You’re a beer man. It’s your drink of choice when you’re relaxing at home with friends or a DIY project, and the first thing you order when you’re at the pub. But do you take the type and quality of beer as seriously as whisky drinkers do their poison?
Let’s look at the intricacies of beer, and the different types available to us as we kick back with the boys or knock one back after work.
‘Beer’ refers to any fermented beverage made from grain. Most beers usually contain 5 to 14 per cent alcohol by volume. Beers can be divided into two major types – lagers and ales. They both vary in their range of colours, bitterness, aroma and level of malt. However, the type of yeast and the temperature of fermentation are what really distinguish ale from lager.
Ale is the oldest of the two types of beer and can be traced back more than 5, 000 years. Depending on the brewing style, ales can be their best when very young (starting at just seven days) to very old (several years).
Ales are fermented at warmer temperatures using top-fermenting yeast strains (as the name implies, this means that the yeast floats on top of the beer during fermentation). They are also are ready to drink sooner than lager and tend to have stronger, more pronounced – and even aggressive – flavours. In general terms, ales are fruity, full bodied and sweeter. The perfect way to serve ale is at a temperature of about 7 – 12 degrees Celsius.
The word ‘lager’ is derived from the German word ‘lagern’, which means ‘to store or put aside’. Lager brewing is believed to have developed accidentally when Bavarian monks, who traditionally brewed ales with the specific yeast strain S. cerevisiae, decided to store their beer barrels in caves. Scientists believe that after a different yeast strain of yeast, S. eubayanusto, somehow found its way to Europe, the cooler conditions of the brewing caves allowed it to compete and crossbreed with S. cerevisiae and thus, by dumb luck, lager came into existence. It may all sound a bit complicated, but what we are saying is, lager is one of man’s best mistakes.
As the above history lesson suggests, lagers are fermented at cooler temperatures by bottom fermenting yeast. The cooler fermentation and aging temperatures used with lager yeast slow down the yeast activity and require a longer maturation time.
The cold environment inhibits the production of fruity aromas (called esters) and other fermentation by-products common in ales. This process creates the lager’s cleaner taste. Long aging (or lagering) also mellows the beer.
Beers in the lager family need to be conditioned somewhere cool for a number of weeks before they are ready to drink. The result is a flavour that is a bit more subdued compared to ale. Lagers are smooth, bitter, crisp and subtler in taste. The amount of alcohol content in each type varies from brewery to brewery, but lagers are lighter than ales because they are produced at much lower temperatures. In addition, this type of beer is normally served at a cooler temperature than their ale counterparts. The proper temperature range for a lager is around 3 to 7 degrees Celsius. Anything served much colder than that will have lost most flavour.
In Kenya, lagers are probably the more popular of the two, with our very own Tusker comprising some of our finest. These include Tusker Lite, Tusker Malt Lager and Tusker Premium Lager. White Cap has also been a serious contender, with its White Cap and White Cap Lite variants.
A Quick Guide to Lagers & Ales
Generally, lagers are
- Smooth and mellow
- Include beers that are lighter in taste
- Are served cool (er)
- Have a subtle, clean taste and aroma
- Vary from light to very dark, according to style
- Are bottom fermented
Generally, ales are
- Fruity and aromatic
- Have more bitter varieties
- Are best enjoyed warmer
- Have robust tasting beers
- Have a distinct, complex taste and aroma
- Are often reddish brown or dark brown
Wherever you go, it’s always nice to see something you recognize. In this case the green bottle, red star, and smiling ‘e’ telling you instantly what is inside: Cold, fresh, quality Heineken enjoyed around the world since 1873.
How to Buy the Freshest Beer
Whether you are buying your beer from the supermarket or pub, you should know how fresh your beer is. Here’s how to avoid ‘dead’ beers.
Buy Brew from The Cooler.
Beer that has sat at room temperature starts to degrade and even become stale. Storing beer in a fridge slows the oxidation process, keeping it ‘fresher’ for longer. It is impossible to stop this process as even the tightest bottling will allow slight amounts of air into the bottle. Over months and even years, this will cause the beer to deteriorate and give it a wet paper and almost cardboard flavour.
Avoid Buying Beer That Is Kept In Direct Light.
This is because damaging UV rays will alter the taste of the beer. Both the rays and the heat can give rise to a ‘skunky’ stale taste, which is ultimately a by-product of the delicate hop oils ruining.
Look for Dust.
If you see any indications of it, just walk away. You can be sure that the beer has been sitting dead for a longer than you would want to know.
Avoid Beers on Sale.
Have you ever heard of a good quality, ‘in season’ product on sale? No. The truth of the matter is that there is usually a reason it is on sale. Try not to take any chances.
Clean Your Bottle Tops.
Think about where beers are stored. Usually somewhere dark, dusty and damp – the perfect habitat for a rat! So, no matter what beer you are drinking and how much you have paid for it, give the mouth piece a quick once-over just to be safe.