A Starter Lesson In All Things Beer

(Originally posted in The Toronto Standard)

You’re a dedicated beer drinker. You raise a pint while your friends sip Pinot.  Their noses are sunk deep inside Burgundy glasses as the neck of a bottle reaches for your lips. Conversation turns to “terroir,” “tannins,” and “legs” while you’re cracking open your second. They’re detecting notes of “mocha” and “white pepper” and… wait… so are you?

There’s nothing wrong with enjoying a brewski for what makes it uncomplicated.  If there’s one huge advantage beer has over its viney cousin, it’s accessibility.  You can buy dozens of really good and widely ranging styles without missing the rent.  If one is your favourite just because it is, good on ya.   Bottoms up, my friend!

I’m not scribbling down a bunch of notes for the Standard because I want to create malt snobs.  In fact I worry the current paradigm shift to craft beer is going to create hordes of unbearable, hipster alumni, drinking Imperial fish taco ales with their little fingers in the air, sneering at me while I’m enjoying a Big Rock Traditional (the very drink that first turned me on to craft beer many, many hangovers ago).

I’ve been a beer habitué through three NHL work stoppages, but until recently I never gave much thought to what makes it my beverage of choice.  The writer in me feels a strong romantic attachment (in fact there’s an Amsterdam Spring Bock currently disappearing next to my laptop, at about 40 wpm). As a Prairie boy-moved-to-the-big-city there’s plenty of nostalgia associated with hoisting a bottle in questionable social situations. As an Hibernophile, of course, there’s novels of imagery I don’t need to describe for you – though it might not hurt to tell you a Hibernophile is a lover of all things Irish.  As a sports fan, well, beer’s just awesome.

Late last year, my wife (an angel, whose wings have brushed many a bar top) suggested I formalize my beer appreciation and enrol in the Prud’homme Beer Certification program. Merry Christmas to me!  Yup, I’m Rodney Dangerfield in “Back To School,” loving every intoxicating drop of course material and doing a Triple Lindy into each lesson’s homework.

Beer, my friend, is beautiful.  It’s history is as rich and far ranging as the many styles currently coming to market, and I can think of many worse ways to spend an afternoon than being Cliff Claven at the end of the bar, mouthing off about this beer and that.

To whet your own beer palette, five starter points to becoming a know-it-all (without becoming a dick):

1. You should always drink from a glass. Although I realizeI look far cooler swinging back a longneck while unleashing The Humpty Dance on an unsuspecting karaoke lounge, taking it straight from the bottle also forces carbonation into my gullet. That not only makes rapping more difficult, but also makes me bloated… which sucks when I’m “shakin’ and twitchin’ kinda like I was smokin’.”

Most breweries offer branded glasses, so grab one at the end of your next brewery tour (if you’re doing Steam Whistle’s be the hero that throws your hand up when they ask for volunteers… can’t tell you why, but trust me), and practice working it into your act during Rock Band.

2. Depending on the beer you’re drinking, look for “notes” the same way the wine folk do.  Mocha is more common than white pepper, especially in porters and stouts, but there are usually some easy associations like “citrus” that go with American-style Pale Ales (if citrus gets too easy, smell specifically for grapefruit or tangerine – this almost definitely comes from the hops). Drinking a German bock?  Look for banana, which comes from the yeast.

3. Speaking of Germanic things, the Reinheitsgebot is that which you likely know better as the Bavarian Purity Law of 1516.  Your friends might know that it allows for only four ingredients (barley, hops, yeast and water), but they probably have no idea that in the 16th century, yeast was an unknown, naturally-occuring ingredient. The act originally allowed for just the other three contributants.

Here’s a choice barstool nugget: In 1986, a Munich brewer was charged with using chemicals in his beer in direct contravention to the purity law.  So disgraced was Helmut Keininger, he killed himself in jail. Although the German Purity Law has since been replealed, many breweries right around the world – including Toronto’s Junction Craft Brewery – continue to adhere to the core four.

4. Germany gets another slow, reverential nod for helping to standardize and protect the Trappist designation, despite not having an active Trappist brewery. Mariawald still operates as a Trappist monastery in North Rhine-Westphalia, but hasn’t concocted a batch of beer in more than half a century.  Still, in 1997, they got together with the seven other Trappist breweries of the day (six in Belgium, one in The Netherlands) to create the International Trappist Association; a group effort to protect the Trappist brand. Since than, Austria’s Engelszell has also earned the seal of approval, and another Dutch Trappist monastery is currently building an on-site brewery.

5. In nearby Ireland, meanwhile, you’ve likely heard blood donors and nursing moms are given iron-rich Guinness to boost their stores. As one that has given 65 pints of O-Negative myself, I’m not one to discourage a reward for the recently drained, but My Goodness, My Guinness actually contains less than 3% of an adult’s recommended daily intake!

New moms, on the other hand, still might want to reach for a bottle of their own.  Hops and malt are both galactagogues (substances that promote lactation), so nursing becomes easier and the incessant screaming a bit more tolerable.  Everything in moderation, of course, but I would suggest McAuslan’s St. Ambroise Oatmeal Stout, as it has a good amount of hops and the oatmeal is a better galactagogue than straight-up barley. Furthermore, it’s one of the most favourably reviewed stouts in the world.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s