Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Gateway beers

Every once in a while, I run into someone who says they "don't like beer." This simply makes no sense. There's quite a bit of evidence that the Agricultural Revolution, and thus human civilization, were driven by growing cereal grains for beer. (Before he bakers protest, remember, beer and bread both evolved out of a sort of fermented malt mash porridge. Throw it in the fire, and you get bread. Strain it, and you get beer.) So, if you "dislike" beer, you might as well dislike houses, clothing, and a life expectancy greater than 30.

Model of Egyptians making beer
Now, there are legitimate reasons for not drinking alcohol - physical and psychological addiction, lacking the enzymes to break it down, disliking the bloated feeling or flatulence that comes from carbonation or introducing too much yeast to your gut (Dr. P will tell you this bothers me far too little...), the fear that your god will smite you (or at least send you back, and try not to frack it up again this time...). But generally, if I dig a little deeper, the answer is that this person doesn't like the taste of beer.

This, I can understand, since 95%+ of beer consumed around the world is industrial pisswater lager - or, more correctly, industrial pisswater pilsner. Sadly, in some ways we must view this as the ultimate product of "civilization," not to mention colonialism.

Indeed, pilsner itself isn't a bad beer, but what most of the world today knows simply as "beer" is a far cry from the original, cleanly fermented, malty lager with the sparking Saaz hops. But in the brighter corners of 21st century, there's such a dizzying array of different craft beers available, that there's at least one for just about every palate. If you can get your friend to give up their preconceptions and prejudices about what "beer" tastes like, and try them.

To simplify that task, I want to suggest 3 craft beer styles that I think are excellent "gateways" to blow the minds of people who think they don't like beer, expand their consciousness about, and thirst for, beer. One your probably familiar with, but two you probably know only if you're a beer afficianado, and even then one if those may surprise you.


Porter was my gateway beer. Although it was a mainstay of the British working class in the 18th and 19th centuries, it nearly died out in the 20th. It was brewed in New England and Pennsylvania, but was overtaken by pilsner in the US in the mid-19th century.

Porter is a good gateway beer because it's flavor profile matches things that most people enjoy eating, or indeed consider a treat: chocolate, coffee, toast, nuts, caramel, toffee. It's not usually aggressively hopped, for those who complain that "beer" is too bitter.

However, the dark color and rich flavor can lead people to believe that it's high in alcohol (remember that alcohol comes from the *amount* of grain, while color, texture, and flavor come from how the grain is prepared - we'll talk more about this and other beer myths in a future post). This is, sadly, particularly true of women, whom marketing has taught to like light colored/flavored beer (if they drink beer at all - the history of American beer and it's marketing to women will be the subject of another, even more bilious post... And woe is the woman who comes into a beer bar where I'm drinking and orders a glass of Chardonnay...).

Solving this problem brings us to our second gateway beer...


Saison (SAY-sohn, from the French meaning "season;" NOT say-SOHN, the French Post-Impressionist painter) began as Belgian (actually, Walloon) "farmhouse" ale that is, the homebrewed beer that Belgian farmers would serve their field hands along with their traditional meal of fried egg-battered toast and waffles dipped in mayonnaise (yes, that's several obscure cultural jokes rolled into one...).

Saison is friendly-looking, but it's almost instantly obvious that something interesting is going on here. It's light colored, but more straw than gold, and may even be a little cloudy if it was bottled conditioned (that is, carbonated with live yeast in the bottle, which settle to the bottom, rather than pasteurized and filtered). Then take a smell - rather than hops - bitter, grassy, or piney - you'll get subtle fruits, perhaps a hint of orange or stone fruit; a little spicy, perhaps cloves or corriander; and perhaps just a hint of soft funkiness, which the modern palate, pasteurized, sanitized, refrigerated, and vacuum-sealed - recalls from another, more home-spun era.

Flemish Sours

OK, this is the one that the beer snobs may question at first. The northern part of Belgium, Flanders, produces an different styles of beer, sour reds and browns. These beers are innoculated with wild Brettanomyces yeast, and/or bacteria like lactobacillus (which sours milk), and turn some of the sugars and alcohols in the beer to lactic acid or acetic acid, producing a tart, pucker sourness, which contrasts to the malty, fruity sweetness of the beer. (Russian River Brewing, in Santa Rosa, CA, makes a wide range of these types of beer.)

Sour beers tend to be the last beers that beer connoisseurs acquire a taste for, and many never do, as their taste is almost completely unlike any other. But, conversely, they make excellent gateway beers for wine drinkers, who will grock their fruitiness, tartness, and barrel-aged funkiness. Sours aren't bitter, aren't too sweet, and usually aren't too bubbly, but instead are the closest beers to wine, and are the most likely to convince wine drinkers that craft beers can, in fact, be complex and worthy of their notice.

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