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I'll Have A Beer Please

By Paul Michael
30th October, 2014

We all know what beer is, don’t we? Well, maybe we know what to expect if ordering a beer in Spain or France, but what if we ordered a beer in a UK pub? So, is beer a term used for lagers? What about ale, bitter, stout and all those other names? So many questions! Let’s take a look at one of our nation’s favourite tipples.

A fine selection of bottled beers

The word, beer, is actually the collective name of just about any alcoholic beverage that is traditionally made by fermenting cereal grains. It covers the classifications of ale, lagers, porters and lambic beers.

When visiting countries like Spain, France and, until more recent times, North America, asking for a beer at the bar would be met with a smile from the bartender and a serving of lager. For lager is the staple beer for many countries. North America is, however, changing from the norm having discovered that there are more varieties of beer than lagers. They have discovered hop varieties and other fermentable and non-fermentable ingredients that are added to the brew to produce great tasting beers of a different classification to lagers. They have discovered ales and porters.

Beers have been produced since time-memorial, perhaps as far back as early Neolithic times, circa 9500 BC. It stems from the farming of cereal crops such as wheat and barley. Ironically, there is evidence of the production of barley-based beer in the mountains of western Iran dating circa 3500 to 3100 BC. The religions of this area forbid alcohol consumption today, but they do produce non-alcoholic beers. Thankfully, these do not get regarded as classification of beer.

Beer-making, in all of its early production methods, was handed down from the elders in the community or in the family. Like all good things, the idea and recipes spread throughout Europe, it is said, by Germanic and Celtic tribes circa 3000 BC. From there it went world-wide. The Chinese, however, were producing something like beer from rice, as well as Saki.

The basis of beer, and wine for that matter, is borne from the fermentation of what is extracted from the main ingredients. For wines it is mainly fruit, like grapes for the most-part. For beer, the starch and other properties contained in cereal crops, mainly malted barley, are extracted by soaking in warmed water for an hour or two to produce a sugary-sweet solution. This process is known today as mashing, lautering and sparging to produce a ‘sweet wort’ prior to the boiling stage.

Early beers contained no hops. European beers started to exploit hops maybe as late as 822 AD, which is said to be the first recording of its use by a Carolingian Abbot. Hops are used as a bittering agent. Before hops were introduced all sorts of ingredients were used to enhance the flavours of early beers. Berries, plant extracts, honey, herbs and even narcotics were infused in the brew at the boiling stage.

Beer also has its roots in the climates of the regions from which it came and travelled. Today, the brewer can be very specific in terms of the temperature of the ferment, the chemical properties of the water used in the brew and the yeast of choice. In by-gone days there were no such opportunities and beer was fermented in whatever conditions prevailed. Water would have been drawn from a well or river. A warmer area of the home might have been put to good use for fermenting, although many yeast varieties indigenous to European countries ferment out at a lower temperature to those of the UK.

Early beers would have started the fermentation process from wild yeasts. That is, the fermenting container would have been open to the elements to allow airborne yeasts to do what comes naturally. When beer-making became more a frequent domestic or commercial process, the favoured yeasts of previous good batches were saved back and re-used. One can try this at home by opening a bottle or can of beer, pouring some into a sterile container, mix in some dissolved sugar at room temperature and cover it. After an hour or so, the mixture will start to ferment as the dormant yeast is awoken by food.

And so it came to pass, at least in 1516 AD within the Reinheitsgebot ‘purity law’ adopted by William IV, Duke of Bavaria, that beer shall contain water, hops and malted barley. Malted barley is a process whereby the grains of barley are soaked in water to the point of germination, and then they are kiln dried. The grains may also be roasted to different extents and colour. Finally, the malted grains are crushed. This process produces and releases enzymes that enable starches in the grain to be converted to fermentable sugars during the mashing process. One might wonder who discovered that the malting process has a far superior extraction to that of non-malted barley or other cereals.

It is well documented that beer was the staple drink of medieval family life, including the children, in preference to water. Many think the reason was that the alcohol in the beer killed off any pathogens in local water supplies. It is more likely that any such pathogens would have been killed at the boiling stage of the brewing process. Although it was classed as a beer, it contained very little alcohol and had more hydration properties than those associated with alcohol. Indeed, tax laws made it permissible to produce ‘small beer’, as it was known, and not be taxed in the same way as for ‘strong beer’, which was also produced during the same era for social drinking.

Yeast was mentioned earlier, and so was the assertion that the know-how and practice of brewing travelled through Europe. Beer produced in the colder climates of Europe typically found, through much experimenting over many years with wild yeasts, a bottom-fermenting strain. Lagers are produced with this bottom-fermenting strain of yeast, which has its roots in countries like Bavaria. The warmer countries, including the UK, favoured a top-fermenting yeast strain that was ideal for the warmer climates. Ales are brewed using a top-fermenting strain of yeast. This then determines two classifications of beer: Lagers and Ales.

During the 1700s two classes of beer have their roots in London: Stout and Porter. They are distinctive by their dark colour and high alcohol content, but not so distinguishable from each other.  To that end it is argued that they should be regarded as just one class. There is, after all, a Stout Porter beer, which simply means strong porter. Guiness is said to be a double stout porter beer.

In a class of its own is Lambic beer. It is native to Belgium and, unlike the lagers that are normally associated with the area, it is fermented on wild yeasts that give it its unique qualities and taste.

There are suggestions that wheat beers should be in a class of their own, but one could counter argue that wheat beers contain barley as well as wheat. So the wheat in this case is an adjunct in much the same way as flaked maze and other cereals are in ales and some lagers.

Similarly, mild ales are seen as a different classification by some. This can also be counter argued. Prior to World War I, a pint of mild was not necessarily weak in alcohol content, as the classification and many people suggests it is. There are fine examples of very strong mild ales in that respect. Wikipedia suggests that ‘mild’ meant young rather than stale. Well, mild is not a synonym of young and there are unlikely to be many successful stale beers on the market for punters to make such a distinction. They were called ‘mild’ ales because they contained less bittering agents. They were mildly bitter. They were the peoples’ choice for many years and produced in mass, and cheap. Unfortunately, breweries, in their quest to get the ever-popular ale to the punters, found many-a-trick to meet the demand. Especially during wartime Britain. More often, the dark coloured characteristics of mild ale was produced by adding a natural dye to a brew based on an easy, basic brewing method that a brewery could handle well. They sometimes blended, maybe even watered down other beers. In the years that followed, mild ales became weaker in both taste and alcohol content. They lost their popularity in the 1960s, and today are seldom seen outside of a can or bottle. Nevertheless, mild ale is a sub-classification of ale.

So, beer comprises of four main classifications: Ales, Lagers, along with the lesser sold Porters and Lambic.

Many countries do not have quite the beer selection of counties like the UK. Spain, for example, might have a couple of larger beers on the bar, along with some bottled beers from around the world. So asking for a beer in a bar in Spain will likely be fulfilled with a lager. The holiday destinations in Spain might cater for visitors and quite often stock big names in stout and bitter. But they will still serve a lager if asked for a beer.

It’s interesting that lager beers are popular in warm countries like Spain. This has come about largely due to the era of refrigeration circa 1870s. Prior to that time it is most likely that top-fermenting yeasts would have been employed, as in the UK, and brewing would have been a winter activity in such warm countries. In contrast, Germany for example, once introduced laws to prevent its lager from being brewed in the summer months prior to refrigeration technologies, as the yeast strain requires a cool fermenting temperature. Since it became possible to keep things cool, warmer countries adopted the lager brewing methods, which was also served chilled. Hot countries often server their beer in smaller vessels to ensure that the lager remained cool to the last drop. During the 1960s, these local brews became very popular with British visitors. They sampled a much welcomed cool, refreshing brew that they had never tasted before, and they took it home with them.

In the UK there are a wide variety of beers on sale in a pub bar. Ask for a beer and the bar tender might ask if you want lager or bitter (a type of ale), as these are by far the biggest sellers. However, a good publican will usually have, at least, one cask ale on offer, along with a range of lagers, keg bitters, as well as cider, stout, wines and spirits. There will usually be a selection of bottled beers behind the bar.

Casks, kegs, bottles, what’s the difference? Beer, no matter how it ends up, is usually conditioned in some sort of cask. The beer goes through what is often referred to as a secondary fermentation. It’s where the enzymes in the beer slowly release fermentable sugars and produce more alcohol and  carbon dioxide to prevent oxygen from spoiling the beer. It also allows a beer to acquire the necessary conditioned tastes. Stronger beers are typically allowed to condition longer than weaker beers. In days gone by, breweries simply decanted beer from the fermenting vessel into casks or barrels. These were transported to pub cellars where they were allowed to sit and condition prior to being sold. Porter was perhaps the first type of beer that was allowed to condition to a ready-to-drink state at the brewery. The beer engine is a pump with a long upright handle that punters hope to see on the bar in pubs to this day. Its job is to pump ale from a cask in the cellar into the glass. Beers served in this way are often referred to as real ale.

A line of beer engines - Beer Emporium Bristol

After conditioning and allowing beer to fall ‘bright’, or clear, many beers are bottled. The traditional way of bottling required the beer to continue its secondary fermentation. Some beers might require priming – adding a little sugar – to help that process along. This is how carbon dioxide is naturally created in the bottle after it is corked (traditionally) or capped. This process produces a thin layer of sediment after a while of standing, and so one should be careful when decanting the beer.

The Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) stops right there, as the modern way is to artificially inject carbon dioxide into bottled beer, which means that the beer’s fermentation has to be complete or artificially suspended by way of chemicals.

Kegged beers

Kegged beer is akin to bottling. The beer is allowed to cask condition until it falls bright. It is then decanted into a strong (often stainless steel or aluminium) keg barrels. They are sealed and then injected with carbon dioxide, which carbonates the beer. In this state the beer can be easily transported and is ready to consume as soon as it arrives at the pub. The publican connects up the pub’s own carbon dioxide supply to the keg, which is used to get the beer from the keg, along a pipeline to a beer tap at the bar. Many beers, especially lagers, will also be cooled by adding a refrigeration plant in the pipeline. Some beers like Guinness and cream-flow ales use nitrogen instead of carbon dioxide.

Today, all lagers, stouts, ciders, a good-many ales, even fizzy drinks, served from bar-based taps are provided to the pub in a keg styled barrel. Unfortunately, the taste for carbonated, cold beers has been rife. Even though North American states are seeing a fantastic growth in home ale brewing, seldom do they see benefit in what they see as warm, flat ale. Reading through the online forums uncovers quite amazing methods of carbonating and chilling beer. It stands to reason, of course, because carbonated beer has been the way for pretty much all living people today.

However, a change is happening. There is currently a resurgence in ale production. Many small breweries have started up and are producing fantastic ales. Sales are increasing significantly. Where lager had increased in popularity since the 1960s to become the market leader, this year (2014) saw UK lager sales slump in favour of ales. The choice of ales is astounding. With many pubs offering a great selection of cask ale at the bar, there could be a great deal more bottled products available in a cabinet behind the bar. The cask ales generally meet the CAMRA standard, but alas, the bottled beer tends to be artificially carbonated still (no sediment).

Could lager be going the way that mild ales did up to and out of the 1960s? Have mainstream lagers become tasteless, weak and not that cheap?

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