Norris Blanc channels Tarrantino in the search for Truth, Righteousness, and Beer in the Kitchen
Just like Jules (Samuel L. Jackson), in Quentin Tarrantino’s “Pulp Fiction”, one sometimes becomes impatient with false assumptions and fuzzy details. Tragically, many of the misconceptions about that single most universally enjoyed beverage, beer, are in fact created by beer producers themselves. Their vast advertising budgets seem focused on convincing us that beer (i.e. Lager) drinking is best confined to white sandy beaches and crowded bars; a thirst quencher or a social glue, where scorching hot women arrive in droves with built-in beer-goggles. Beer is there to be enjoyed as background, scenery, but not by or for itself. As a Financial Times journalist once put it, “These people are drinking a marketing programme, they’re not drinking beer”. This article aims to correct that injustice. Illumination is the mission here, to guide our readers out of the darkness and into the light. Or, as a sorely homicidally inclined Jules might say, “I’m trying Ringo. I’m trying real hard to be the shepherd”.
If there’s one consistent feature of a Tarrantino movie, it’s that his characters never lack for clarity of motive. In the gastronomic world, that’s not always the case. We’ve all seen articles on the arcane art of matching food and wine. To most of us, the process is so often filled with mystique by the professionals that we just don’t bother, and simply end up placing our bets on “red with meat, white with fish” Or perhaps, needing to make a good impression, we just plump for the idea that the $500 bottle of wine MUST be better than the $150. In both scenarios the potential for disappointment is considerable.
Beer suffers from exactly the opposite problem! To most people, especially most beer drinkers, there’s no mystique about beer at all. Yet, while those same people would probably at least know that wine is made from grapes, it’s surprising how many don’t know what beer is made from. Or how that translates into the quality, variety, taste and price of the end result. You wouldn’t go into a restaurant and order “a plate of food”, would you? Or “a glass of wine”? You’d have at least some idea of how you wanted to maximize your enjoyment of what you ate or drank. So, before exploring the marriage of beer with food (the ultimate objective of this post), or just beer with thirst, we should maybe try to plug the giant Beer Information Gap (or just ‘B.I.G.’ to those in the know) that surrounds us.
Both ale and lager are beers. Both are made from malted barley, hops, yeast, and of course, water. Wheat beers, obviously, use wheat instead of barley. Each of those ingredients, and how they are used in the brewing process, bring distinct features to the end product. Malted barley, for example. Just before grains or seeds sprout, they develop an outer layer of maltose sugars (yep, that’s where Malt comes from!), and it’s these sugars, along with the other starches in the barley grain that are then roasted by the brewer prior to commencing the brewing process. The degree of malt combined with the roasting time and temperature have a profound effect on the taste (think cereal, toast, caramel, chocolate, coffee) and colour (pale straw through rich ruby to deep brown) of the end result. Then there’s hops. Hops is actually a flower that’s grown on a vine, and it’s used to do two things; add bitterness to the sweet malt liquid, and also to bring aromas and flavours to the mix (so you just HAVE to wonder where Hops Bread comes from!!). Just like mangos, and apples, there are many different strains of hops, each with their own characteristics, which are then used in making different types of beers. Yeast (many brewers cultivate their own, and keep the details very secret) is then added to ferment all those complex sugars, and of course, we can’t forget water! And not just any old water either, as it’s hardness, softness, and mineral content are major elements of the particular style of beer being brewed, and it’s taste.
Beers fall into two broad categories: those produced by top-fermenting yeasts (ales, stouts and porters) and those made with bottom-fermenting yeasts (lagers). And just to confuse you, there are also hybrids!
Ales are the original beers. In the early days (Egyptian Pharaohs were often buried with supplies of beer) brewers weren’t aware that yeast even existed, but it was still an essential ingredient in the fermentation process, usually arriving in the form of wild, airborne yeast cells. In warm weather, the yeast in the ales continued to ferment the grain sugars at widely varied rates, depending on weather, location, and probably the random combination of different yeast strains. The end results were frequently a lottery. So brewers began to store their beer in as cool a place as possible. Those who stored their beer in very cold Alpine caves discovered their beer was more stable, lighter, and more consistent in taste. The reason was that during the cold storage process (lagerung in German – hence Lager), all the yeast cells sank to the bottom, and in the colder temperatures it was the bottom-fermenting yeasts that continued to function. At colder temperatures these yeasts worked slowly, producing beer more attenuated, rounder and less fruity than ales. Fermentation also took longer; up to three months, as opposed to three weeks for most ales.
Ales include everything with ale in the name (pale ale, amber ale, etc.), porters, stouts, Belgian specialty beers, wheat beers and many German specialty beers. They generally have a more robust taste, are more complex and are best consumed cool (50F or a bit warmer) rather than cold.
Lagers include pilseners, bocks, Hells, Oktoberfests, and a number of other mostly German styles. They are best consumed at a cooler temperature than ales, although anything served at less than 38F will lose most of its flavor. The pilsener style historically dominated the U.S. beer market, and later the Caribbean, but there now are plenty of other choices available. In T&T, the pilsner style predominates, with Carib and Stag the best known of the locally brewed beers. Popular lager imports include Heineken (the Netherlands), Corona (Mexico) and Coors (USA). Ales are a relatively recent addition to the local drinking landscape, but there is actually quite a wide range available from several British brewers, e.g. Badger, Belhaven, Fullers, Gales, Greene King, and Scottish & Newcastle. The key thing to note about these brewers is that they are all from very different parts of the U.K . In much the same way that wine enthusiasts compare regional notes between, say a Bordeaux, a Rioja and a Chianti, so too do the regional differences matter between ales – different water, different brewing traditions, different envelopes being pushed.
And a quick word on stout. It’s the roasted flavour that sets stout apart from other ale styles. This usually comes from roasted barley, which is barley grain that has not been malted, but highly kilned. This unique treatment for the grain creates flavours ranging from dry astringency to unsweetened chocolate to coffee.