Much Ado About Brew

Recognizing the best beers in the business.

With a heavy wine-writer's heart I admit that more Americans drink beer than wine. Call it a tribute to our founding fathers, or blame the wine industry's marketing flaws. Yes, wine is making inroads into our consumption habits, but we still love beer. Think football season, barbecue season, and the one day when we all drink some sort of grain-influenced beverage: St. Patrick's Day.

Although the Irish get a lot of beer credit, Germans made American beer what it is today, establishing a foothold on immigrants with their lagers in the mid-1800s. According to Maureen Ogle's book Ambitious Brew, Milwaukee and St. Louis -- established by names like Best, Busch and Schlitz -- quickly became synonymous with distinctive beer since their river access provided an efficient means to deliver fresh product. Before the Germans arrived, Americans drank rough, harsh ales that took less time to brew and were cheaper. But, once introduced, lighter, smoother lagers promptly became king.

Lager is a generic name for pale, cold-fermented, cold-aged beer. They differ from ales because they are produced with bottom-fermenting yeasts at much colder temperatures, over longer periods of time (two to three months as opposed to weeks). Long cold storage, or cellaring, of beer is called "lagering." Before the wide use of refrigeration, the cooler temperatures of St. Louis and Milwaukee provided perfect lagering conditions, so their superior reputations make sense. Most of the popular American brands are lagers, like Budweiser, Milwaukee's Best, and Michelob.

But today's American ales demonstrate what a carefully constructed ale can be. Wheat, pale, and brown ales from breweries around the country provide excellent additions to our St. Patrick's Day celebrations. Wheat beer is a light-bodied ale made from malted wheat that feels slightly fizzy in the mouth and has a lactic acid tartness. Pale ale, ironically, does not look pale -- it's slightly reddish in color, and characterized by a bitter hop presence in both flavor and aroma. One type of pale ale is called India Pale Ale (or IPA), named for the beer exported to Britain's troops stationed in colonial India in the 1800s. They made a slightly stronger, heartier brew back then, adding hops to the casks to help preserve the beer for shipping. It might taste like what we call Strong Ale today, a whopper of a beer with malty sweetness and brawny coffee and chocolate flavors. Another type is American Brown Ale, a new interpretation of the English tradition, featuring a pronounced roasted malt flavor, with more hop bitterness emerging from our homegrown varieties. Newcastle is an example of a brown ale.

Even more exciting beers continue to emerge from domestic breweries, but drink down some of these lagers and ales and you'll be set to celebrate St. Paddy's Day, American style. 

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