September 7th is National Beer Lover’s Day, and we are living in a golden age of beer. The whole industry has evolved a great deal in the last thirty years, from a time when the market was dominated by lager beers and the craft beer industry was limited. There were a few notable craft exceptions, such as Yuengling and Anchor Steam, but Sam Adams was a long way off. Craft breweries are now growing at an astounding rate, with 725 being in development as of June of this year, and volume of craft beer brewed has grown 14% through the first half of this year. That growth shows no sign of stopping as American craft brewers are exploring different flavors (21st Amendment’s Hell or High Watermelon is a good example) and styles (Dogfish Head revived classic brews through their Ancient Ale series).
The mainstream brewers have been feeling the heat. While they still have a very comfortable share of the overall beer market (Anheuser-Busch ImBev has 53% of it in the U.S.), they recognize the need to diversify their portfolio of beers to adapt to the growth of the craft beer market and the shifting tastes of consumers. Budweiser’s recent acquisition of Goose Island (some feel a reaction to Miller purchasing Leinenkugel’s) shows the power of the craft beer movement. Budweiser went out of their way to ensure the public that Goose Island will still be run in the same way, just with the resources of Anheuser-Busch ImBev behind it.
Beer, in its purest form, can be made with just four ingredients: malted barley, water, yeast, and hops. This was the basis of the Reinheitsgebot, or German Beer Purity Law, one of the first laws dealing with the production of liquor. The staggering number of beers that are available are made with these simple ingredients, prepared in a variety of ways, and in some cases with extra elements and flavors added to the brewing process. That same variety can be broken down into two different overall styles of beer: lagers and ales. All beers, for the most part, fall into one of these two very broad categories.
Lager – This is the most popular beer style in the United States. When you go to a Kroger or Meijer for a beer run, the bulk of the beer that you see are lager beers. From Molson Canadian to Budweiser to Dos Equis, lager beers have a broad range of tastes and flavors. Lager beers are bottom fermenting, which means that the yeast sits at the bottom of the vessel the beer is being fermented in. They also ferment slowly, which means they have to be stored for a while before they are ready for consumption. Lager beers were stored in caves or cellars, developing a beer that is ideally fermented at 40 – 50 degrees Fahrenheit. “Lager” comes from the German word for “store” or “camp”, and that is what the beer does. Most of the lagers you find will contain barley, water, hops, yeast, and rice or corn. It is the rice and corn that many people who love beer will take exception to. They are both used as fillers, which do not add flavor to the beer, and make the beer a little thinner in the mouth. The rice and corn do add some sugar to the brew for the yeast to grab on to, which increases the alcohol content. Most lagers are in the 5% alcohol by volume (ABV) range, but can get as high as 14%. Lagers strive for consistent and milder flavor.
Ales – Ales are very English, and everything that lagers are not. Ale historically was differentiated from beer by the fact that it did not use hops during the brewing process. Hops were later added to offset the sweetness that is imparted by the malted barley, and they have been used for that purpose ever since. Not only do the hops add some balance in flavor, they also preserve the beer. Ales are top fermenting, which means the yeast rises to the top and ferments there, becoming part of the foam at the top of the vessel. Ales are fermented at higher temperature, usually between 60 – 80 degrees Fahrenheit. They ferment very quickly at such high temperatures, which make them a little more volatile and full bodied in terms of flavor. Brewed at too high a temperature, it will release other flavors that may be unintended by the brewer. Most of the ales you will find are pale ales, such as Sierra Nevada Pale Ale or Great Lakes Brewing Company Burning River. Budweiser American Ale is one of the more full bodied ales at your local grocer. Ales range from 3% to 8% ABV, with styles that can go somewhat higher. Ales have a fuller flavor profile, from sweet with more malt or spicier or bitter with more hops. They can also be served at closer to room temperature with little loss of flavor.
The following beer types fall under one of the major styles. You can easily find any of these types in your local grocery store.
India Pale Ale (IPA) – India Pale Ales have been booming in the stores, with most craft breweries creating this intensely flavorful style of beer. Magic Hat’s 9 Hex IPA, Moerlein’s Northern Liberties IPA (from Cincinnati), and Great Lakes Brewing Company Commodore Perry are more popular versions of this type of ale. IPAs were created when English brewers needed to move vast amounts of ale from England to India. The traditional ales Englishmen enjoyed would spoil on the long journey, giving the men there a bad beer to drink. It was discovered that hops helped to preserve the freshness of the beer on the long journey, so the new ales they brewed has higher levels of hops and malt in them, but the hops usually won out. IPAs have a very bitter character to them, depending on the amount of hops in the brew. American IPAs have a little bit more of a grapefruit or citrus note, due to the type of hops that we grow in America. This is a beer style for someone looking for bold flavors with a little more kick, since many IPAs are 6 – 9% ABV.
Witbier – When you are looking for a witbier (“white beer”), look no further than Coor’s Blue Moon for a very popular example of this type of ale. Anheuser-Busch’s Shock Top and Hoegaarden’s Original White Ale are also great examples of this style, made popular in Belgium and Germany. These ales are typically cloudy and light in appearance, due to the use of unfiltered wheat from the brewing process being in the container. Witbier’s flavors come from not only the wheat and high level of carbonation, but also the coriander, orange peel, and other spices that are added during fermentation. Many people like to drink these beers with either an orange or lemon, but that can obscure some of the more subtle flavors. Hoegaarden has even developed its own glass in which to enjoy their beer best. Witbiers are typically 4 – 6% ABV, but some of them can get as high as 10%.
Stouts – Before the barley is malted (allowed to germinate a little before it is stopped, which helps release the sugars for fermenting), it is roasted, which gives the beer a much darker color and deeper, richer flavor. That rich, roasted flavor is often enhanced in American stouts through the addition of chocolate or coffee flavors, sometimes hops are also added to enrich the flavors. These ales are deep brown or brownish red, reflecting the roasted quality of the barley used. The phrase “stout” and “porter” are often used interchangeably, though porters use different types of malts and aren’t always roasted. The most famous stout in the U.S. is Guinness, but many craft brewers also offer their own stouts, like Mt. Carmel Stout. Stouts usually do not have a great deal of sugars in them while they are fermenting, which often lead to lower ABVs in the 4 – 7% range. However, some stouts can get as high as 10 % ABV.
All of the types of beer mentioned above can be found at your local grocery, as can all of the beers mentioned. These five styles and types are the most popular I found at the stores I went to, but by no means is a complete list of beers. If you are looking to expand your palate with expert guidance, there are a few great places to do so. The Trolley Stop in the Oregon District has a beer tasting for $20 on the first Wednesday of every month. Nine tastes of beer, plus a great education on beer styles and how to taste. Archer’s Tavern cracks open a new craft beer keg every Wednesday night at 5 PM, and offer a great menu to boot. Arrow Wine also has a beer tasting from 5 to 7 PM every Friday night, offering five beer samples to start your weekend off right. Celebrate the day by checking out a new beer, or enjoying one of your favorites at your local bar. Cheers!