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Friday, August 27, 2010

Beer School Part 1 What is Beer

As part of my job as an assistant brewer, I teach the new hires about beer and brewing so that they can be informed when talking to customers.

One of the first things that must be taught is "what is beer?".

Put simply, beer is any alcoholic beverage made from grain and not distilled. So if it is made from corn, wheat, rye, barley, oats, or any other grain, it is beer. If you distill it, you get whiskey, vodka, etc., but undistilled it is beer.

If an alcoholic beverage is made from fruit, and not distilled, it is a wine. If you distill wine, you get brandy, or eau de vie.

There are drinks that fall into a gray area. Sake is typically considered rice wine, but it is grain based and therefore should be a beer. What about country wines made from parsnips or rhubarb? They are often considered wines as well.

Now that we have a general rule for what beer is, we can work on the various types of beer and what makes them unique. Beer can be divided into two basic categories depending on the type of yeast used in fermentation, ale and lager.

Ale yeast lives in the foam on the top of the fermenting beer, and like relatively warm temperatures (about 70 F). It can create fruity or spicy aromas and finishes fermentation in approx. 2-3 weeks.

Lager yeast lives in a cake on the bottom of the fermenting beer, and likes cooler temperatures (about 50 F). It typically is described as having a crisp or clean character. It will finish fermentation in 2-3 months.

Ales and Lagers are now based upon the type of yeast used in fermenting, but this was not always the case. If you read historical books about beer or brewing you will find that in England, Ale was brewed without hops, while Beer contained hops. In some states, Ale is higher alcohol percentage, and Beer lower (although the types of yeast have little to do with alcohol percentage).

There are also beers that do not fit into these two categories. Lambic is one such beer. Lambic is to beer what sourdough is to bread. Lambic uses wild yeasts picked up from the air in order to ferment. Because it uses wild yeasts, it is typically considered an older beer style than those beers that use yeast saved batch to batch.

But how old is beer really? Well, beer is older than recorded history. Some of the first civilizations to possess writing were already accomplished brewers. The Babylonians and Egyptians relied on beer as their drink of choice, and even had a wide variety of styles to choose from.

So you see that beer is a varied drink with a long history, but it can be divided into different categories to make it easier to understand.

The next Beer School post will look at the grains used in beer and the effects that such grains have.

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