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Craft Beer Basics

I have never been a beer drinker, although you wouldn’t think that if you looked in the fridge in my garage. We have an entire appliance devoted entirely to the storage and chilling of beer. Not just any beer makes it to this hallowed spot, however – the only beer in our fridge is “craft” beer.  

My husband and daughter are craft beer enthusiasts;  and after listening to several conversations between the two of them that made no sense to me at all, I decided to give myself a little education on this obsession they have developed.

One of the ways you know you have a craft beer is that it will often have a clever, funny or even profane name. The wittier and weirder the better.  If the name of a beer makes you giggle or cringe, it’s most likely a craft beer. I have had all kinds of arrogant, fishy, apocalyptic, froggie, wrathful, idiotic, twisted and raging bottles of beer in my fridge lately.

Of course, the name is not really the determining factor for defining a craft beer. Craft beers come from small, independent brewers. To qualify as a craft beer, the annual production has be less than six million barrels per year.  The brewery has to be independent; no more than 25% of the interest in a craft beer brewery can be owned or controlled by a company in the alcohol industry that is not itself a craft brewer.  Craft beers are also produced in a traditional manner, and the flavor of the beer is derived from the fermentation of the brewing ingredients.

Craft beer has become so popular that you can take cruises devoted to their enjoyment; you can earn a certificate in “The Business of Craft Brewing” from a reputable university; and there is an official “American Craft Beer Week.” There has also emerged a whole new sub-culture of beer trading and bartering.

But what is it about craft beer that has attracted so many converts and contributed to the production of over 15 million barrels in 2013? Each glass exhibits the inspiration and passion of its creator and the ingredients are often complex and original. Craft beer is akin to wine in that it should be consumed in certain types of glassware, paired with compatible foods, and served at specified temperatures; craft beer is made to be savored and enjoyed. Craft beer is not a keg stand - beer pong sort of beverage.

Malt is the heart of any beer; it is a grain, usually the cereal barley. The grain is allowed to germinate and then it is roasted. This is what contributes to the overall flavor, smell, appearance and body of the beer. Hops, the flowers of the hop plant, are used to counter-balance the sweetness of the malt. Because there are hundreds of varieties of hops, brewers can use hops the same way a chef uses spices, to add flavor and aroma to the brew. Hops also serve as a preservative.  A third element to the production of craft beer is the type of yeast used to feed on the sugars and create the actual alcohol content during the fermentation process.  And finally, the type of water that is used also affects the flavor; craft brewers use certain waters from specific climates and with geological attributes that will ultimately enhance the properties of their beer.

Craft beer can be any color, from a pale golden hue to black, filtered or unfiltered, full or light-bodied. The carbonation levels of the beer control how it feels in the mouth; a craft beer can be heavy or airy, astringent or oily, crisp or creamy.  The aroma of a craft beer will be your first hint as to the taste; you may smell citrus, pine, flowers, fruit, yeast, malt, or spices. Flavors range from sweet to bitter, fruity to nutty; you may taste a roasted flavor or even chocolate.

Obviously, there are different styles and varieties of craft beer; one of the most popular is the IPA (India Pale Ale). IPA’s aren’t from India; the style originated in England in the 17-1800’s. IPAs are simply a lighter-colored, hop-heavy beers which renders them a little more bitter (think grapefruit) than other styles of craft beer.  Pale Ales are a milder version of the IPA.

ISAs (India Session Ales) are flavorful beers that don’t pack quite the punch of an IPA. ISAs are typified by a low alcohol content, which makes this the ideal craft beer to pair with outdoor activities.

Another version of pale ale which is gaining quick popularity is the “Saison.” This is a highly carbonated and flavored soft malt with a 7% alcohol content. The Saison is less “hoppy” than an IPA and has a spicy, fruity flavor with a dry finish. This is a beer that wine drinkers may be able to appreciate.

For more information, visit craftbeer.com, where you will find everything you could possibly want to know about craft beers. A nice feature of the website is the “style finder” which will help educate you one the type of craft beer you might find to be the most enjoyable. There is also a page that gives very specific tips on pairing food with craft beers.

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