Welcome to the first ever We Brought Beer A to Z of craft beer.
A – Aroma, Alcohol
One of the most important pieces of the puzzle. Did you know you have more tastebuds in your nose than your mouth? Aroma plays an essential role in tasting beer, although not every beer has to have a strong aroma to be considered good. To get the fullest hit of aroma, always drink from a glass, ideally a nice open topped one (a wine glass, a Teku or a stemmed half pint for example). Be sure to swirl the beer in the glass to release dissolved CO2 and bring little aroma popping bubbles to the surface. Take short sniffs, take long sniffs. The aroma should come through pretty strongly with most beers and you can pick up several key characteristics of the beer; tropical fruits such as mango, passion fruit, lychee and grapefruit, or more floral tones, such as lavender, rose or elderflower. Perhaps you’re getting more earthy tones like mature cheddar or even wet socks! Either way, aroma is a massive flavour indicator and should not be ignored!
Ah yes, another big hitter right up at the top of the alphabet. Alcohol is a byproduct created when yeast cells eat the sugars they encounter in unfermented wort. If you wanted a crude but effective way to remember this process, you could say the yeast gobbles up the sugar, farts out CO2 and pees out alcohol. But of course we know that you’re too sophisticated to think of it like that! The ABV (Alcohol by Volume) of a beer is worked out by measuring the difference in density before and after fermentation. As the sugar gets converted to alcohol, the density of the wort decreases and brewers use a clever formula to work out what this shift represents in terms of ABV.
B – BrewDog, Barrel-Ageing, Belgium
Love them or hate them, there’s no denying that no brewery has done more to move the UK beer scene forward then those “cheeky scamps” up at BrewDog. Their ubiquitous Punk IPA is for many the entry point into craft beer as are their bars, which now line the country, popping up in even the most un-punk of places, such as Canary Wharf. They’re publicity stunts often border on the ludicrous and they seem to be always crowdfunding but without them, we think the UK beer scene would be 5 years behind where it is today. BrewDog championed American style beers, they pushed keg as a format, they were the first UK craft brewer to brave cans and they’ve helped craft beer enter mainstream the vernacular in a major way (remember when it was included in the basket of goods used to measure inflation?). We therefore felt they were worthy of singling out more than any other brewery.
Some beers were born to wait around for a while before being drunk, a process called ageing. Sometimes they’ll do their waiting in the bottle. Often they are put into barrels during which time the beer itself will not only mature and evolve in taste, but it will also pick up new characteristics from the barrels. Depending on the barrel used (popular ones include whisky, bourbon and wine) perhaps the beer picks up an oaky tinge, or hints of sweet bourbon & vanilla. Many beers are best drunk fresh but those that can handle the ageing process (usually stronger, darker, maltier styles like imperial stouts & barley wines) are often all the better for it.
One of the great brewing nations, Belgium punches way above its weight in terms of influence in the beer world. With a brewing history dating back centuries, and fascinatingly intertwined with monks and monasteries, Belgian beer covers everything from wild fermented sour beers, to straight up lagers, from light & spritzy to strong dark & malty. It really is one of the most diverse beer regions in the world.
C – Cans, Conditioning, Cantillon
Who would’ve thought 10 years ago that cans would become the number 1 packaging format for craft beer within a decade. But when you get past the old stigma (i.e. that canned beer is often crap beer), it makes perfect sense for brewers to use cans. Environmentally, they are better than glass bottles because aluminium is easier and more efficient to recycle, and because they are lighter to transport, this cuts down on vehicle emissions. But it’s not just the environmental benefits that make cans a no brainer, they are also better for the beer, acting as a more efficient barrier against two of beer’s biggest enemies – sunlight and oxygen. Finally, cans just look better in our humble opinion. A large, blank canvas on which to paint, brewers have wasted little time in creating some stunning label art.
The final stage of the brewing process is called conditioning, where the beer is chilled down to as close to freezing as possible (without actually freezing). The purpose of conditioning is to give the beer some time to rest, to let the flavours settle and marry together, as well as allowing any debris to settle to the bottom, to be removed before packaging. The conditioning process can take up to 8 weeks although it varies by style.
Cobwebs, cobwebs & more cobwebs. The Cantillon Brewery, located not too far from Brussels, goes against the old adage that 80% of brewing is cleaning. When in the business of making lambic & geuze beers, letting the elements in to do their thing is what it is all about. Wild yeasts abound (not that you can see them of course) across the brewery, which has remained almost unchanged in a century. Much of the brewing kit is original, including the open topped fermenters, whilst the cellars are loaded with wooden barrels containing lambic, kriek & framboise all fermenting and maturing away in peace, at one with nature. Their beer releases are some of the most hyped anywhere in the world and it is hard to get their beer. But if you do manage to get a bottle, be sure to savour it, and share it.