Beer Tasting 101

Hops flowers, a cornerstone ingredient for beer

“I have to start off with a joke, to properly set the tone for this class,” said Mirco Marconi, our lecturer for beer tasting. With a grin, he announced that he would be lecturing on the production process of beer, and that we would be tasting 9 beers today and another 10 beers tomorrow. We were advised to eat a hearty breakfast in the morning.

But wait, beer class in Italy? Isn’t this akin to learning about tamales in China? Before leaving the US, I was told by more than one Italian over a cold pint to enjoy the beer while it lasted, because Peroni leaves a lot to desire (though of course, the wine does not). Much to my surprise though, I have found the Italian beer scene to be vibrant and dynamic. At the Corte dei birrifici artigianali del Piemonte craft beer fair at the Torino Food Market Festival, a wide variety of brewers and brewing styles were showcased. Our trip last July to the Pausa brewery project in the Saluzzo jail included several memorably good beers. And, the New York Times even posted an article today on the development of craft brewing in Italy! I don’t think beer will “eclipse wine as the Roman drink of choice” any time soon, but it is definitely promising that Italy’s booze-making aficionados are finally setting their sights on the art of beer.

Back in class, Marconi was giving us a rundown of the major ingredients in beer-making: water, cereals, hops and yeast. Cereals (barley, wheat, rice, maize and oats) are used to produce alcohol and unfermentable sugars that give body, viscosity and roundness to beer. Hops add bitterness to balance the sugars and add floral or herbal aromas, and yeasts are the blue-collar workers of the bunch, used to convert sugars to carbon dioxide and alcohol.

Then, there is the oft-ignored yet essential element of water. Today, brewers can change the mineral content of their water to anything they desire, but historically, the profile of a town’s water was strongly linked to its beer style. For instance, water in Pilsen is very low in salinity and hardness, and the pilsner beer style is known for its light, crisp flavor and soft water. Speaking of pilsners, the style was invented in 1842 when Bavarian brewer Josef Groll set out to solve the problem of bad beer in Pilsen. Let’s hear it for the Czechs, who should be proud that the availability of good beer is a civic responsibility. The pilsner style later took off and was widely copied throughout central Europe.

Of the ingredients that go into beer, hops are a relatively recent development, introduced to beer-making by German nun Hildegard von Birgen in the 12th century, according to legend. Generally, only the female flowers are used, except in the UK where “they are a strange nation that does things differently from the rest of the world” and both male and female flowers are used. Hops contain resin compounds that give a more lasting foam, along with alfa-acids that give bitterness and essential oil compounds that add aromas. They also have an antiseptic effect, all the more important during the Middle Ages. We passed around tubs of hops of various varieties. Cascade hops, used in Sierra Nevada, had a distinctive citrus note, while Fuggle hops from the UK had a spicy, almost meaty aroma.

Früh kölsch (Germany, Köln – kölsch); Augustiner edelstoff (Germany, Bavaria – münchner hell); Rothaus pils (Germany, Schwarzwald – pilsner); Cantillon Lou Pepe Gueze 2007 (Belgium – lambic)

Over the two-day course, Marconi covered three broad beer-brewing “nations,” including central Europe (Germany, Austria, Czech Republic), Belgium and the UK/US. Each of these regions has distinctive beer brewing practices and styles. Belgian beers, for instance, are marked by traditional techniques like bottle conditioning, top fermentation and wild yeast fermentation (lambics). They also have a strong monastic tradition of Trappist beers, produced by the 6 remaining Cistercian breweries in Belgium (with one additional brewery in the Netherlands).

On the other hand, British and American beers employ a much more liberal usage of hops, particularly in India pale ales. These ales were intended for shipment to the British colony, so to prevent spoilage over the long trip, more aggressive use of hops was employed. A classic British pale ale uses Maris Otter barley malts, infusion mashing, and cask conditioning to obtain a well-balanced beer with a distinct hops aroma. You are also more likely to find newfangled flavorants like coffee stouts and banana bread beer from English and American brewers.

Flying Dog Horn Dog (US, Maryland – barley wine); Rochefort 10 (Belgium – Trappist); Meantime coffee porter (UK, London – porter); Flying Dog Snake Dog IPA (US, Maryland – India pale ale); Orval (Belgium – Trappist); Brooklyn Brewery East IPA (US, New York – India pale ale); Sierra Nevada pale ale (US, California – American pale ale)

Of the 19 beers that we tried, the most challenging was the Orval Trappist beer. The Orval monastery only produces one beer, and it is done with wild lambic yeast, which gives it an odd tartness. The aroma is reminiscent of bread and vinegar, while the beer itself is dry and highly carbonated. All in all, a difficult beer and pretty much impossible to pair with food. The Rauchbier Märzen from Bamberg, Germany was probably my favorite. The name means “smoked beer” in German, and it is produced using malts dried by a wood-burning fire. With a super smoky, meaty aroma and well-balanced hops, I can certainly see why this beer is nicknamed “liquid speck.”

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