Monday, August 06, 2007


Beer is the foundation of human civilization. Around 8-10 thousand years ago (after spending the previous 190,000 plus years accomplishing nothing more than figuring out how to build a campfire and chip flint spear points, if Darwin is to be believed) man figured out how to cultivate grain. This led to the baking of bread which people soon figured out how to crumble up and ferment into beer. Source

Beer was not invented so that Sumerian college students could get drunk and run their chariots into walls. It was a way to concentrate the nutritional properties of grain in a palatable form and feed a population. The warm glow that beer gives to the drinker was considered a gift from the beer goddess Ninkasi.

Beer formed a staple of the diets of civilized man in ancient Mesopotamia, ancient Egypt and Europe right up into the Industrial Revolution. Only in certain areas of the Mediterranean which particularly favor the growing of grapes was wine able to replace beer as an important source of calories for the general population.

Beer is primarily divided into two categories ale and lager.


Ales are normally brewed with top-fermenting yeasts (most commonly Saccharomyces cerevisiae) , though a number of British brewers, including Fullers and Weltons, use ale yeast strains that have less pronounced top-fermentation characteristics. The important distinction for ales is that they are fermented at higher temperatures and thus ferment more quickly than lagers.

Ale is typically fermented at temperatures between 15 and 24 °C (60 and 75 °F). At these temperatures, yeast produces significant amounts of esters and other secondary flavour and aroma products, and the result is often a beer with slightly "fruity" compounds resembling apple, pear, pineapple, banana, plum, or prune, among others. Typical ales have a sweeter, fuller body than lagers.


Lager is the English name for bottom-fermenting beers of Central European origin. They are the most commonly consumed beers in the world. The name comes from the German lagern ("to store"). Lagers originated from being fermented in the cellars of Eastern European castles and monasteries which became quite cold, thus causing the lager fermentation. Lager yeast is a bottom-fermenting yeast (e.g., Saccharomyces pastorianus), and typically undergoes primary fermentation at 7–12 °C (45–55 °F) (the "fermentation phase"), and then is given a long secondary fermentation at 0–4 °C (32–40 °F) (the "lagering phase"). During the secondary stage, the lager clears and mellows. The cooler conditions also inhibit the natural production of esters and other byproducts, resulting in a "crisper" tasting beer.

Modern methods of producing lager were pioneered by
Gabriel Sedlmayr the Younger, who perfected dark brown lagers at the Spaten Brewery in Bavaria, and Anton Dreher, who began brewing a lager, probably of amber-red colour, in Vienna in 1840–1841. With improved modern yeast strains, most lager breweries use only short periods of cold storage, typically 1–3 weeks.

There are also lambics, which taste vile. If you want to read about them follow the link.

In addition to the ale/lager division there are also the light and dark beers:

The most common colour is a pale amber produced from using pale malts. Pale lager is a term used for beers made from malt dried with coke. Coke had been first used for roasting malt in 1642, but it wasn't until around 1703 that the term pale ale was first used.

In terms of volume, most of today's beer is based on the pale lager brewed in 1842 in the town of Pilsen, in the Czech Republic. The modern Pilsner lager is light in colour and high in carbonation, with a strong hop flavour and an alcohol by volume content of around 5%. The Pilsner Urquell, Bitburger, König Pilsener, and Heineken brands of beer are typical examples of pale lager, as are the American brands Budweiser, Coors, and Miller. Source

Dark beers are usually brewed from a pale malt or lager malt base with a small proportion of darker malt added to achieve the desired shade. Other colourants — such as caramel — are also widely used to darken beers. Very dark beers, such as stout use dark or patent malts that have been roasted longer. Guinness and similar beers include roasted unmalted barley.

The richer and more complex taste of ale, especially the very dark forms such as stout and porter are what make them the usual choice of beer aficionados.

Now beer, you will remember, was a staple in the diets of Europeans into the 19th century. The dark ales were better sources of nutrition. Stout is so named because it is a stout brew to fortify men for hard work and porter was developed for porters (men who spend all day carrying heavy loads) who needed the energy to keep them going through their long work days.

Nutritionally dense does not tend to translate into "light and refreshing" for beer any more than tomato juice quenches thirst better than plain water. This brings us to the question of how lager came to dominate the market for beer in the United States.

Listen to what beer expert Charlie Bamforth says when asked about his "favorite beer":

"If I'm in an old pub with a ceiling about my height and there's a roaring log fire, cask ale from England is sublime. I wouldn't have an American-style lager. If I'm at a Sacramento River Cats AAA baseball game and it's 100 degrees outside, I could kill for a Bud. I'm not going to drink a Guinness. So it's horses for courses."

If you want something to cut through thirst on a hot day a light lager is just the ticket. I talked about this with a friend who is very knowledgeable about beer last night and he agreed, stating "nobody drinks Guinness at a picnic" (the only time Yogi Bear ever became so enraged that he mauled a human to death was when he stole a pick-a-nick basket which turned out to be filled with Samuel Smith's Oatmeal Stout - the episode aired once and then was banned by order of the Johnson administration).

America is not a hungry country. We do not need to get a significant portion of our daily calories from beer and most of America tends to have much hotter summers than most of Europe. That, plus the fact that the single largest European immigrant group to come to the US was from Germany has led to the American love affair with the lager.

One more piece of the puzzle is necessary to explain the state of modern American mass market beer. World War Two. During the war America's economy went onto a war footing with production of war materials taking first place and everything else coming in a distant second. Rationing was imposed on America and the economy was reorganized into what has been called "wartime socialism". Brewers had to make due with less expensive and more easily obtained ingredients which resulted in a much less flavorful beer than had been produced previously.

After the war it was found that Americans had acquired a taste for weak relatively tasteless beer. As Andrew Martin observes in his review of Roger Protz's book, World Encyclopedia of Beer: How to Choose and Enjoy the Beers of the World :

"This formula originating in Pilsner is, for Protz, "the most abused beer style in the world", too often giving rise to "a pale, thin, undistinguished" brew. But many young people like "pale, thin, undistinguished" beers, thank you very much, and so do Americans. The fact is that many of the mass-produced lagers are a means to an end rather than an end in themselves, their virtue being that they provide no distraction on the way to intoxication."

Beer had become for the average American a means to an end. Whether than end was intoxication or washing down a hot-dog at a baseball game or killing the thirst worked up from a hot day in the field or loosening up his girlfriend beer drinking was no longer about enjoying the beverage for its own sake. Beer in America had become little more than an alcohol delivery system.

Which brings us to why I wrote this rambling essay on beer in the first place. This is the result of a request from the Flaxen-headed Strumpet that I give my opinion of Tecate, a Mexican lager. Strumpet described Tecate as "rancid cat piss" so it was with some trepidation that I opened a can and took a sip. To find it a rather pleasant and refreshing beverage. And I'm not the only one who likes it. Beer Belly Brew Master Rob Lieblein has this to say about Tecate:

But I’d like to suggest an alternative Mexican beer. One that tastes better, gets cold faster, and stacks more easily in your cooler. That beer is Tecate.

[. . .]

Another feature of Tecate that make it the iconoclast of Mexican brews is that it’s rarely served with lime. And if it is, the person serving you is an amateur—put the lime aside and save it for your tequila shot. Tecate has its own flavor, and it’s a pretty good one too. Crisp and refreshing, with just a slightly bitter aftertaste, Tecate doesn’t merely cut the chimichanga grease and tame the habanero fire, it actually complements the grease and fire. What’s more, it’s very refreshing and satisfying when consumed ice-cold on a hot sunny beach. Just make sure you have a good beer can cozy to keep it cold.

Epinions gives it four out of five stars and has this to say about it:

Tecate shares the pride of having the attitude of modern Mexicans. This beer was first brewed in 1944, in the little town of Tecate, located in the northwest part of Mexico, just south of the border with California. It is a Lager beer with a delicious aroma of malt and hops and a delicate balance in its subtle refreshing taste. Tecate is one of the most successful brands in Mexico, and also has the largest sales in the export market for Cerveceria Cuauhtemoc Moctezuma, being presently available in more than 35 countries.

Why, I wondered, would a beer which is head and shoulders above anything made by the big American breweries like Anheuser-Busch get such a negative reaction. The only explanation I could come to was that when one is accustomed to drinking beer with little detectable taste a beer with actual flavor could very well be overwhelming.

I can only advise people who are happy with Budweiser to give a wide berth to Samuel Smith's Imperial Stout.