Archive for Wednesday, July 6, 2005

Quaffology 101

Your guide for how to fully appreciate a good beer

July 6, 2005


Oh, you think you already know how to drink beer. Grab the bottle from the fridge, pop the top and pour it down the hatch.

That's not drinking beer. It's just getting it inside you. Sure, after mowing the lawn, maybe that's all you're after, but some of this stuff actually has flavor.

Quite a lot of it these days, in fact. Not only can we get the great English and Belgian ales, but here in the States, we have a bright new generation of craft brewers. Last year, sales of craft beers in the United States were up 7 percent, a higher growth than imported or mainstream beers enjoyed.

So we know you're buying a lot of good beer. You might as well enjoy the flavor.

You were right about the first step - take the beer out of the fridge. But now put it on the counter and leave it there five or 10 minutes before drinking it. Sure, beer is fragile and needs to be refrigerated, but when it's ice cold, it has scarcely any aroma. It should be about halfway between refrigerator temperature and room temperature, around 50 degrees for lagers and up to 60 for ales.

And you were right about opening it, but once you do, don't chug it straight from the bottle - not if you want to taste it. Beer is largely about the bubbles, and the bubbles need to run free, and that means in a glass.

Sang Yoon, owner and chef at Father's Office in Santa Monica, takes a drink of Bear Republic's Red Rocket at his pub.

Sang Yoon, owner and chef at Father's Office in Santa Monica, takes a drink of Bear Republic's Red Rocket at his pub.

As long as the beer is under pressure in a bottle (or keg, or cask), it's stable; the water and carbon dioxide molecules stick together. But when the beer is poured out, it gets shaken, and the agitation makes the bonds break, releasing the CO2 as bubbles.

In a glass, those bubbles form a head, and that's where the aromatics in the beer congregate. The bubbles loft them into the air, just as they do in Champagne. If you drink from the bottle, or pour without creating a head of foam in the glass, the bubbles can't do their job, and you miss out on most of the flavor.

Beer is not terribly picky about what kind of glass you use, as long as the mouth is wide enough for the aromas to spread, but not so wide that they dissipate (a giant frosted beer mug is for chugging, not tasting).

Likewise, the glass should be deep enough that the head doesn't rise to the rim, taking up all the room for the bouquet to develop.

One thing: If you want a good head of foam, the glass has to be squeaky clean. Oil or soap residue interferes with foaming. In fact, if a glass starts to bubble over, you can stop it by touching the foam with your fingertip, just because of the oils in your skin.

Don't be shy: Pour the beer vigorously at first to ensure a good head and maximize aromas.

Don't be shy: Pour the beer vigorously at first to ensure a good head and maximize aromas.

Now swirl the glass a little to get the whole aroma. You'll get that dry, crisp, bready effect of lager or the spicier aroma of an ale, maybe with some dried fruit aromas. And, of course, the resinous, bay leaf-like smell of hops.

If a beer is made with one of the fancier varieties of hops, there may be pine or citrus notes. Some West Coast craft brewers use the ultra-piney Cascade variety of hops, which can also have flowery notes.

Here's something you don't want to smell: skunkiness. That's when the beer smells unpleasantly organic, like rotting cheese, say. Or when a beer smells warm and "cooked" even though it's cold. It can develop when a green bottle is exposed to sunlight, because one of the acids in hops goes nuts under light in the blue-green spectrum and attacks other components in the beer, creating the skunk smell. Beer in brown bottles doesn't have such a problem.

Skunkiness is quite common. Some Americans think it's a natural part of the flavor of certain imported lagers that come in green bottles. It isn't, and if you go to Europe, you'll see those same beers being sold in brown bottles. Why brewers have decided Americans prefer beer in green glass is a mystery.

It happens in domestic beer, too. One glass in a six-pack might be skunky and the rest all right, or they might all have a stink. Here's all you can to: Avoid green bottles and do what you can to keep beer away from sunlight.

Another thing you don't want to smell is the flat, cardboard-y aroma of oxidation, the tombstone that stands where the lively flavors of fresh beer once flourished. Avoiding skunky and cardboard-y smells may be why so many people drink beer straight from the bottle.

The final step - is to take a mouthful of the beer. Slurp it and suck a little air through it to bring out the flavors - the caramel-like sweetness of the malt, the bitterness from the hops, the mouth-coating savoriness of the malt proteins. Savor the aromas of the hops and the roasted qualities of the malt a second time as the fumes rise from your mouth into your nose.

You know what? You may find that you won't just chug the bottle down, no more than you'd wolf a good steak. You'll relish every mouthful.


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