How to enjoy your beer

Jun 2, 2011 by Vaccinium

How to enjoy your beer

This article is the final article in a three-part series on beer and beer selection. They will serve as the wrap-up for the recent Beer Selection Workshop held on the EdenFantasys forum. If you have any questions about this article, or beer in general, please ask them in the comments below or in the workshop thread referenced above.

Now you have all the information to choose a beer that you will enjoy. But which one will you choose? Obviously you should choose a beer you think you’ll enjoy, but there may be several from which to choose. One way of deciding is to consider the time of year it is. Yes, there is a beer calendar. In general, heavier, higher alcohol beers are best for winter, as they warm the soul and the flesh (they actually don’t – it just feels that way – so never drink alcohol to get yourself warm because it can actually end up doing the opposite). As spring approaches, German lagers celebrate the increasing light and rising temperatures by becoming more prevalent in the marketplace. Summer calls for refreshing, light beers that compliment the weather and don’t weigh you down. Pilsners, wheat beers, Hefeweisens, sour beers, and lighter colored English-style ales are best drank during this time. As fall approaches, the hops harvest comes in and the heavier, hoppy ales are a great choice. German lagers are also a great choice for your local Oktoberfest.

You can also decide which beer to drink based on what food you are eating with it. I could go over the top and go into great detail about what beer goes best with which food like some deranged wine aficionado might do, but this is beer we’re talking about. Beer drinkers are simple people, and food pairings should reflect that. So, if you are enjoying a hearty stew, a rich steak, or a another strong-tasting food, a heavier, robust beer will pair very well and won’t overwhelm the taste of the food you are eating. However, most vegetarian dishes, healthy seafood dishes, salads, and pasta will pair best with a lighter beer. Burgers, hot dogs, pork, chicken, and most sandwiches are intermediate and may favor a heavier or lighter beer based on how they are prepared, or they may warrant something more intermediate. Nevertheless, both the beer calendar and food pairings are just rules of thumb, so drink what you like, when you like.

So, you have picked the beer you want to drink. Now, *how* will you enjoy it? The first thing to know is that beer is best drank out of a glass. Other than some down-on-his-luck sort gulping Boone’s Farm wrapped in a paper bag, have you seen anyone drink wine out of the bottle by choice? Of course not. Beer is no different. When poured into a glass, the delicate aromas of the beer can be enjoyed, especially when the beer has a good head to it. Head is a good thing [insert joke here], as it releases the aromas and tastes in a beer. Such smells and flavors are unavailable to someone drinking from a bottle or can. If you are at a bar, pub, or restaurant ask for your beer on draft (draught) if you have the option, but if it only comes in a bottle or can, ask for a glass to pour it into. The most common glass is a pint glass. This is a good all around glass that gradually increases its diameter from bottom-to-top. Glasses smaller than a pint are also often available if you don’t want as much to drink or want to try several beers in one night. German lagers are often drank from steins and serve much the same purpose as pint glasses. Beer mugs do the same. Complex beers like barleywines, scotch ales, many Belgian ales, and some winter ales may be served in a fancier glass that resembles a brandy glass. This allows even more aroma and taste to come to the surface and remain trapped in the glass as you bring it to your mouth and nose to drink.

So, now you have your beer in its appropriate glass. Now what? I cannot stress this enough – drink your beer at the proper temperature. I know that sounds snobby, but it makes such a huge difference in the taste of beer. I’ve had many a beer that I thought was mediocre-at-best at colder temperatures, but once it reached its drinking temperature became wonderful. Bitterness and the taste of alcohol tend to decrease as beers (particularly ales) approach their proper temperatures, and more complex flavors begin to develop. At the best brewpubs and pubs that specialize in great beer, your beer is likely to be served at its proper temperature (40-45º F (4-7º C) for lagers, 50-55º F (10-13º C) for ales), so there is nothing to worry about. However, many other brewpubs and most bars and restaurants serve them at colder temperatures. All you can do is take the occasional sip until it warms up and then drink it when it finally reached the proper temperature. Unless you carry a thermometer with you, you won’t know exactly when the temperature it right, so just start drinking it in earnest when it starts tasting good to you. At home, unless you devote a refrigerator to beer, you’ll have to wait for the beer to warm up after it comes out of your fridge. Given that a refrigerator is usually set at 35-38º F (1-3º C), about 5 minutes for a lager and 30 minutes for an ale is what you’ll need to wait for the beer to reach drinking temperature. Although it depends on the quantity of beer in the glass and the temperature of the surrounding air, you can usually expect beer to warm up about 2º F (1.25º C) every 5 minutes.

There is more you can do with beer than drink it – you can also cook with it. As much as I love beer, I have to tell you that cooking with beer doesn’t create the same tremendous dishes that cooking with wine does. Fine food and beer simply don’t match as well. If you go to a brewpub, it’s easy to find beer-battered fish and chicken, beer bread, sauces and mustards with beer in them, sausages cooked in beer, and other items that have some beer in them, but it is honestly pretty difficult to taste the beer. At home, I cook sometimes cook sauerkraut in beer (which tames the sour and boosts the complexity), add it to some chilies and stews, make beer bread, and add it to the pan when I’m roasting some poor beast, but otherwise I leave it for drinking. In general, with the possible exception of beer bread, the heavier or more complex beers make a better cooking beer than the lighter ones.

That said, there are three specific uses for certain beers that bear mention. First off, stouts and porters pair wonderfully with chocolate. This isn’t a surprise since many of these already have chocolaty overtones, but the chocolate enhances the taste of the beer and the beer enhances the taste of the chocolate. Second, fruited sour beers, especially the lambics made by Lindemann’s (you’ve probably seen single bottles of them wrapped in foil with words like Kriek, Framboise, and Peche on them), make a tremendous sorbet. That’s right – beer sorbet. Seriously, it’s killer. Third, although this isn’t necessarily cooking with beer, it should be pointed out that a lot of brewpubs make veggie burgers out of the barley they used to make their beer. I love good veggie burgers and go to vegetarian restaurants just to order them, but the best ones I’ve ever had have been homemade by brewpubs. Of course, they pair beautifully with beer.

Finally, and I hate to even mention this because I find them to be an abomination, but it is even possible to make mixed drinks from beer. The classic American beer cocktail is the boilermaker, which is essentially a shot (whiskey, generally) and a beer – sometimes mixed, sometimes not. An English classic is the Shandy, which is a drink with equal mixtures of a pale to amber ale with ginger ale, ginger beer, or carbonated lemonade. Mexico also has its favorite as well, the Michelada (beer, lime juice, and hot sauce). Other popular beer cocktails include the Snakebite (equal parts beer and hard cider), the Bee Sting (dark beer and orange juice), the Broadway (beer and cola), the Black Velvet (equal parts stout and champagne), the Lager and Lime (just what you think it is), the Red Eye (beer and a shot of tomato juice), the Liverpool Kiss (dark beer and cassis), and the wonderfully named Strip and Go Naked (beer, lemon juice, gin, and grenadine).

Unfortunately, there are times you simply cannot enjoy your beer. Despite the maddening array of beer styles, there are some commonalities that can help you know whether you are being served good beer or bad beer. In general, you are unlikely to encounter badly brewed beer unless you drink beer from a homebrewer. That’s not to say home-brewed beer is bad, nor that brewery-produced beer can’t become contaminated, but rather homebrew operations are far more variable in terms of cleanliness and chance of contamination than are breweries. However, beer can go bad in the bottle or become contaminated as it leaves the keg. The shelf life of most beer is about four months, and beer consumed after four months is likely to undergo chemical changes that add off-tastes to the beer. This is especially the case with beer in clear or green bottles, as light induces a chemical reaction to add skunky off-tastes. Brown bottles and cans are far better for beer preservation. Every bottled beer should have either a “best-by” date or a date brewed on it, so pay attention when you buy your beer. When storing your beer at home, store it in a cool to cold, dark area. Refrigerators work just fine, but understand that your beer will need to warm up a little before you should drink it. You should also store your beer upright, as beer laid on its side can foam out the top of the bottle once you open it. Laying bottle-conditioned beer on its side also shifts the yeast to the side of the bottle, which makes it harder to avoid when you pour it into your glass.

Where I usually encounter bad tasting beer is in bars, brewpubs, or beerfests where the lines connecting the kegs to the tap become contaminated with bacteria. It is totally unacceptable, and if you have a beer that is clearly bad, request to speak to someone in charge so they can remedy the situation. Life is simply too short to drink bad beer. Beer aficionados use descriptors like cabbagy, medicinal, metallic, musty, sour, winy, and rotten pineapple to describe beers that have either become contaminated or have oxidized. Some beers are supposed to have sour/citrusy and wine-like overtones, so ask whether the beer you are drinking is supposed to have these flavors before embarrassing yourself by calling attention to it. Probably the easiest way to know whether a beer is bad is by smelling it. Good beer should have a subtle aroma that isn’t at all disagreeable. Bad beer is strong and pungent in odor.

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