Lagering Behind The Others

(Originally published March 2009)

So, as has been discussed previously, Hanes is quaffing more beer than wine of late. The worm is starting to turn, but beer has been dear for a couple of months now. Mostly because Hanes doesn’t really know much about beer except that he has been drinking it since the 8th grade and the bottle has never let him down. Being responsible for managing a beer department with over 125 different beers meant tackling a fast learning curve. Burp. But now it’s mostly copacetic and a solid base of knowledge has been acquired. That said, there’s still some stuff which seems weird to Hanes.

First, who knew there were only two basic categories of beer? These being ale styles and lager styles. It’s not so far-fetched as in the wine there’s red and white. But beer always seemed to be more diverse in structure and lineage to Hanes. Of course, ale and lager styles have a zillion sub-styles but there’s supposed to be some vague familial resemblance so that these two main styles remain relevant. FYI, there’s also a side category called hybrid styles which includes fruit beers, herbed or spiced beers and smoked beers. These additives prevent the beers from being categorized as either ale or lager in style although one might assume that the beer being adulterated is initially either an ale or lager.

Most beers consumed in the U.S. appear to be lagers. This is because all the huge “macro brews” like Budweiser, Miller, Coors, etc. are lagers. Hanes looks at this like the world of wine. The sorts of wine Hanes writes about are a miniscule fraction of the total wine consumed in the country, most of which is box wine, jug wine or otherwise totally cheap undrinkable swill. So too with beer. Most “high end” imports and domestic “craft” or “micro brew” beers are made and available in such small numbers that the audience for them is in turn fairly small. However, this product output is growing with new craft brewers opening up or expanding operations. Which leads to another weird thing.

Hanes don’t drink no Spudweiser. Usually, when he goes out and drinks beer it’s stuff like Newcastle, Boddingtons, Sam Adams, Stella Artois, Anchor Steam, etc. It is interesting to note that these beers are not really macro brews (that is watery lagers) but no longer are they considered to be “craft” beers. All these beers are made in very large production numbers and available just about anywhere in the country, 365/24/7. You want a Bass, Sierra Nevada, or Hoegaarden and you can get it, no sweat. Maybe a decade or so stuff like Saranac or Harpoon seemed like a “micro brew” but no more. These beers simply represent a more distinctive “high end” mass market brew. Some of these breweries kind of admit this fact by way of creating some small batch, narrowly distributed beers to kind of retain some street cred with the geeks. But, again as opposed to a generation ago, hardcore beer geeks aren’t all that jazzed to pound Foster’s or Harp anymore.

Getting with the program, Hanes has been chugging small production beers. These come in regular 12 ounce bottles or sometimes in 22 ounce “bomber” bottles” or even half gallon “growlers,” these being capped jugs filled at the brewery. Conversely, many small production imports come in 11.2 ounce bottles which is a total gyp. The European large bottle “bomber” like format seems to be 16.9 ounce bottles which is kinda OK, better yet are the big ole 25 ounce bottles.

All these beers are expensive. Hanes has paid up to $17.49 for a single six-pack. That is nuts. Back in the day, spending $6.99 on a six-pack felt like a decadent splurge. Most craft beers cost $10.99 and up for six-packs and over $6.00 for a bomber. That’s a lot of wine Hanes could be buying. Thankfully, one of the nice things about micro brews is that there is supposed to be a limited amount available locally. These sort of beers are only supposed to have limited distribution or import quantities. Hence, you can taste a good portion of what’s around locally if you sample, say, 4-5 beers a night for four months in a row.

It’s interesting that, based on beer review websites, there’s a sub-culture of beer geeks who “share” beers and trade them across the country like baseball cards. Hanes is not there yet. He is also keeping his Thurman Munson rookie card.

From what can be gathered at this early stage of beer geekdom, California and Colorado are the two big homes of American craft brewing. Michigan, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and New York have a bunch too. But it’s a widespread phenomenon and craft breweries are just about everywhere. Getting distinctive imports is more difficult and isolated to more urban or suburban areas. Not many Norwegian Porters being sold in the hinterlands of Wyoming. But Hanes could be wrong.

Back to styles. The only lagers which get respect are German, Czech and other European versions. Pilsners are part of the lager family and these are often made by craft breweries. Bock and Doppelbock styles seem popular for lagers. At least they sell at a slow, steady pace.

Ales tend to get first grouped by “national styles” although Hanes is sure these groupings are fungible. American, English, Scottish, Irish, Belgian, French, Finnish, German and Russian seem to be the major national styles. Note, you don’t have to be in America to make an American India Pale Ale. It’s a recognized style and it can be made in any country, same for Belgian Pale Ale, etc.

The next level is stuff like India Pale Ale, Stout, Porter, Dubbel, Brown Ale, Old Ale, Wee Heavy, Witbier and too many more to mention. Google the whole list if you like. Next, there are “super duper” ratcheted up versions which have “Imperial” or “Double” preceding the style, e.g., American Imperial Stout. These are noted for their higher alcohol levels or their high gravity nature. The “gravity” of a beer is a measure of the density of a liquid or solid compared to that of water and thicker beer has higher gravity. This is a grave matter.

Hanes has kind of stopped here. The actual specifics of beer brewing goes unrecognized, Hanes can barely stay up with wine vinification processes. The brain ain’t getting any bigger and it sure is getting wetter. Ditto for paying attention to what kind of hops, malts, yeasts are employed. There’s an incredible amount of information out there. Get at it, tiger! That ales use yeasts that ferment at the top of the vat and at temperatures of 60º to 75º while lagers use bottom fermenting yeasts at around 34º is sufficient for Hanes’s purposes.

Maybe the beer bug will prove tough to shake and Hanes will not only continue to study beer arcana but also brew his own. It’s possible, home brewing would be another excellent reason to never leave the house…