By Jeff Alworth
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The most comprehensive guide to the world of beer, with everything you need to know bout what to drink, where, when and why.
“The ultimate guide.” —Sports Illustrated
Imagine sitting in your favorite pub with a good friend who just happens to have won a TACP Award—a major culinary accolade—for writing the book about beer. Then imagine that he’s been spending the years following the first edition exploring all the changes that continue to shape and evolve the brewing world. That’s this book, the completely revised and updated bible on beer that covers everything: The History, or how we got from the birth of malting and national traditions to a hazy IPA in 12,000 years. The Variety: dozens of styles and hundreds of brews, along with recommended “Beers to Know.” The Curiosity: If beer’s your passion, you’ll delight in learning what type of hops went into a favorite beer and where to go for beer tourism, as well as profiles of breweries from around the world. And lastly, The Pleasure. Because, ultimately, that’s what it’s all about.
“A tome worthy of its name.” —Food and Wine
“Easily digestible for drinkers of all levels.”—Imbibe
“Pick up this book as a refresher or a gift, lest we forget that spreading beer education is just as important as advocating for good beer itself.”—Beer Advocate
Finding Your Bearings
I magine we aren’t communicating through this book but rather are sitting together at the bar of a cozy, wood-paneled alehouse. The taplist is extensive and well selected: Superb examples of almost every beer style can be had by a simple gesture to the barkeep. In such a situation, you might use me as you’d be inclined to use this book and ask, “Which one is your favorite?” There’s a common view that so-called experts know which among the multitudes is the best beer. “What’s best?” is the wrong question, though. In our hypothetical bar, I’d counter with my own question: “What’s your favorite beer?”
It’s easy to overthink our choices when we are confronted by such bounty. Never in the long history of beer drinking—thousands of years!—have we had it so good. At local pubs and grocery stores, we can find beers from around the world brewed in dozens of styles. Roasty stouts, floral English ales, zesty pilsners, and crisp witbiers—they’re everywhere. These different species, products of specific places and cultures, can mystify. And now craft brewing, a worldwide phenomenon, has muddied matters further by decoupling style and country. These days, we find improbable mashups like Belgian stouts, American witbiers, English pilsners, and Czech IPAs. It is confusing.
But I have good news. This isn’t the world of haute cuisine. Beer isn’t art or physics, and you don’t need to take a college course in theory to understand it. Beer is just malted grain, water, and yeast, usually spiced with hops. Though there’s a huge amount you can learn about beer, your principal experience should be pleasure. You wouldn’t say there’s a “best” dessert, though you might prefer peach cobbler to chocolate cake. Think of the different types of beer this way. If you’re reading this book, you’ve probably found a brand you love. It may be light-bodied or syrupy black, hoppy or malty, sweet or bitter. That beer is a doorway into an amazing world of history, culture, and craft.
▴ Instead of trying everything on the menu, dig deeper into the styles you already love.
The best way to learn about beer isn’t by trying every one out there; instead, pour your favorite and study it. It comes from a tradition of brewing that goes back decades or centuries and reflects the tastes of the culture that first brewed it. That Belgian witbier isn’t an accidental ale; it dates back centuries to a small town called Hoegaarden. It has evolved and changed and even went extinct for a while. Pilsner comes from a town called Pilsen in what is now Czechia, where the beer was so bad the townspeople started a new brewery. We know the name of the brewer who first made that pilsner and why it was a pale lager. The reasons witbier is made with coriander and pilsners are golden and hoppy have to do with the beers’ unique stories. You’ll learn more about the nature of beer if you stop and study your favorite and see why you like it. That beer can be a reference point as you start poking around other styles—and before long you’ll be able to appreciate them for what they are. That appreciation in turn will be a jumping-off point for other styles, which may no longer be so inscrutable.
So: What beer do you like? ■
Beer Wisdom Charlie Papazian is one of the four or five people most responsible for starting the good-beer movement in America. Before him, there were just a few brands of beer in the country, all making the same type of pale lager. Now we have thousands of brands and dozens of types of beer. In the 1970s, Papazian encouraged homebrewers to make the beer they couldn’t find at bars, and in 1978 he founded the American Homebrewers Association, which now has some 43,000 members. In Papazian’s legendary The Complete Joy of Home Brewing, he coined the rallying cry for the age: “Relax, don’t worry, have a homebrew.” It still applies, even if you substitute the word “beer” for “homebrew.”
▴ Experiencing a beer goes beyond merely tasting it.
Experience the Beer
When you sit down with a glass of beer, you do a lot more than just taste it. You will eventually put your taste buds to the task, but they don’t work alone. Your eyes take in its color, clarity, and vivacity. Your nostrils detect sharp or subtle aromas drifting off the surface. When you taste, you smell the beer inside your mouth. Your tongue, meanwhile, notices and whether it’s prickly with carbonation or smooth and still, and whether it is thin or creamy or thick. You don’t merely taste a beer, you experience it.
Of all the skills you might learn in tasting beer, attention is the most important. Your senses are important: They’re the hardware that delivers the raw data. But it’s your mind and ability to observe—your software—that allow you to understand what you’re drinking. Let’s do a simple trial run. Grab a beer from the fridge and a clear, clean glass from the cupboard. Open the beer and slowly pour it into the glass. (For this exercise it’s important that you can see the beer, that it’s not in a bottle or can.) While pouring, focus your attention on the experience.
Look. Your eyes tell you a lot about the beer. If you pour it from a bottle, notice whether it comes out syrupy or water-thin. Once it’s in the glass, observe the color and clarity of the beer, how vigorously the bubbles rise from the bottom of the glass, and how the head looks. Does it resemble a skiff of whipped cream, with bubbles so small you can’t see them, or is it made of larger visible bubbles, stacked like tiny beads? What color is it? How fast does the head dissipate?
Smell. A good beer will delight your nose. As you may know from eating when you have a head cold, much of what we taste comes from the alchemy between scent and flavor. Rouse the aromatic compounds by swirling the glass, then get your nose right down to the surface and inhale. Malt and hops contribute the most obvious scents: bready, roasty, or nutty in the case of malt; floral, spicy, or citrusy from the hops. You might find other aromas that are less obvious, like pear, rose, or clove; these emerge from compounds created during fermentation.
Sip. You finally taste the beer as it washes over your tongue, but flavor isn’t the only thing going on. Swish the beer around your mouth so the aromas warm and unfold. Flavors evolve as the beer enters your mouth and taste and aroma commingle, building as you swallow. Beyond flavors, you will pick up the texture of the beer, its viscosity, its level of carbonation, and its alcohol strength.
Swallow. The final experience comes after the beer is gone. As it travels down your throat, a final round of flavors and aromas emerges. Your nose detects the vapors left behind, and your tongue, still awash in a slight residue, continues to taste. Only by swallowing do some of the most important characteristics emerge: crispness, roundness, hoppiness, and tartness, to name a few. And never, ever spit out a mouthful—leave that sin to the wine drinkers.
To the extent possible, just luxuriate in these sensations. Tune out the person yammering on the next barstool, the game blaring on the TV. Beer has many virtues, but none is greater than its simple pleasure. The appearance, flavors, and aromas all offer clues to the ingredients, style, and brewing methods of the beer (which we’ll detail in “Tasting Beer Like a Brewer,” starting here).
Try a variety of different kinds of beers, pay attention to their characteristics, their principal qualities, and think what it is about them you like. One of beer’s strengths is its variability, and the joy is finding which flavors you like most. Once you become familiar with how these flavors align with beer types, you’ll begin to map out the terrain of beer styles. These mental images will create a launching pad for further explorations. Take notes, observe, but enjoy. Life’s too short and too full of good beer to waste your time on beers that don’t excite you. ■
How to Read a Beer Label
Over the centuries and across different languages, the lexicon for beer terms has changed a bit. Even today, the terms aren’t exactly settled, but “beer” is the word that encompasses the entire range of grain-based fermented beverages. Ales, lagers, lambics, bocks—they’re all beer. Within this class of beverages are all manner of subcategories, styles, and designations, any of which may appear on a label. Beyond that, you’ll find various bits of other information that may help you divine what’s inside the bottle. These are the basics.
Anatomy of a BEER LABEL
■ Ale or lager. Except for a few oddballs, most beers can be divided into either the ale camp or the lager camp. In part, these designations distinguish the type of yeast used to ferment the beer and in part the manner of fermentation. Ales use a strain of yeast that prefers warmer temperatures and requires little aging. Ale strains produce other flavors in the beer, like fruit or spice notes. Lagers are fermented cooler and left in tanks for weeks or months to smooth out. This inhibits the production of fruity and spicy compounds, leaving purer notes of hop and malt.
■ Style or type. Most labels identify the style of beer inside the bottle—pilsner, stout, gueuze, and so on. This identification may actually describe the beer inside the bottle or may be an impressionistic or aspirational brewery description—or something the marketing team invented. It may be a poetic rendering that sounds like a style (“rustic farmhouse ale”) but isn’t, really. Styles trigger endless debates in taverns and chatrooms across the planet. Approach them lightly.
■ ABV (alcohol by volume). This is the standard measure for alcohol in the United States, displacing the older measurement, alcohol by weight (a beer that’s 5% alcohol by volume is about 4% by weight). Standard beer ranges from 4% to 8% ABV, though stronger (more alcoholic) beers can be as strong as wine—up to 17%.
■ IBU (international bittering units). This measure records how much hop acid is dissolved in the beer—a rough measure of its bitterness. The perception of bitterness is mitigated by how strong and malty a beer is, so a 40 IBU pale ale may seem quite bitter, while those same 40 IBU will make for a sweetish strong ale. Worse, many breweries don’t actually have labs to measure the acids in their products chemically and instead predict them using mathematical formulas. (To call this prediction “inexact” is kind.) Finally, while hoppiness is a combination of flavor, aroma, and bitterness, IBUs measure only bitterness. In Europe, the measure is sometimes labeled EBU (European bittering units), but there’s only a negligible difference between the two.
■ Color (SRM/EBC). The American Society of Brewing Chemists and European Brewery Convention have each created a numerical scale of scientific measures of the color of beer when viewed under certain controlled conditions. Since very few people have a chemistry set at home, the measure is of little use to the average beer drinker. Beer color is a function of light and the width of the glass, and the layperson’s impressionistic sense of color (“straw,” “amber,” “chestnut”) is at least as useful as a scaled measure.
■ Unfiltered. Beer clarity is a divisive subject. Beer that has been handled well and left to condition (a process of ripening) will settle into a more brilliant state—a good thing. But breweries may also filter beer—a technology that scrubs it of all solids including suspended yeast, microscopic hop particles, protein, and other rustic bits—a bad thing to people who see a little haze as evidence of the artisanal process. When a brewery describes its beer as “unfiltered,” it’s announcing its affiliation with the former camp. Many craft breweries and craft-beer fans like a bit of fog in their beer, and some styles—Bavarian weizens in particular—actually demand it.
■ Gravity/original gravity. This number expresses how much dissolved sugar is in the wort (beer before it is fermented)—a measure of the potential strength of beer. While a bit arcane, gravity has the virtue of consistency; every beer has a starting gravity, and gravity doesn’t vary under different circumstances. The usual units of measure are degrees Plato or specific gravity (indicated by “sp. gr.”). Water is the baseline for both measures, expressed as either 0° Plato or 1.000 sp. gr. The range for normally fermented beers runs from about 8° Plato/1.032 sp. gr., which would result in a beer of about 3% ABV, to 26° Plato/1.110 sp. gr., resulting in a towering monster of 12% ABV. For consistency, this book uses specific gravity throughout.
■ Bottle-conditioned. Most beer is force-carbonated; that is, brewers add carbon dioxide (CO2) to finished beer prior to bottling. In some cases, they dose a beer with sugar or yeast to produce a secondary fermentation in the bottle. Since the product of fermentation is carbon dioxide, bottle-conditioned beer naturally carbonates this way. Bottle-conditioned beer will have a layer of yeast at the bottom of the bottle.
■ Brettanomyces/tart or sour ale/wild ale. Certain yeasts and bacteria, for centuries the joy and bane of brewers, have come back into style. With modern controls, brewers can more often get joyful results; these microscopic creatures add unexpected flavors to beer that range from subtle dryness to eye-watering acidity. ■
The Building Blocks of Beer
The essence that animates a good beer—how you recognize when a brewer has combined the elements perfectly—is known as “balance.” At its most basic, the term describes the relationship between bitter hops and sweet malt, but balance also has a deeper meaning. It describes the harmony between contrasting elements, how that multitude of flavors and aromas come together like a choir. I discuss these constituents in detail in “Tasting Beer Like a Brewer” (starting here), but here are the four major taste- and aroma-producing agents.
■ Malt. Most beer is made of grain that has been malted (germinated and dried), and the grain is responsible for the beer’s color. The various hues come from how the malt is kilned or roasted, which also contributes aromas and flavors. Malt is principally sweet, but roasted malt may taste bitter like coffee. Malt gives beer the scent and flavor of bread, crackers, nuts, toffee, dark fruit, or chocolate—to name just a few.
■ Hops. The most versatile ingredient in beer is the hops. They may imperceptibly balance the sweetness of malt, as in light beer, or they may make a beer profoundly bitter, like some double IPAs. Hops can add intense aromatics and lush flavors as well, some good enough to make you swear there’s grapefruit, pine boughs, or mint in your glass.
■ Yeast. Yeast is an agent more than an ingredient, and you taste the chemical compounds it leaves behind. In some beers, like lagers, it leaves very little, but in others, like hefeweizens and saisons, it creates startlingly fruity or spicy notes that are the hallmarks of those styles. Generally speaking, the warmer the fermentation, the more flavor a yeast will give.
■ Sugar, spice, and everything nice. Beer must be made of water, malt, and yeast, but it may also be made of almost anything else—and has been. In modern commercial brewing, the use of other ingredients is becoming more common: Breweries regularly add sugar to boost strength without adding body, but honey, maple syrup, or molasses give flavor as well. Spices like coriander are found in witbiers, and breweries may slyly use a pinch of spice in nearly any beer to suggest yeast character—or blast a beer to make it taste like Indian tea or pumpkin pie. And fruit, squash, and flavorings like coffee or chocolate are regulars in seasonal beers.
A Matter of Style
It’s impossible to approach beer without contending with the word “style.” When people refer to style, they mean categories of beers like stouts, dunkel lagers, or witbier. The word is ubiquitous and spreads yearly like a fungus as new subcategories and sub-subcategories branch out from their root style. (The style guidelines for the Great American Beer Festival have grown distinctly Dada: “pale American Belgo-style ale” and “German-style rye ale with or without yeast” are a couple of the high-water marks.) The late beer writer Michael Jackson, largely responsible for giving us the conceptual framework of “beer style,” originally thought of beers as “types.” In 1977 he wrote, “There are certain classical examples within each group, and some of them have given rise to generally accepted styles, whether regional or international. If a brewer specifically has the intention of reproducing a classical beer, then he is working within a style. If his beer merely bears a general similarity to others, then it may be regarded as being of their type.”
Jackson lost the battle he helped start. What he called types we now call styles. Despite the ongoing style metastasis, though, it’s not a terrible system. We need a common language to discuss different types of beer, and though how we talk about style has become overly fussy, it’s not terrible. The one very important caveat is that styles are in constant flux. The idea of style should be descriptive, not prescriptive. In the long history of beer, the beverages we’ve called, say, “porter” have morphed enormously. The porters of 1750 were brown, strong, and vat-aged to a vinous acidity. A century later, they were still strong and acidic but had gone from brown to black. Another century, and they were no longer strong, had become roasty instead of vinous, but were still black.
A shift in styles doesn’t take decades, either; in the 30-odd years since craft brewing began in the US, styles have shifted notably. This is why New Belgium’s Peter Bouckaert provides perhaps the most perfect working definition: “Style is the definition of a group of beers at a certain point in time.” Use the term, but don’t fix it in stasis. ■
Göbekli Tepe to Hazy IPA
in 12,000 Years
Making beer is a complex process that begins with malted grain. For decades, archaeologists suggested that a proto-beer may have been made with raw barley or wheat under the theory that malting would have come later. Well, not only is that hard to do, but it also turns out that clever humans figured out malting early. Very early, perhaps as much as much as 6,000 years before they settled down and cultivated those wild grains that they malted and turned into beer. Looking carefully at sites containing the oldest human structures, archaeologists have found evidence of brewing. The history of beer is, for the past 600 generations, the history of humans.
If we tell the story one way, it describes the history of civilization: how humans decided to settle down, tilled the soil, created monotheism, and ultimately invented the smartphone. A more narrow telling of the story focuses on the history of brewing: how humans learned to malt grains, mash them, add hops, and finally, centuries later, discover the existence of yeast. A third thread highlights how peoples and beer evolved together, and how beer styles reflect the people who brewed them.
Thankfully we don’t have to choose. All three are the story of beer, which forms part of our history as far back as we can see. Very few activities have been as tightly embroidered into our culture. As a consequence, when you pick up a glass and think about the type of beer it contains, you have so much more to talk about than the flavors of malt, hops, and yeast. In that glass you hold dozens of stories about the local agriculture, laws, wars, and technologies that shaped them. Why is a stout dark? Why are märzens named for a month (March)? Why is lambic sour? Just one question about one beer precipitates a series of stories that, told fully, form the biography of the people who brewed it—in some cases, going back millennia. ■
▴ This bottle of Greene King Coronation Ale shows its age.
Every Beer Tells a Story
Take the 1936 vintage of Coronation Ale in my cellar. The English brewery Greene King brewed it specially to celebrate the ascension of Edward VIII to the throne, not an unusual commemoration. For centuries, people have been making celebratory beer—the word “bridal,” for example, derives from the Anglo-Saxon brÿd-ealo (meaning “bride ale,” which actually refers to the celebratory fest, not just the beer). If you recall your royal history, though, you know that the 1936 coronation was unusual in that it never happened. Edward, after a reign of just 325 days, decided he would rather marry the American divorcee Wallis Simpson than continue on as king. The beer, a dark, relatively low-alcohol beer, sat in cellars in Bury St Edmunds for decades.
What does this beer tell us about Britain at the time? Quite a lot, actually. In centuries past, a batch of celebratory beer might have been rich and alcoholic. Breweries at English universities made “audit” ales for the feast celebrating the end of the annual exams. (Greene King made one of those, too.) In earlier times, the nobility competed to make the strongest beers, sometimes to celebrate a wedding or the birth of a child. Why didn’t Greene King make a strong beer like that for the future king? Well, beers had changed. Even thirty years earlier, 5%—the ABV of this beer—would have placed it among the weaker beers available in Britain. Standard strengths from Victorian times through the early twentieth century were around 6%, and a good many beers were stronger than 8% (standard Budweiser is 5% ABV).
▴ School’s out for summer: Greene King’s celebratory Audit Ale.
So the question arises: Why was the 1936 Coronation Ale so weak? During the First World War, the British government put controls on the amount of grain breweries could use, and strengths collapsed. All of a sudden, beers below 3% ABV were common. As the country climbed out of the postwar hole, strengths recovered a bit, and that’s when Greene King brewed Coronation Ale. Soon, the machines of war started grinding in Europe again, and strengths would again fall. But the period of mandated low-strength beer lasted long enough that the British developed a taste for it; even today, beers are nowhere near as hearty as they were before World War I. Celebration Ale is a fun example because it involves an eloping monarch, but every beer has its story.
Even conservative taxonomists will divide beer styles into dozens of distinct categories. Each one has a unique story. You can draw a line from gruel beer to Coronation Ale, but to connect Neolithic beer and Pilsner Urquell requires an entirely different line. Climate, laws, war, technology, trade, and even religion have guided and shaped how beers have changed. Styles evolved in increments, traveled and influenced other styles, and many times waned and flickered out. Yet all emerged because of certain conditions as specific and unique as the beer itself, and even today all continue to evolve. What follows is an overview of that process—a primer for understanding how civilization developed brewing, where styles originated, how they evolved, and why they persist. ■
Beer before Bread
Human interaction with barley began early. The civilizations that would rise in the lush valleys of the Tigris, Euphrates, and Nile Rivers already were accomplished brewers by the time they got around to writing. Sumerians recorded their thoughts on brewing in multiple locations, but in the “Hymn to Ninkasi,” they actually put down a kind of simple, lyrical recipe for making beer:
Ninkasi, you are the one who waters the malt set on the ground
The noble dogs keep away even the potentates
Praise for the first edition:
"The only book you need to understand the world’s most popular beverage.” – John Holl, All About Beer Magazine
“… a box of treats… It’s a delight to find a book about beer that covers the subject in such breadth and depth at the same time as making it seem fresh and new again” – Pete Brown, All About Beer
“A must-read.” – Craft Beer Brewing
“Jeff Alworth has an impressive track record as a leading exponent of the global craft beer movement… this tome will educate and leave you thirsty for a cold one” – Book Page
“a tome worthy of its name” – Food+Wine.com
“Beer enthusiasts will welcome this guide that feels like one is spending time with a well-versed drinking pal” – Library Journal
“The Beer Bible endows beer lovers with the same incredible depth and scope of information that Karen MacNeil’s The Wine Bible gave to enophiles” – Tasting Panel Magazine
- On Sale
- Sep 28, 2021
- Page Count
- 656 pages
- Workman Publishing Company