Obviously, there are many different styles of beer around the world. But the big three, so to speak, are surely lager, ale, and stout (also called porter). While technically all beer is either lager or ale, stout is different enough to warrant, in my opinion, its own category. What do you think of when you think of these types of beer? For example, when you think of ale, do you envision a distinguished British gentleman in a pub or in a paneled library? When you think of lager, do you imagine someone in a sports bar? And when you think of stout — admit it — don’t you think of Irishmen singing songs in a traditional pub? So what’s the difference among them anyway? The main difference comes down to yeast, temperature, and roasting, all combining to produce different flavors.
Yeast are microorganisms (fungi) that eat sugar, and expel carbon dioxide and ethyl alcohol. The particular strains of yeast used by beer brewers and winemakers are diverse, with each producer choosing their own variety to craft their product as they want it. In the world of beer, there are two broad categories of yeast. Top fermenting yeast remain on the top of the mash and ferment there. As you might guess, bottom fermenting yeast are the opposite. Ales and stouts use top fermenting yeast, while lagers use bottom fermenting.
Top fermenting yeast are most active at a warmer temperature than bottom fermenting ones. They generally like to be in the range of 15 to 20 °C. These yeast tend to produce beer with robust, fruity, and aromatic flavors, with complexity and heavier mouthfeel. As you might guess, this refers to ales and stouts. They also often have a higher alcohol content.
Contrarily (and logically), bottom fermenting yeast prefer cooler temperatures, about 10 °C. These yeast seem to create lighter flavors with higher carbonation and a smoother mouthfeel, with a relatively-lower alcohol content. Also, while ale is best served at room temperature, lagers are generally recommended to be drunk cool.
Both ale and lager use the technique of malting on their grains (usually barley). This means that the makers of the beer gently heat the grain until it begins to germinate and sprout, then cool it off. This creates more sugar for the yeast to eat. But only stouts actually incorporate roasting.
Roasting the grain means actually baking it until it become whichever shade of dark the brewer desires. This does two important things to the grain. First, it causes a more intense, roasted flavor. Second, whatever flavor is already there is intensified, diversified, and made more complex. Stouts can have distinct flavors of chocolate, coffee, and others, and are thus prized by many beer aficionados. Moreover, since roasting caramelizes the sugars in the grains, it produces a characteristic sweetness.
Finally, some interesting tidbits about beer culture around the world:
* In Germany, Biergartens are large, open spaces attached to restaurants or pubs, designed for people to sit en masse and drink beer. They often become loud and boisterous. The largest Biergarten in Germany is the Hirschgarten in Munich, which can hold over 800 people at once.
* In China, beer drunk at meals cannot be freely sipped. Instead, you may only drink at a toast (which happen frequently!), and often you must drain the entire glass in order to remain socially-accepted.
* In Southwest Louisiana, USA, many men drink light beers all day long, even during work or other activities. One popular beer-drinking activity is a crawfish boil.
* In countries with extremely spicy food, such as Thailand, Vietnam, and Malaysia, beer is the accompanying drink of choice.
* In English pub culture, each person buys a round of drinks for everyone in his party, by turn. To not buy a round at your turn is frowned upon as antisocial.
* Belgians pride themselves on their fine, champagne-style beers, often using them as substitutes for fine wine at meals.
Do you know any other interesting beer-drinking cultures from around the world? Email me and let me know!