. This filtration process is called “Wort Seperation” where the wort and sparge water are separated from the used grains.
The traditional process for wort separation is lautering, which is why the vast majority of the starch used in beer is malted barley. The reason breweries like malted barley is because it has a very fibrous hull which remains attached to the grains during the threshing process. When the barley is milled, the hull breaks apart into large pieces which end up acting as a natural filter when the sweet wort is separated from the grain. In addition to barley, some of the other grains often found around the world in beer include rice, rye, corn, oats and wheat. Another ingredient called sorghum is used in gluten-free beer and has recently became popular with the gluten-free trends sweeping North America and parts of Europe. The sorghum is used in lieu of barley or any other grains and therefore has a distinct taste which can often be a turn off for those who enjoy classic beer flavors. I say this, because it’s important to remember that when hosting any event, just because you enjoy a gluten-free diet, doesn’t mean your guests will. Make sure you also provide an option for those who aren’t opposed to gluten, just as you would hope they would provide a non-gluten variety for you.
Most breweries use what’s called a “Continuous Sparge”, that collects the wort and sparge water at the same time. For breweries that make light beers, they forgo this process and collect multiple washes with a method called “Runnings” using the spent grains for each separate batch. By doing so, it creates a weaker wort which results in a lighter (or weaker) beer. This is what it means when you hear that the beer underwent a “Parti Gyle Brewing” process.
Once the sparging process is complete, the sweet wort is place in a kettle, also known as a “Copper” where it’s rapidly boiled for an hour which allows the water in the wort to evaporate.
Many people have heard the word “hops” and know it’s an integral ingredient in beer but often don’t understand why. Hops is actually a flower that grows in something called a hop bine. It’s used predominantly for flavoring the beer and as well help preserve it. It’s the flower that’s from the hop bine that is called “hops”.
As you read above, hops weren’t introduced until around the thirteenth century. Before that and even after for a short time, beer was flavored using other plants, herbs, fruits and other naturally grown edibles. While a few breweries still produce beer flavored with other plants, hops is a primary ingredient that is found in 99% of all beers sold today.
The reason that hops is used is because it has a number of desirable benefits. Since hops are so bitter, it helps to balance the sweetness of the malt and can be added based on how bitter the brewery wishes to make their beer. In addition to bitter notes, the hops also offer a natural floral, herbal and citrus flavor profile to the beer. One of the more unique characteristics of the hops is that it causes the “head” (foam) that drapes over the top of the beer once it’s poured. The head retention is due to the antibiotic effects that work in conjunction with the yeast in the beer helping to preserve it and maintain its quality until it’s fully consumed.
The hops are added during this boiling process to add the bitterness that we find and enjoy in beer. As it continues to boil, brewers introduce the hops at various stages to alter the taste and aroma. The reason that hops are introduced in a variety of stages throughout this process is based on how bitter the brewer wants the beer to be. The longer that the hops sit in the boil, the more bitterness they contribute, but the flavor and aroma ends up getting reduced. By adding hops are variable intervals, they can maintain bitterness but also flavor and aroma.
Once the hour is up and the boiling process is finished, the now hopped wort is allowed to cool or is passed through a small vat called a “Hopback” that is filled with more hops to increase the flavor profile before being introduced to the yeast.
The yeast metabolizes the sugars from the grains which is what causes the beer to become alcohol. In addition, it also provides some additional flavors to the overall profile of the beer. This process is called “Fermentation” and can last anywhere from a week to many months depending on the strength of the beer and the type of yeast used in it.
The final ingredient added to beer is a clarifying agent which results in a bright and clean beer, rather than a cloudy appearance which can still be found in some beers today such as Hoegaardin. There are a number of agents used which are often found in natural environments. When you see a beer advertised as a “vegan” beer, it simply means that the clarifying agent used was seaweed.
This process is often carried out in a primary stage followed by a secondary stage. During the primary stage, most of the alcohol is produced. If the beer requires a longer fermentation process to ensure it’s finished to the exacting standards of the brewery, a secondary fermentation is carried out. Once the beer has been completely fermented it is ready to be placed in kegs, bottles, cans or a variety of other packaging for sale to the public.
Types of Beer
Despite a fairly rudimentary production process, there are still a wide variety of styles of beer available globally. The types of beer are usually a direct reflection of the geographical location the brewery is located in and the ingredients used in it’s production.
In this guide, we’re going to focus on a few of the most popular types of beer.
A Lager is by and large, the most popular beer in the world. It’s a cool fermenting beer that’s named after the German term “lagern” which means “to store” since most Bavarian breweries used to store their lager in caves so it would remain cool during the hot summer months. As lager sits in a cool environment, it continues to ferment slightly which clears it of any sediment often found in other beers.
Lagers are made using a cool bottom fermenting yeast called Saccharomyces pastorianus and undergoes its primary fermentation process at just 45-54°F before being given a secondary fermentation at a cooler 32–39 degrees. For lager, this second fermentation process is called the “lagering phase. It’s during this phase that the beer clears itself of any sediment and improves in quality which results in a cleaner tasting beer. Since the beer is so popular, most lagers only get stored for up to a month, so it’s never a bad idea to purchase the beer ahead of time and store it before consuming.
Ale is another word that is basically a synonym for “beer”. Pale ale is a beer made with a top fermenting yeast called Saccharomyces cerevisiae and a weaker malt. When it comes to the popularity of beer, Pale ale is one of the top on a global scale.
Mild ale is a very malty beer, usually darker in color, with some variations that are light.
Stout beer is my favorite kind of beer. Broken up into three sub categories, stout is also called Baltic porter, Dry stout and Imperial stout. Stout is a dark and heavy beer made with roasted malts or barley and brewed using a slow fermenting yeast. It is often used for cooking and is typically considered an acquired taste and one of few beers that most people either love or hate.
A Wheat beer is exactly what it sounds like; a beer that’s brewed using a significant amount of wheat, but still often containing barley as well. The beer is brewed with a top-fermenting yeast and the flavor profiles vary dramatically depending on the brewery that produces it.
Lambic beer is a Belgian beer that is naturally fermented using wild years instead of the most traditional ones. By using wild yeast, the brewer has a great range of aroma and sourness available to be used, which is often why Lambic beer is also an acquired taste.
One thing I really enjoy doing is sampling new beers that I haven’t tried before. This is why I usually will construct my own cases of beer by purchasing single bottles rather than buying a case of let’s say Budweiser.
My favorite type of beer is a stout or cream ale so I’m a touch bias when it comes to recommending bottles. I must admit, I’m not a fan of the lighter beers and I don’t enjoy most of the bargain-bin domestic brands.
Therefore, since I can’t justify recommending a beer I don’t enjoy, I will encourage you to list the beers you like in the comments section below. If you can, please briefly explain what you like about the beer and why you recommend it.
If you would like to know my favorite beers, here is a list of the top three:
Guinness is a thick, creamy dry stout from Ireland with a slightly burnt flavor profile from the roasted and unmated barley. Many people consider this a love/hate beer and it’s very popular for cooking. I myself enjoy this beer at room temperature, but also (don’t judge me) chilled on a hot summer day.
Kilkenny is very similar in style to Smithwicks and is an Irish cream ale from the makers of Guinness. It’s a delicious beer that I think is satisfyingly smooth with this rich milky cream delight.
Innis & Gunn Rum Finish
This is a really fantastic beer from Scotland. It’s a Scottish ale that is aged in rum casks before being bottled which imparts this absolutely exquisite and rich rum finish (hence the name). It’s slightly sweet with notes of caramel, toffee and wood, but the woody and malty finish is what really makes me adore it.
One thing most people don’t take into account is the proper temperature at which to drink beer. While most bars in America will serve a pint of Guinness at an ice cold temperature, to ask for that at a traditional pub in Europe might get you kicked out. Like many drinks, the temperature of the beer has a significant influence on the experience and taste. Beers served at warmer temperatures tend to allow the drinker to enjoy it’s full range of flavors and aromas, whereas beer served at a cooler temperature are far more refreshing. A standard rule of thumb is the lighter the beer the cooler it’s served. For dark, heavy stouts, it’s actually recommended to consume it at room temperature.
Michael Jackson, a famous beer critic and author developed a scale that he had hoped would encourage bars to serve beer at the proper temperatures. He proposed that light beers such as a pale lager should be served chilled at 45°F, wheat beers at 46°F and dark lagers at 48°F. For the regular stouts and specialities, he suggested serving it at room temperature (60°F).
Once a beer reaches a temperature that’s below 60°F, the chill begins to reduce your awareness of the flavor profile and aroma. If you really want to know what your beer is supposed to taste like, try drinking it at room temperature before you chill it.
Beer is often considered the “working man’s drink” and to a certain extent that’s true. However, beer is also something that can be sipped and savored by the most discerning gentleman, perhaps not at a dinner party, but in the privacy of his home on a beautiful day.
With summer here, it’s a great time to try new beers. There is a huge variety available and the flavor profiles are so diverse, it’s virtually impossible not to find a beer you’ll enjoy.
As I said before, I always enjoy trying new beers, so please leave your tips below, not just for me, but for the rest of our readers looking for new and refreshing ideas.