Beer is water, barley, hops and yeast. More or less this is the recipe for the most popular alcoholic drink-and third overall-the world has ever known. There are many variations on this recipe, which, much like the variations in people, give rise to the differing characteristics that make the world such a diverse and awe-inspiring place (to drink). Yet, while some may consider these variations themselves to be of the utmost importance (what separates common Pilsner style American pale lagers from Trappist monk-crafted dark Belgian ales just as we used to segregate types of people), the basic ingredients are almost always the same. But what isn’t on your list of ingredients, what won’t show up on any menus, the thing that has given the drink of beer the power to allure literally billions of people over thousand of years is unquantifiable, because simply put, it’s magic.
The most logical of minds among you might automatically leap to the question that is begged: what about the alcohol?
Commensurate with that reasonable assumption, which is objectively true, is that among other things, alcohol is the main by-product of yeast, those eukaryotic, unicellular micro-organisms which under specific anaerobic conditions convert sugar into ethanol. Barley (or some other grain) is soaked in water and subsequently malted, allowing the enzyme amylase prevalent in barley to convert starches in the grain into fermentable sugars. Add hops for flavor and preservation. Cool and allow yeast to begin feeding on sugar. Depending on the variety of yeast, the time and temperature at which it is stored (ales shorter, lagers longer), the by-product-or waste product-ethanol, is created.
To be blunt alcohol is the afterthought of a corpuscle of pure action, as hellbent on survival as any other living thing, and as much in the dark as to the why of it, if that matters anyway. Yet this embryo, which can do more than anything you or I have ever accomplished by just excreting waste, which metabolizes carbohydrates under low-oxygen conditions into alcohol, is magic. Ask any scientist the question, “Where does the alcohol come from?” and they might try to give you some bio-technical mumbo-jumbo about zymurgy, they may be able to observe the process, but they cannot explain how a single-celled microbe just happens to poop out the magic of ethanol. Louis Pasteur concluded that fermentation was catalyzed by a “vital force”, but couldn’t say how yeast extracts ferment sugar even in the absence of living yeast cells, i.e. when they are dead. How do dead yeast cells still manage to excrete alcohol while all you do is stink up the bathroom?
In its most generic, idea form, it is a suggestion of merrier times past and what may come. At its most practical, it is a 7000 year-old blue-collar drink shared at a common table where daily travails are swapped amongst world-weary workers who smile despite myriad other pressures. For regardless of race or nationality, beer is the present tense, the guts, belly and lungs-the sex. Beer is magic. And the magic is served everywhere.
From Japan to China, southeast Asia and up through Mongolia and central Asia there are generic pale lagers being produced today which were introduced a century ago by seafaring Dutch or bureaucratic Russians that are no worse than any American style adjunct lager like Coors or Budweiser. In fact, many are much better. Yebisu, along with the budding craft beer industry in Japan, are shining Japanese stars. Basketball giant Yao Ming has a Yanjing brewed lager that is much tastier than than bear liver juice and snake blood. Not to be outdone in anything alcoholic the Mongolians have the respectable Chinggis Beer, which like the shaky-handed Thai-brewed version of Tiger beer, has an alternating alcohol content (abv) of two to nine percent. Lucky Mongols!
Moving through Mongolia and Russia is like swimming through an unending, and surprisingly refreshing spring of Vodka. Though occasionally even the Russians like a bracing malted beverage. Exit the Soviet era. Enter Baltika. Saint Petersburg-based brewer of strong lagers and dark wheats with the higher alcohol content required in Russia. Kvass, the low-alcohol and lacto-fermented beverage akin to kombucha, deserves a mention due to when yeast are not producing deliciously intoxicating doo-doo, they make a strong argument for consumption of fermented drinks, possessed as they are of immense health benefits.
Sailing down the Baltic Sea through Estonia and emerging into the western world of Europe from central Asia and Russia, you might find yourself face to face with many complex and tasty Baltic porters and the heady realization of the full influence of the Czech pilsner begins to rear its golden Bohemian lionshead. While many might say that the Germans’ influence in the beer world is larger (lager is derived from the German for “storage”), I would argue that the Czech brewing tradition (Budweiser, Pilsner Urquell, highest per capita consumption rate) is second only to Belgian beer, though the U.S. craft beer revolution brewing since the late 80s is making a case for malted American beverages.
Which touches on a particularly sensitive subject: the reputation of American beer abroad. While living abroad I have found myself fending off generalizing put-downs to American beer based mostly upon notoriously weak pale lagers produced by Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors almost as much as rants about overly aggressive foreign policy. I suppose it follows that all Americans should shoulder the blame for everything American. The truth is most countries (except Belgium and to a lesser extent the Czech Republic and Germany, it seems) produce or sell an adjunct lager. Meaning a beverage whose malt content is adjuncted with corn, rice, sorghum or soy in order to cut cost. The American versions are just the most popular. I generally argue that all beer (or beer-like beverages) have a proper context in which they can be enjoyed, including Budweiser. These hypothetical contexts generally center on post-connubial relations with unnamed faux-blondes where consumption of large quantities of mass-produced pizza products are necessary to get the taste of vomit out of the mouth. Not that I would know.
Moving along, there are five accepted characteristics used to evaluate beer: Appearance, Aroma, Flavor, Texture, Drinkability aka Look, Smell, Taste, Mouthfeel & Drink. Take the average American beer, say the Pabst Blue Ribbon, a 4.7% American Adjunct Lager, described by Beeradvocate as:
Light bodied, pale, fizzy lagers made popular by the large macro-breweries of America after prohibition. Low bitterness, thin malts, and moderate alcohol. Focus is less on flavor and more on mass-production and consumption, cutting flavor and sometimes costs with adjunct cereal grains, like rice and corn.
Look: Pale, golden color, light head, fizzy
Smell: Overwhelming sweet corn syrupy
Taste: Overwhelming sweet, corn syrupy
Feel: Like swishing around carbonated water
Drink: When served very cold surprisingly refreshing, palate cleansing even.
Overall: Good for washing down typical American-style pizza, barbecue and junk food. Like happoshu in Japan. Good for the post-prohibition age for which it was designed. Surprising clout in the hipster community.
That is of course the average, not much better than a C- in most modern beer drinkers’ books. Not just the drink itself but the paradigm within which we imbibe too must be examined in order to properly understand the magic of beer. The way people drink beer now is different from how it was before the the industrial revolution brought in the assembly line to dilute our fair brews. Prior to this, beer was originally meant to replace supplies of water that had become undrinkable, specifically in Belgium, where they called the local farmer’s brew Saison. Farmhands were allowed five liters a day during the “season” and were were meant to be refreshing rather than intoxicating and thus had alcohol levels less than 3%. Brasserie Dupont says, “Because of the lack of potable water, saisons would give the farm hands the hydration they needed without the threat of illness.”
Traditionally these seasonals were brewed in the winter for use the following summer. To keep alcohol content low and worker production up, they were occasionally blended with their Lambic cousins, themselves left to spontaneously ferment outside between April and May by catching the wild yeasts floating about on spring breezes. One of the most important of which turned out to Brettanomyces bruxellensis (identified in 1904 by Carlsberg brewers as the cause of British Ale spoilage, naming it Belgian British Fungus). A wild strain that has since been domesticated, it lives on the skins of fruit, and imparts the typically dry, fruity flavors found in Lambic. Despite its generally favorable reception, its flavor has also been described as “sweaty saddle leather”, “barnyard”, “burnt plastic” or even “band-aid” and is figured to cause 90% of wine spoilage, although apparently French winemakers are noted for not particularly minding the flavor. This embattled strain of wild yeast has been used in the genesis of brewing of many American Saison-style brews, such as Saison Brett, the Kansas City-based Boulevard Brewing’s Saison / Farmhouse Ale. The jacket reads:
Our gold medal winning Saison (Mondial de la Biere, Montreal, 2008) was the starting point for this limited edition ale. It was then dry-hopped, followed by bottle conditioning with various yeasts, including Brettanomyces, a wild strain that imparts a distinctive earthy quality. Though this farmhouse ale was given three months of bottle age prior to release, further cellaring will continue to enhance the ‘Brett’ character, if that’s what you’re after.
As most beer drinkers, I am no apologist for my homeland’s failed foreign policies nor corn-flavored lagers. yet given the choice between having my choice of high end Belgium Trappist Ales and tabling a few brews amongst friends at the local pub, I choose the table, the talk, the the sweaty saddle leather, the barnyard generic golden pils-style pale lager invented in earnest and mass-produced to death. Because amongst friends, even in mass-produced, corn-syrupy dilution, the magic is there. Perhaps that is just the ‘Brett’ character, but I choose the magic.