Saturday, November 24, 2012

An Ode to Beer



A slightly different form of the  following was previously published in Prysm, a now defunct weekly magazine in Columbia, Missouri.

This is grain, which any fool can eat, but for which the lord has intended a more divine form of consumption. Let us give praise to our maker and glory to His bounty by learning about beer.
- Friar Tuck, Robin Hood (1991)

Beer must be the greatest but most maligned beverage in the world.  In the public’s mind, wine is the beverage of choice in fine restaurants and for special occasions. Beer is the cheap, commoner drink.   Wine is the subject of regular newspaper columns, magazine articles and numerous magazines.  Beer gets a special occasionally – normally having to do with green food coloring or “new” craft brewers battling in the face of the big three.  Mixed drinks garner outrageous prices. Beer gets ridiculous specials that merely require the change on the floor of your car.  Nice restaurants have their own wine menus and sommeliers, while servers, when asked what beers are available, tell you they have everything – Bud, Bud Light, Michelob, Mich Ultra, Miller Lite, Coors, Corona, Stella and Heineken…wow!  Wine gets special glasses depending upon whether you’re drinking various reds or whites or bubblies.  Beer gets a frosted mug to cover up the taste or the same kind of glass the water is served in.  Wine has even become the subject of tourism and Hollywood movies.  Books about wine and spirits take up numerous shelves at the local book store.  Books about beer don’t fill a shelf.

Granted, there are nicer restaurants that boast beer lists that can match their wine lists, but these require some hunting.  And many places throw in a quality pale ale or IPA to go along with their megamarket fizzy water, but one or two choices to go beyond the equivalent of Strawberry Hill does not true choice make.    

This is really a shame because beer is amazing.  It is arguably humanity’s first manufactured food.  Archeologists can show pretty convincingly that it was either bread or beer.  And those two are essentially the same thing with different quantities of water.  So beer has been nourishing people since the dawn of civilization.  You could even argue that, through the farming of the necessary grains, beer is the foundation of human civilization.  The ancient Sumerians and Egyptians each made it, reserving vast quantities for the royal families who used golden straws to drink it.    

Beer has also been humanity’s safe water source through the hardest times.  Throughout the last millennium in much of Western Europe, and eventually in the British colonies of North America, beer provided all the necessary nutrients and none of the dangers of the local water.  Beer of low alcohol content was consumed by both genders and people of all ages, classes and at all meals.  It was the depletion of the beer supply that caused the crew of the Mayflower to call it a day and drop the Pilgrims in Massachusetts.

Beer can also be made from almost anything.  While all beer has water and yeast in it, most today have hops and malted barley and frequently wheat.  But throughout the world and throughout time lots of other ingredients have been used including heather, kelp, rice, hemp, roots, fruits and vegetables – even garlic.  People made beer from whatever ingredients were available. It is phenomenally versatile.

You’ll be hard-pressed to find a beverage that goes with more meals.  Sure, it’s become cute and clever to pair a burger with wine in some restaurants in places like Las Vegas, but get real.  Nothing can go with fried food, burgers and brats, or barbecue like a beer.  And much of what is traditionally served with wine actually goes better with beer.  Seriously, go buy a variety of beers and a variety of cheeses – or crunchy bread, or some nice fish – and start experimenting.  Pick up some ice cream and a Belgian fruit lambic.  Or flourless chocolate cake with a barleywine, strong ale or doppelbock.  Make a weekend of it, and I’ll bet you’ll be surprised how amazing the beer is – and how much more it can accompany than wine. 

More and more, people are interested in the sources of their food.  People are buying organic and from local farmers’ markets and finally putting some real thought about what they put in their mouth.  Check out the ingredients of your average micro or craft beer.  You’ll see few ingredients, all of them easy to pronounce and healthy.  Compare the nutritional value of one of these beers to the sodas people gulp by the gallon.  Obviously, no one should be drinking beer by the gallon, but you see the point.  Beer is good for you – in moderation of course.

Beer is also wonderful because no other industry has so much fun.  Consider the names…Doggy Style, Arrogant Bastard, Big Butt Bock, He’Brew Jewbilation (it’s kosher), Polygamy Porter (you can’t have just one), Delirium Tremens, Coal Porter, Moose Drool, Skullsplitter, Immort Ale, Erin Go Braless, Yellow Snow, Kilt Lifter or Wailing Wench.  Their festivals have concerts, brewery tours, dancing, and camping.  They’ve even begun bands like the Pain Relievaz.  And some brewers even have their own B&B connections just like the vineyards.  I know a small brewpub that makes a big annual celebration out of Talk Like a Pirate Day!  Beer people are fun people!

What I find most fascinating about beer is its variety.  With a few changes in preparation of the malted barley and choosing different varieties of hops brewers dramatically alter the taste, smell, and texture of beer.  Throw into the mix the varieties of water and yeast from one brewery to another and with only four main ingredients we get an endless array of flavor. 

Find an excuse this winter to celebrate with the most plebeian of drinks.  If you’re drinking the same thing you have for years at bargain prices, branch out a little and experience the variety of styles and tastes.  Find out why many now say that this country has the greatest beer culture any nation has ever seen.  Demand that your favorite restaurants and stores respect your beer taste and carry beers (and appropriate glassware) to match their food and wine selection.  A toast to hops and barley! 

Why we are here:
To tremble at the terrible beauty of the stars,
to shed a tear at the perfection of Beethoven's symphonies,
and to crack a cold one now and then.
--David Letterman

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