Photo by Drew Beamer on Unsplash
By Liz Crowe
Welcome to the almost-but-not-quite-monthly Booze 101. We’ve talked hangovers. I’ve preached on Old Fashioneds. We’ve created your next beer-and-food pairing dinner party. It’s time to talk about a subject near and dear to me…beer. To be more specific: the spectrum of beers. From fun-slash-whacky to low alcohol-slash-light.
First, I’ll address the middle of the spectrum, wherein resides your basic IPAs, stouts, ambers, lagers, etc. But I’m getting ahead of myself here. Let’s start at the start of things. Beers break down into one of two basic categories: lagers and ales. The difference between them is one ingredient: the yeast. Let’s discuss what it is, how it’s used, and what happens to the liquid during and after fermentation.
To make beer, you start with a “wort,” which is a sugar water created when the malt of choice is cooked in hot water; then various flavorings, like hops are added to it. This is a key part of beer making, but I’m keeping with the theme of what happens to turn that wort into an ale or a lager, so bear with me.
That wort has a specific type and level of sugar per a recipe that will be consumed by the yeast to create alcohol and a bit of carbonation. At this point, in almost every case, one of two types of yeast will be added. If the brewer uses Saccharomyces cerevisiae, that beer will become an ale. If s/he uses Saccharomyces pastorianus, the result will be lager.
For the record, Saccharomyces cerevisiae (ale yeast) is also bread yeast. It’s a fairly straightforward organism that’s incapable of doing its fermentation job effectively in cold temperatures. There are other distinctions, but they’re boring for our purposes. Saccharomyces pastorianus (lager yeast) is a bit more complex and prefers cold temperatures.
The yeasts work on completely different schedules. Ales don’t take nearly as long as lagers to ferment. The difference is that in most cases, the taste experience you have with an ale involves actually tasting the yeast. Lagers finish “clean,” which means your experience is more direct with the early ingredients: the malt and hops and water used to craft the wort. Lagers are actually harder to craft properly because of this since the clean yeast leaves little behind to disguise any brewing errors.
Okay, enough of that. But knowing that is important and something that, once you understand it, will change the way you order and taste your beers the next time you’re at your favorite beer bar. My “local” is Rappourt Ann Arbor, but we’ll talk more about local beer bars another time.
Let’s talk whacky, shall we?
The most recent-slash-trendy one is something called Saturday Morning IPA (an ale), brewed by Smartmouth Brewing in Virginia. It is, they claim, “magically ridiculous” and is brewed with toasted marshmallows and the little marshmallow candies in Lucky Charms cereal. These ingredients are used at the “wort” stage, or prior to that fermentation thing we talked about above. Unfortunately, if you were truly jonesing for this, you’re out of luck as they’ve run out, thanks to a savvy viral campaign.
In the name of bizarre-o ingredients, let’s talk about Ghost Face Killah, currently on tap at Twisted Pine Brewing in Boulder, Colorado. It has ghost pepper, serrano, jalapeño, habanero, Fresno, and Anaheim peppers included in its mix. And for those of you worried about it, it also has the actual Ghost Face Killah of Wu-Tang Clan’s blessing.
If you’re into the whole “sweetmeats” thing, you should try Wynkoop Brewpub’s (Denver, Colorado) Rocky Mountain Oyster Stout. It contains sliced and roasted bull testicles, and according to the brewery, has a “meaty, savory” flavor.
Um. Okay. I’ll admit, I have it on my Bucket List of Weirdness to try someday.
Here in Michigan, the brewer of choice for weird and successful is Short’s Brewing Company in Bellaire, near Traverse City. I asked sales director (and friend of mine) Pauline Prueter what she’d recommend if one were seeking something unique from Short’s.
“Bloody beer is probably one of the best for something like this. It isn’t distributed often, but we do it at the pub and it was one that put Joe (Short) on the map for the imperial beer series in 2007 in which it was featured. I love this one because it takes the bloody beer with a side car and flips it. It is also 100% real ingredients. We don’t even use bloody mix. We hand blend all the original ingredients such as tomatoes, horseradish, etc.”
Her second recommendation is the Spruce Pilsner. It combines traditional colonial brewing (using spruce instead of hops) with modern brewing techniques.
“Also, every year the Short’s staff gets together and hand-cuts the spruce tips. Joe checks on them on a daily basis and then the day he feels they are the ripest, he calls staff to join him and pick pounds and pounds. This beer doesn’t just have a little spruce taste, it has a TON. It’s a very dividing beer — you love it or hate it, but it’s a great nod to our brewing history and also the Short’s personality of tasking risk and having fun. We don’t make beer to be weird, we make unique beers because Joe had a flavor vision that was unlike anyone else in the brewing world and he had a talent for blending ingredients and making it work.”
And let me tell you, the road trip you have to make up to Traverse City is worth it just to get a load of their beer board!
If Bloody Mary beer or spruce tips aren’t your bag, then you might take a trip to Marshall and check out what Dark Horse is up to. I’ll admit this brewery is one of my personal favorites for making out-there brews consistently and delicious, even if some are only available part of the year. Here are a few I’d recommend trying.
Scary Jesus Rockstar is my go-to at their pub if it’s on tap (it’s also bottled). It’s a collaboration brew, which means it’s made with a brewer from somewhere else, in this case Chef Cleetus Friedman of Chicago’s Fountainhead. It’s called an Apricot Chamomile Pale Ale. It’s unique and delish. Trust me.
As an only slightly reformed hop-head — meaning I tend to prefer beers that are hoppier, or more bitter than the maltier or sweeter options — I adore their “Smells Like a Safety Meeting IPA.” It’s one of the old-school (read: not “juicy” or “hazy”) style double-hopped IPA, especially aromatic and reminiscent of one of the hop plant’s near relatives. Humulus (hops) and Cannabis (marijuana) are both in the family Cannabinaceae. You can figure out the rest. This beer used to be called “Smells Like (Something Else),” but I think we can all agree this the current name is much more creative.
Turning away from the dank and weird — I won’t say “funky” because that’s a whole other topic we will chat about in a later column — I’d like to focus on the other end of the spectrum. One that’s becoming more popular (see: last column’s Hamm’s rant discussion), perhaps in response to the high-gravity beer trend having low ABV options. Sometimes called “lawn-mower beers” or just plain old “brewskis” (my personal fav), these are beers for summer — quaffable, lighter, session-able. Most of them are lagers (see above: they’re cleaner finishing by their definition and fermentation chemistry. You don’t — or shouldn’t — taste any yeast or fruit unless fruit is added to it).
I saw a new list (Five Low ABV Full Flavor Beers) that has me adding to my Bucket List of Lite. It includes options from one of my favorite Southern U.S. Breweries — Sweetwater in Atlanta. Their Guide Beer is a 4% lager that, knowing what I know about their general quality standard, I can’t wait to try. What really caught my eye on this list was the addition of Solid Gold from our very own Founders Brewing in Grand Rapids. I swear by this one, no lie. Even though the ingredient that gives it its distinctive flavor is (gasp and horror!) corn.
We’ll discuss how corn syrup in beer is not the Devil Incarnate another time, shall we? Sorry, Bud Lite.
Here in Ann Arbor, there’s a brewery near and dear to me that specializes in lagers. The addition of Blue Water Light to Wolverine State Brewing Company’s line-up is one of the smartest things they’ve done. It’s truly “lite,” even dare I say refreshing, and session-able as heck. They’re planning to package it in cans this summer, so be on the lookout.
Alrighty then, Brick Boozers, there you have it. Some weirdness. Some lite. Some Michigan recommendations.
And, as always, your monthly dose of mild snark plus advice from your favorite semi-professional booze expert. See you next month.