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Not Clear About Lager, Ale and Stout?

Beer Help is Here

By Christopher Borrelli, Chicago TribuneMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News

September 30, 2010 --I like beer.

I have tasted my share.

But I did not realize until recently that I was, in the words of Mike Roper at Hopleaf, "a novice drinker." That is, I did not recognize that I did not know anything about beer or what I was ordering, let alone what hops really are. (Don't even bring up those dopplebock thingies.) I was willing to try new beers, but I knew what I liked. Sam Adams, basically. I knew enough to know it was fancier than, say, Pabst. But in the last few years, as the beer selection in many restaurants has grown from a cameo at the bottom of a wine list to several pages, as the brewpub and gastropub became ubiquitous, frankly, beer menus could drive you to drink.

If you relate, know this:

You are not alone.

"What happened in the world of beer is the craft-brewing revolution happened, which made it more like the world of wine," said Roper, whose popular Andersonville gastropub serves 250 different bottles (with several dozen more on tap) and has become a model for gastropubs around the country. "But there are still a lot fewer beers than wines in the world. At this point, beer menus are manageable."

Ha.

"The truth is we have 300 bottles alone, our menu is intimidating and the drafts have descriptions but the bottles probably don't have enough right now," said Jay Jankowski, general manager of the Map Room in Bucktown. So, short of already knowing what you like, taking a stab at a cool-sounding beer (a Jolly Pumpkin Luciernaga has to be interesting, right?), asking a bartender for advice (most brewpubs will oblige with a sample) or attending a beer festival -- Flatlander's Brewing Company in Lincolnshire, for instance, has Beerfest on Saturday -- you're left with a big menu dense with jargon, unfamiliar brands and a product (beer) synonymous with a lack of pretense.

You feel like an idiot.

You have questions, but, usually, you say nothing. Well then, allow me to be your idiot:

Q: Does this menu need to be so long?

A: "Everything about wine is designed to make you feel like you don't know everything," said Randy Mosher, a well-respected Chicago-based "beer geek" who has written books and taught classes about beer, as well as designed beer bottle labels and consulted on beer menus. "It's not in beer's DNA to be that restrictive. Still, in serving one audience (beer geeks), you do alienate another."

Said Chad Lynd of Small Bar: "I definitely prefer a small, precise beer menu. That said, I fall in love with a new beer every day and do think it needs adding."

Nick Floyd of Three Floyds Brewing in Munster, Ind., had a different take: "Yes, it needs to be long. Go to a restaurant, you get a book for wine. I don't think three pages of beer is so overwhelming."

Q: Does alcohol percentage matter?

A: Yes. Generally, 41/2 to 5 percent alcohol is standard for beer; 7 percent and higher will be regarded as strong. "If you order a pint and it's 9, or you get a pint and it's just 3 percent, what that number is will alter your evening dramatically," said Jankowski. "People should understand this."

Another good general rule: The higher the alcohol content, the smaller the glass, reminds Marty Nachel, author of "Beer for Dummies."

Q: I realize how dumb this sounds, but this menu is divided by lager and ale. What's the difference? (What's a stout?)

A: Roper said: "Lagers rule the world of mass-marketed beer. All Mexican beer are lagers. It is beer that has been stored. Before the craft-beer movement, this was a lager country. Ales were British, but the Belgians hung onto the tradition more than anyone, and nearly all fancy Belgian beers are now ales."

Mosher said: "If you get a lager, you're not getting a lot of fruitiness, not a lot of spice. A lager is focused on malt and hops. An ale will have some flavor beyond a beer's standard ingredients and depending on the tradition it's coming from, tends to be aromatically complex." (A stout? Think black beer.)

Recommendations: Metropolitan Brewing's Flywheel Lager (Chicago), Two Brothers' Long Haul Ale (Warrenville), North Coast's Old No. 38 Stout (Fort Bragg, Calif.)

Q: What is the difference between an IPA and a double IPA? Or a double and a triple? And since we're on the subject ... what's an IPA?

A: IPA means a golden beer, an India Pale Ale. "Extremely popular with West Coast breweries," Roper said. "But it goes back to the British colonies in India. Because beer wasn't brewed in India. (When shipping beer to the country) the British would add a lot of hops. Besides being a flavoring agent, it preserved beer better. And it ramped up the alcohol. But there were no 'doubles' or 'triples' sent to India. That's completely an invention of the West Coast."

Normally, a triple is bitter, and a double slightly less bitter. Jankowski said, "Triples are a gimmick." Nachel said, "It's not a gimmick. If you don't like bitter, you don't want a higher number."

Recommendation: Dogfish Head's 90 Minute IPA (of Delaware)

Q: So then what's the difference between a Belgian "dubbel" and a "tripel"?

A: Roper said: "This goes back to the (Belgian) Trappist monks who make it. They brewed a low-alcohol beer for meals and typically never sold it, so they would do a strong, dark malty beer (a dubbel) for sale."

Nachel said: "Then they made an even stronger dark, a quadrupel, which is very rich (though not bitter) and has more in common with the dubbel." The tripel? Spicy and pale. Why is a tripel pale but a dubbel and quadrupel are dark? "You would have to go to talk to the monks," Nachel said.

Recommendations: Chimay (of Belgium) invented the tripel; Allagash Brewing in Maine makes a well-regarded dubbel and tripel.

Q: I know I'm supposed to know this, but what does "hoppy" mean?

A: Lynd said: "It often means you will get a blast of bitterness."

Nachel said: "But the type of hops -- just as different grapes grow in different parts of the world -- changes what 'hoppy' means."

Q: What does "imperial" mean?

A: It typically means a stout. Its origins are somewhat similar to those of the IPA. "If you were a czar in Russia, you liked exotic things other people couldn't have," Roper said, "and one thing they got was British stout, which Russians liked, but to ship it, the British made it stronger and added more hops and eventually that became 'imperial.'"

Recommendation: Chocolate Oak Aged Yeti from Great Divide Brewing in Denver

Q: Wine experts go on about the importance of the terroir, of the characteristics of the land where a grape is raised. But does it matter where a beer is from?

A: Nachel said: "Most grains and hops are grown in the same location. Terroir doesn't apply to beer in the same way." The quality of the water does, however. That said, "if you want to get into regional microbrewing styles," said Floyd, "West Coast IPAs are hugely piney, bitter. The Midwest is known for being more balanced, more citrusy. The East Coast will be malty. That's a broad understanding." (He added: Consider the distance a small microbrewery is from Chicago; a light beer from a small brewer probably won't travel as well as other types of beer.)

Mosher said: "I think it's more important to understand the mental terroir of the brewery and the choices the brewer has made. If wine is about real estate, then beer is usually more about cultural real estate."

Q: What if I get anxious around menus like this and tend to fall back on the familiar?

A: The big guys don't make good beer, generally," Roper said. "Even your Heinekens or your Becks are not going to be good. An Anchor or Sam Adams or a Sierra Nevada might make a good baby step into a large beer menu. ... Another suggestion is drink local. In Boston, that is Sam. Here in Chicago, that's Goose Island or Three Floyds or Half Acre."

cborrelli@tribune.com

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