Thursday, March 28, 2013

If a Bottle Can, a Can Can, and Other Can-Related Puns

Change is brewing (See? Beer puns in the opening sentence. When I promise, I deliver).

The bottle has held an iron grip on the craft phenomenon for as long as it has existed, and it's not particularly difficult to discern why: cans were (or are, based on the perceptions of many, including my readers, but we'll get to that in a bit) relegated to second-class vessel, reserved for cheap swill and garbage beer with no place but disappointing frat parties, as though that isn't redundant.

And yet for many more, it's simply the only way to consume beer, though it's unlikely that this market has much interest in craft brew. To this day, preparations for my Christmas Eves are reliably marked with picking up a few packs of Coors Lite for one uncle, and Miller Lite for the other, as though "The Big Three" are the only beers that exist.

Mmmm Generic Beer Goodness 

The quality of these beers (or rather, the lack thereof), is largely regardless of their container, of course, but for those decorated beer snobs out there (I love you all, by the way), the bottle is best.

And this perception is sort of compounded by history, not unrelated to those three canned tyrants. Indeed, the first canned beers were considered novel. They stacked neatly in the fridge, were light to carry - both noted benefits for the demographic that was doing most of the shopping at the time (that is to say, women). Prohibition, naturally, devastated beer consumption and quality, and World War II limited cans as the metal was needed elsewhere, but soon after the popularity took off, especially as the desire for consistent, reliable and "truly American" brands like Coca-Cola found a place in the culture. Canned beer settled in comfortably among this mentality, especially as companies such as Miller were injecting perceptively-female concepts such as light beer with a dose of testosterone, which lead to the Lite phenomenon that would become perilously synonymous with canned beer.

But the noble bottle, steadfast as its prevalence may be, is finding its throne, well, not necessarily challenged - maybe aggressively poked at? - as breweries are adding cans to their lineups.

Let's take a look, for example, at Maui Brewing, a small craft brew on the island of Maui, Hawaii that peddles its wares, including its Bikini Blonde and Coconut Porter exclusively in cans. The brewery defends the can from a purely environmental perspective, keeping the prosperity of their beloved island first and foremost in their minds. Cans, as they astutely observe "don't break like glass bottles," thereby protecting the plethora of beaches and the tourists that peruse them.

Googling "Bikini Blonde" actually, mysteriously, returned much different results. Image from Maui Brewing. 

But the benefits of cans don't dissipate as we travel to the mainland; regardless of how many beaches we're surrounded by, canned beer does offer a host of benefits. For me, the most lucrative aspect is the opaque nature of a can. Hold up a beer can in front of a light. Can you see through it? If so, congratulations on being the most useless member of the X-Men ever. If not, you see a pretty obvious benefit of canned beer - light can't get in. With glass, the best case scenario (brown bottles) can only keep UV damage at bay for so long, with other colors (green and clear) offering considerably less, and leading a beer to its skunky demise far sooner than one would hope for. Canned beer will last far longer than its bottled counterparts.

Then of course there's a slew of other relatively small but still notable perks to canned beer: it chills faster, it requires no bottle opener, it is easily recyclable (and requires less materials - no cardboard six pack carrier) and they're lighter and easier to transport (you know, for the drinker on the go). And that crazy thought that beer instills a metallic taste into beer? Well, it's kinda bull, unless you're licking the can (I know you're out there) - we perfected the beer lining awhile ago. A few breweries are embracing the can, either giving you the option of of picking up a canned or bottle six pack of their popular beers (including Avery, Kona, and Ballast Point), while others do cans exclusively, such as Oskar Blues (a favorite brewery of mine, by the way), 21st Amendment and the aforementioned Maui.

Basically, in the can versus bottle debate, it's sort of a moot point. Pour a fresh beer from a can or a bottle, and it's pretty likely that you're not going to be tasting a huge difference (unless, apparently, it's Budweiser, where "64 percent of participants correctly identified the canned Budweiser," according to Huffington Post, and only "17 percent...preferred it", but are we really surprised?)

Still, it bears noting this equality is contingent on the fact that you're doing what you're supposed to and pouring the beer in a glass. If you're at a party without glasses (consider new friends) or are camping, or are just lazy, then the complaints of that aluminum smell and taste are reasonably valid. And, if you need further validation, bottles do indeed come with a few perks of their own: while cans chill faster, bottles stay cold longer. And my favorite point is the perceived elegance of cans, or really the lack thereof; a six pack of cans may be nice for a casual visit to a friend's for the game, but there's something truly beautiful and special about a tall, corked bottle of beer (can you imagine a 750 ml can of Chimay)? Either way, the variety is nice to have.

Of course, we could always try to go back to the "best of both worlds," the cone top can. Image from Beer Can Pro.
But while we're talking about cans...

Caldera Ashland Amber
Ashland, Oregon
6 Pack Cans, 5.6% ABV
Poured into pint glass

They say one of the perks of modern beer cans is that they appeal to the "outdoorsy" types, who are just cool enough to be picky about what they drink as they careen down a river, mountain, or active avalanche. Caldera, with the advice to "GO FISHING... GO BIKING... GO CANS..." may be right up their alley. It also happens to be a pretty solid beer in its own right.

The head is bubbly and very sweet, with a touch of roast. Maybe it's all that outdoorsy "why in the hell are you sitting at a computer" talk that damn label was parading around, but I was reminded of toasted marshmallows. The beer itself keeps the sweetness reserved, but is wonderfully smooth, very drinkable, but very much full of flavor. I detect, somewhat strangely, a touch of buttery flavors that I don't actually mind at all (but it is a bit strange, especially since "buttery" is usually a telltale sign that something went amiss getting that beer to you, especially with the draft lines, but that's obviously not the case here). It has a nice malty richness that is uplifted by subtle hopping, and you could easily put away a few of these very quickly. And, by the way, it is completely devoid of any metallic flavors and the desire to smash it against my forehead.

But then again, I've only had one. So far.

Next time you're at the your favorite craft brew store, give a craft six pack of cans a try. You might be surprised.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Wheat: The Other Beer Grain

We all know how beer "works," right?

Or, at least, the basic concept. Like so many other things in the world, beer gets infinitely more complicated when you look at it under a microscope; getting into the minutiae of the fascinating and incredibly involved chemistry behind beer - that is, how beer "works" - would quickly take a turn for the overwhelming and require volumes to properly explain (it requires science), and admittedly, more knowledge than I  (currently) - possess. I'm working on it!

That said, we don't need to know the chemical makeup of a beer to know if it tastes good, of course, but for the sake of this "beerducation," a small (incredibly abstracted) primer would probably be beneficial:

  1. Harvested grain is soaked in water, which in turn make the grains germinate - that is, begin to grow, ripe with starch. 
  2. The grains are heated to stop the germination and to activate enzymes within the grains. From here, the grains, now called malt, will be mashed with water in order to start breaking those starches into simple sugars - yeast food. 
  3. After a few (integral) steps, including boiling (again, much could be written on these matters alone), the beer will reach its fermentation tank, where yeast is introduced to the wort, and the delightfully named zymurgy (that is, the science of fermentation), takes place, where the yeast eat the sugars and converts into carbon dioxide (the fizzy) and ethanol (the fun). 
Again, this is almost insultingly boiled down (pardon the beer pun), but it does help to convey the message I'm getting at here: grains are the source of the sugars we feed to yeast. Barley is by far the most common grain utilized in the production of beer, but its not the only option. Oats and rye have found their way into many beers, each with their own unique elements to lend to a beer. 

But today, we're focusing on that other beloved grain, wheat.

Wheat Wars

Useful for crushing thin, or inspiring Athlete-themed breakfast cereals, and arch-nemesis of celiacs (and the completely bizarre celiac-wannabe/fad dieters, I guess), wheat has found its way into much of what we eat on a daily basis. In terms of beer, though, wheat's presence in beer extends back for centuries, and has become an integral ingredient in many styles for which it has become a sort of linchpin. Some countries traditionally eschew the grain altogether (See: England), while others fully embrace it as a cherished beer variety. Wheat is also a great ingredient for creating a rich, foamy, cloud-like head, so many brewers will throw in just a touch in order to achieve that effect.

Pictured: Corsendonk Trippel with a head so nice you could nap on it.

Wherever the styles sprout up, they tend to be attributed to the term white, due to either being lighter than other beers available at the time, or to the fact that white and wheat have the same etymological origin.What's interesting, though, is how much those styles vary between the countries in which the grain is utilized:

 An important footnote in wheat's pedigree includes the Reinheitsgebot, a (relinquished but still largely observed) German purity law that dictates simplicity in German beer, was actually enacted, in part, to outlaw the use of any grain but barley in beer, as to reserve the wheat exclusively for bakers. The other part was to stop brewers from putting weird herbs you've never heard of into their brews (we'll get to that in a second, Belgium). 

That aspect of the law was actually rescinded shortly after, meaning brewers were again free to put wheat in their beers to their hearts' content, but the other elements (that is, that beer may only consist of barley/wheat, water, hops and yeast) remained in effect until 1988, and is still observed by many breweries. To this day, any beer that utilizes wheat must be an ale. 

The most classic example of a German wheat beer is, of course, the hefeweizen (hefe- with yeah, weizen - wheat, so a wheat beer with yeast), a beer that remains unfiltered and garners a distinct cloudiness from the yeast still floating around in it. Reasonably sweet, a good hefeweizen should throw notes of pepper and citrus, with a very reserved hop profile. Most German wheat beers make use of a combination of both barley and malted wheat, and the wheat ale yeast should feature a distinctive "banana bread" aroma. Several variants include kristalweizen - filtered wheat beer, and dunkelweizen - literally "dark wheat," a wheat beer that features longer-roasted malts. Every significant brewer in Germany will brew at least one weizen for their lineup, with many carrying two or more varieties. Hopf, Erdinger and of course Weihenstephaner are just a few "big names" to consider, and each of their wheat offerings are dependable. I think the Hopf Dunkel weiss is particularly nice. 

I like this brewery because it keeps the number of  angry-sounding consonants to a minimum. 

Like most German beers,weizens are going to be very simple, very reliable and, usually, very tasty. Content with the classics, German brewers tend to adhere to that adage of, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it," and while German beers are rarely distinctly fascinating, they are dependable.

That said, a few interesting wheat "oddballs" do exist. A Gose, for example, is a sour oddity from Eastern Germany that makes use of coriander and salt (seriously) - and as such, does not adhere to the Reinheitsgebot - but is indeed wheat based. Another is the Berliner Weiss, a quickly disappearing anomaly from Northern Germany that uses wheat and lambic-like sourness. A syrup, usually raspberry or woodruff flavored, is added. It has largely disappeared in its native homeland, but American breweries are trying their hand at the stuff. 

Also seen restoring health bars in your favorite video game. 


While Germany was clamping down on runaway ingredient lists, nearby Belgium took an "Eh, why not" methodology and added a veritable pantry's worth of herbs and spices to their beer recipes. Before the rise of the hop, Belgians (and, indeed, other brewers worldwide) made use of something called a gruut - a ground blend of different herbs that seemed to serve the same bittering and preservative aspects of hops. Hops replaced this old-world mash due to its reliability and better predictability, but the concept of the grist, and some of the herbs and spices associated with it, especially coriander, orange peel and cumin, were revitalized in recent decades.   

This owes largely to a man named Pierre Celis, whose invention (which harked back to a beer from his childhood) sought to reuse some of the classic spices associated with beer, and would come to be known as Hoegaarden. While that beer may hardly be what it used to be since being scooped up a multinational conglomerate, the trail was blazed for the style. Much spicier and often sweeter than their German brethren, Belgian wheats (called wits or weisse) tend to make use of a higher percentage of wheat in the mash, which may or may not be malted at all.

 They tend to sport the same cloudiness, with a creamy head and bread-like notes, and a very prevalent orange flavor (ditch that orange wedge; it isn't necessary if you're actually drinking a good beer). The flavors here sport a bit more of an impact, but rarely overwhelming, and the hop profile remains practically non-existent. Some good examples include St. Sebastiaan Grand Reserve and Blanche Des Honnelles. 

Of course, Belgium is home to one of the arguably "weirdest" beer styles out there, the lambic, which makes use of unmalted wheat before undergoing its spontaneous fermentation and barrel aging. They are though, in their own unique way, still wheat beers. 

So wheat has earned its keep in a large collection of beers from two of the biggest beer-producing countries in the world. American wheats have their own thing going on, of course, but many, including a few of the incredibly popular "summer beers" like Shock Top and Blue Moon owe their existence to a foreign concept (meanwhile, other breweries truly get the homage right, like Allagash White). A few others, like Lagunita's A Little Sumpin' Sumpin Ale are doing something distinctly American (namely, making the hop flavor very predominant, something vaguely unusual for a wheat-based beer). Still, wheat, whether a small portion with an intended purpose or a highlighted element, is an integral beer ingredient.