AHU: Beers have families too

Originally published in The McGill Daily on November 8, 2007. This is the inaugural edition of my column, All Hopped Up, in the Daily.

In Quebec we have the curious propensity to name beers by their colour. Walk into any bar in Montreal, name an autumnal hue – rousse, dorée, cuivrée, noir, blanche, blonde, et cetera – and you’ll soon be tasting that colour’s manifestation in beer. Talk about synesthesia. This colour-coding isn’t unique to Quebec; Belgium, a country where beer is a national symbol of pride, has used this same naming technique for centuries. Our blanche is their witbier, both words referring to the white quality of the beer. The Belgians, however, also name beer styles according to other criteria, including alcohol volume.

Québécois nomenclature actually limits our understanding of the world of beer. I always shudder when someone orders “something light, like a blonde” within earshot. But then I remember that, when paralyzed by choice, naive drinkers resort to what they know. There are perhaps hundreds of beer styles that are simply unavailable to the average drinker in Montreal, remaining outside of the collective beer consciousness. In the spirit of Linnaeus, and with the aim of divesting fellow drinkers of this ignorance, I want to offer a small window into the varied taxonomy of that delicious bucket of suds we call beer.

At its broadest level of classification, beer is divided into two categories: ales and lagers. Each style of beer necessarily falls under one category or the other, with yeast strain and brewing technique determining its membership. Beyond this, beer is generally classified using two different sets of criteria. First, its ingredients. Brewing always begins with four fundamental ingredients: malted barley (for colour and body), hops (for bitterness and aroma), yeast (for alcohol), and water (duh). Variations within and additions to these basic ingredients produce different styles of beer. Second, beer is classified by its geographical region. Beer is hyper-regionalized, and often these specific regions come to define the beer they brew, each locale owing its particular style of beer to subtle differences in regionally-produced ingredients and local beer-making traditions.

For all that ales you

The English ale, sometimes referred to as the “granddaddy” of all ales, has enjoyed the most enduring legacy in North America. The “session ale” is the “son” of the “granddaddy,” because its mild alcoholic flavour best suits a night at the bar. Analogous to our “blonde,” the “bitter” became the most common of session beers among English laypeople. The bitter style also exists in more alcoholic versions – best bitter and extra special bitter (ESB).

Another type of session beer, the buttery and full-bodied pale ale, also finds its roots in the English ale. Its ubiquitous nature has led the pale ale to become a staple beer, and to spawn many variations worldwide. Take for example St. Ambroise Pale Ale, produced by McAuslan Brewery in St. Henri. This beer is an American Pale Ale (APA), based on its English forebears. Due to the prevalence of hops in the Pacific Northwest region of the United States, American versions of English beers are generally more alcoholic and have a hoppier flavour.

This American Pale Ale is not to be confused with the English style India Pale Ale (IPA), which is also a hopped up version of the Pale Ale. Hops add flavour to beer, but also act as a preserving agent. This property was important to preserve beer for British sailors circling the horn of Africa en route to India. Hence the hoppy Pale Ale was given the name IPA. Alexander Keith’s Brewing Company would like you to believe that their beer is a classic IPA, and its successful marketing has dominated many Canadians’ notion of IPAs. However, their beer tastes more like a generic lager like Moosehead than the bittersweet, malty goodness of the true IPA.

Porters and stouts make up the darker end of the ale spectrum: dark brown to black in colour, and rich and robust in flavour. The roasted barley gives a dry, coffee-like body to the stouts, distinguishing them from the porters; while a porter might be seen simply as a darker pale ale, the stout resides in a league of its own.

To make a lager story short

Lager yeast requires colder fermentation temperatures than ales, and the final product must be aged for the flavour to mature. Consequentially, lagers are characterized by a more crisp, clean flavour as compared to ales. The style perhaps most associated with the lager is the pilsner. It stems from the mid-19th century brewers from Plzen, a city in the modern-day Czech Republic, used locally cultivated Saaz hops to create a straw-coloured, light-bodied lager with a lovely floral character. The style quickly took over in the region, spreading to Germany, where it became known as pils. The pilsner later found its way to North America when German immigrants introduced it to the American Midwest. The largest beer companies of today – Budweiser, Coors, Miller, Pabst, and others – began by copying the pilsner style, bringing it into a mass-produced though drastically inferior form.

The mass production might help some mistake these lagers for a bland, watery beer, though in reality it is as multifaceted as the ales. In America, Anchor Brewing Company spearheaded the development of “steam” beer, also known as California Common, a tawny, medium-bodied lager that results from higher fermentation temperatures. In Germany, the bock lager is brewed in the winter, to be enjoyed in the spring. Its hearty, sweet flavour is meant to be a restorative to aid to the rebirth at winter’s end.

I must make it clear that I am leaving out many styles of beer that are unique and important in their own right. The addition of a single ingredient, like wheat, can create a whole new sub-style of ale with its own range of varities. Amp up the alcohol in any one style of beer and it is raised to the status of “imperial.” It is clear: the brewing possibilities are endless and constantly evolving.

I hope these above examples demonstrate the variety of beer styles and point out the shortsightedness of Québécois beer nomenclature. By no means am I assuming that there aren’t craft breweries that produce well-made APAs and bocks; yet there is undoubtedly something limiting about referring to a beer by its colour. Sadly, something of the fortifying quality of McAuslan’s delicious and renowned St. Ambroise Oatmeal Stout is lost in translation when we refer to it simply as “noir.”

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