By Al at Hop Talk
Editors Note: I wrote a piece on how to save money on beer awhile back and Al chasized me for only considering how to save money and not about how to get true value. In response, he has put together this list of how to get the best value out of the beer you buy.
First, stop thinking of beer as a commodity. It’s not toilet paper, or screws, or an all-you-can-eat buffet. Stop thinking of beer in terms of the bland, yellow, fizzy beverages foisted on the American public by huge brewing conglomerates. Not just the big American brewers, who have spent countless marketing dollars convincing most of us that beer is supposed to be bland, yellow, and fizzy, but also their overseas counterparts who offer essentially the same product but use the additional marketing message that theirs is better because it’s imported. In spite of being upwards of 80%+ of the American domestic beer market, American light lagers are by no means the entire universe of beer. In the U.S. alone, the Brewers Association recognizes well over 100 distinct styles of beer, and even within those styles are the brewer’s own variations.
Beer is a food. It is made from grain (almost always barley), hops, yeast, and water. Except for the hops, and if the grain was milled into flour instead of malted for brewing, you’d have a basic bread recipe. When is bread best? As fresh as possible. It is just as true for beer. To stretch the beer as bread analogy a little further, industrial-brewed American light lagers are the beer equivalent of Wonder Bread. Don’t you want a nice, hearty loaf?
So, if you are ready slough off the misconceptions of maximizing quantity of your beer and instead get the most value, i.e., enjoyment, out of your beer, here are some simple tips.
1. Shun the sun: Beer’s number one enemy is light. Riboflavin acts as a photosensitizer, which causes the production of singlet oxygen from ultraviolet and visible light. The oxygen then reacts with substances called Isohumulones, which comes from the hops, to create a substance called MBT (3-methylbut-2-ene-1-thiol). It is, essentially, the same chemical that skunks use to defend themselves. “Skunked” beer just what it sounds like. As such, brown bottles are best, and green bottles aren’t much better than clear ones. Cans, obviously, will also work, but there aren’t many craft brewers who use cans.
2. Keep it cool: While heat won’t affect your beer the same as light, it can cause it’s own issues. For one thing, greater chance of oxidation. Oxidized beer tastes like cardboard. It can cause other off-flavors as well. You should store your beer in a cool, dark place.
3. Stay fresh: Beer, like bread, which is a very similar recipe, is better when it is fresher. (There are a couple of styles which can be cellared, but that’s outside the scope of this discussion.) Depending on the style, beer has, at best, a shelf-life of about six months to a year. A better target is three or four months. Beyond that you risk getting off-flavors or, at the very least, a beer that doesn’t taste its best. Look for a “brewed on” or “best before” date. Unfortunately, not all brewers do this, and far too many retailers leave stock on the shelves until it sells. Here’s a clue: if the bottles are dusty, don’t buy it.
4. Buy local: Not to get all “green” on you, but try to buy from brewers who are within, say, 150 miles of you. Less transportation means less pollution, of course. But it also means lower transportation costs, meaning more money can be put toward the ingredients of the beer. A shorter travel distance also means the beer is more likely to be fresh. And, of course, has had fewer opportunities to encounter light and/or warm storage.
5. Serve it properly: In a glass: A large part of our sense of taste comes from our sense of smell. If you can’t smell the beer while you’re drinking it, like drinking it from the bottle, you’re missing most of the flavor. Some beer purists will tell you that each beer style should be served in its own special glassware. I don’t disagree, but let’s not get crazy here. At the very least, use a glass (not plastic) that allows you to smell the beer while you’re actually drinking it. Also, there’s “clean” and there’s “beer clean”. Beer glasses should be hand-washed with a minimum of soap. Actually, baking soda would be a better option. Your beer glasses also shouldn’t be used to drink anything else. Besides, how else are you going to see the pretty color?
6. Serve it properly: Not ice cold: When too cold the aromas of the beer are not present or very weak. You want to maximize the aroma to have the best flavor. The proper temperature varies by style, of course (pilsners I would serve around 40 degrees Fahrenheit, stout a bit above 50 degrees) but there’s no need to start dipping a thermostat into your beer. When you take a bottle out of the refrigerator, open it, and let it sit on the counter for five, ten or fifteen minutes. It will be much more flavorful than if you drink it right after taking it out of the fridge. In general, lighter styles should be colder than darker styles, but that’s not hard and fast. This is a good one to experiment with.
7. Pour strong! Again with the aromas. When pouring, don’t carefully dribble the beer down the side of the glass. Pour it down the middle. You want to “break the carbonation” and release the aromas. Aim for (again, depending on style) about two fingers’ width of head. The bubbles in the head should be small and the head itself should be creamy or fluffy.
8. Find your style: With over 100 different styles, you are bound to find something, or several somethings, that you like. Maybe you like the spicy hop bitterness of a pale ale, the mild sweetness of a brown ale, the roasted goodness of a porter, the fruity spiciness of a hefeweizen, or the clean crispness of a pilsner. You’ll never know unless you try. If you’re having more than one style in a single sitting, start with the lightest and finish with the heaviest. This will keep your tastebuds from being overwhelmed.
9. Pair it up: There is a school of thought that says that beer pairs better with cheese than wine. That’s not all, of course. Many people have heard that oysters make an excellent companion to an Irish stout. Me, I love having an IPA with anything spicy, like chili or Buffalo wings. The right beer can be paired with just about anything. Look for “beer dinners” at restaurants near you. The Brewer’s Alley in Frederick, Maryland sponsors one about every three months. There are usually about five courses, each paired with a different beer, including dessert.
10. Invite your friends: Beer should be shared. Beer is social. Ancient peoples would sit around a communal pot and drink their beer through reeds. (Probably because of all the grains floating in it.) When I get together for a beer with my friends, very often we’re talking about the beer we’re drinking. But, then, most of my friends are beer geeks like me. It doesn’t matter what the occasion is. Beer with friends is the best beer in the world.