One man’s beer may be another man’s dishwater, depending on taste and the various ways in which beer is brewed around the world. An expert explains the processes that make some beers different from others—in content, in quality, and in price.
One sure way to ruin an evening of dining out is to ask the proprietor of a French restaurant if his Haut-Brion is really worth $70 the bottle. If he is of the true breed, he will not dignify your question with a reasonable reply. Instead, with the merest shrug and a hopeless little smile, he will signal to the world that you possess a soul composed largely of mud. This fellow knows he is vending an aura, a mystique of slight substance; there is hardly any way to prove that a bottle of wine is intrinsically worth $70. He may also know that the basic chemical composition of Haut-Brion differs only negligibly from that of the wine of a firstclass California vintner. On the other hand, a friendly American liquor dealer will not snub you if you suggest that $4.65 is pretty stiff for six twelveounce bottles of DinkelAcker —that triumph of brewing science and skill from Stuttgart. He may even agree with you; it’s only beer. But it is pos-
Richard St. Clair sible to show that one beer is worth more than another, particularly if certain imported beers are compared with the majority of American beers. For one thing, the basic “raw” ingredients of the worthier imported beers differ significantly from those used in brewing most domestic beers. And, if time and integrity are considered as basic ingredients, the imports have a clear edge there, too. (The term “imports” here refers mainly to beers of the European continent, though some very nice beers are brewed in other lands.)
Wine, someone has said, is the work of nature, while beer is the work of man. That is a half-truth, yet it allows the vintner to blame an inferior wine on the grape crop and leaves the beer brewer totally on the hook where quality of ingredients is concerned; for the best is available year after year if he wants to pay the price. So the brewer of real integrity would sooner drown himself in a pail of Pepsi-Cola than use substitute ingredients, “chemical” additives, or shortcut techniques. This species of brewer, almost extinct in the United States, still thrives on the Continent, most conspicuously in Bavaria. The materials that go into his product are classic: water, yeast, hops, malt. That’s all, though of course many decades of research and cultivation have gone into adapting these ingredients for the brewing of beer. The malt is made from barley by a painstaking process of germination and heat treatment, which renders its carbohydrates more suitable for fermentation. Malting barley began with the Egyptian brewers, who attributed divine powers to the “wine of the grain” long before Jesus Christ elevated the “wine of the grape” to spiritual status. Brewer’s yeast, which belongs to the strain Saccharomyces cerevisae, has been cultivated from a single strain since 1883. The first use of hops is attributed to the monks of northern Gaul, who added them only to impart a delicate bitterness to an otherwise sweetish brew. (The Celtic word bēor is the likely forerunner of the modern term “beer.”) Hops also help to preserve beer, and to precipitate proteins which might becloud the finished product when it is chilled. Curiously, only the female hops blossom is used in brewing, provided it has not been fertilized by the male, which makes it very bitter. Many European countries, in fact, have banned the male plant for this reason.
Since water constitutes about 90 percent of beer, it’s a fairly important item. A lot has been heard about how it’s the water that makes Old Gas Pack the queen of beers, but the brewer who maintains that his beer is best because of the crystal spring in his back yard is pulling your leg. Long ago this was true: the suitability of the water supply determined the location of the brewery, and different kinds of water are used for brewing different kinds of beers and ales. But now almost any water fit to drink can be adjusted to the ideal pH (degree of acidity or alkalinity) by adding or removing natural minerals.
Given these traditional materials, the next step is to put them all together in a way that will help nature produce a fine glass of beer. The art is to create a favorable environment (the brewery) in which to “feed” the malt to the yeast cells; and they, in the course of metabolizing a sugar called maltose, will oblige by reproducing themselves at an astonishing rate. The byproducts of this happy ferment are bubbles of carbon dioxide and beer in its primitive state. How this process is nurtured, and what then follows, is as important to the finished product as the materials involved. This is where major differences prevail between the brewing practices of Bavaria and much of Europe and those of beer makers in the United States.
Beer as we know it cannot be brewed without malt. In Europe the rule is, the more malt, the better the beer. (In Munich it is not only sinful to use another fermentable material, it is illegal.) Malt, in addition to nourishing the yeast with its vitamins, imparts flavor, “head,” body (in the form of maltodextrins and proteins), and color. Honest bock and some other dark beers derive their rich hue from the type of malt used, not from a prepared syrup containing caramelized table sugar (sucrose). American brewers are not always so scrupulous in this matter.
As might be expected, properly malted barley is expensive, and is not always ideal for brewing exceptionally pallid beers–the kind Americans tend to favor, or so the beer advertisements would have us believe. Moreover, cheaper materials are available that can supply some of the sugar the yeast beasties require to produce ethyl alcohol, a substance without which beer simply is not beer.
The euphemism applied to these high-starch materials is “malt adjunct.” The term “substitute” does not appear in the lexicon of the brewer. Malt adjuncts can be corn (maize), rice, unmalted barley, malt syrups, or tapioca starch. Corn syrup is commonly used in the United States, and rice occasionally for the palest beers, though rice is not a cheap adjunct as adjuncts go.
To the possible dismay of penurious brewers, most adjuncts cannot provide fermentable sugars without the help of the amylolytic enzymes contained in malt which, at an optimum temperature, will convert the starches of the adjunct to sugar. European brewers do use malt adjuncts, sometimes for export beers, and generally in the proportion of 10 to 25 percent. American brewers use up to 45 percent. But then our brewers have problems that are rare in Europe. For one thing, Americans like their beer cold. But when chilled, all-malt beers have a tendency to turn cloudy—because of the protein content—and the American beer consumer usually won’t touch any beverage that isn’t clear. Another factor bearing on American brewing practices is the need for long shelf-life—no canned or bottled beer is improved by age, light, or air—and, in fact, the passage of time can spoil a purely made beer. It is safer, then, to brew a thin beer, with few solids to come out of solution. The trouble is that such beer often comes out so thin it can’t hold up its head for ten seconds. That’s when domestic brewers reach for the propylene glycol alginate (a compound containing seaweed), or some other vegetable “foam stabilizer” like gum arabic. Both are harmless enough by FDA standards, and tend to shape up the head.
However, a Washington-based magazine called Environmental Action—the organ of a political lobby called The Center for Science in the Public Interest—reports that in the mid-1960s, several American brewers used a promising foam stabilizer known as cobalt sulfate, a constituent of vitamin B-12. What could be more wholesome? Yet, in the words of Environmental Action, “approximately fifty moderately heavy to heavy drinkers died for their beer foam.” No one had dreamed that a constituent of B-12 could cause fatal heart damage when consumed with considerable quantities of alcohol. Other additives, or “marketing aides.” which go by such titles as anticlouding agent, antigushing agent, and antioxidizer, would appear to be harmless; they have been in common use for years. Nevertheless, the Treasury Department’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms reports that it is drafting regulations that will require full disclosure of ingredients on all alcoholic beverage labels. While this sounds like good news for drinkers, it is difficult to see how labeling alone could have prevented the cobalt sulfate tragedy. Research before the fact seems the only answer.
Meanwhile, spokesmen for three major breweries have told me that their products—Coors, Rheingold, Budweiser, and “Bud’s” more expensive beer, Michelob—are entirely free of so-called chemical additives. Several other brewers insist that their products are “pure,” but decline to be specific about the use of additives or the meaning of “purity.”
Another important difference between American and imported beers arises from the type and quality of the hops. Brewers generally acknowledge that the finest hops in the world are grown in Czechoslovakia. These delicate hops leave the palate free of bitter aftertaste. Many American brewers use a small percentage of these imported blossoms and make up the rest with hops from California and/or Oregon. Oregon hops, some brewers feel, now seriously rival the Czech blossoms. Other American brewers use a syrup extract of domestic hops.
We know what hops do for beer, but we are less certain how they affect beer drinkers. Plant physiology, a science in vogue at the moment, is discovering that many plants contain hormonelike substances which perform very much like animal hormones in the human system. Hops contain substances that are chemically analogous to the human female hormone estrogen (used in The Pill), raising an interesting question about their effect on beer drinkers of both sexes. Occasionally one meets a woman who claims that beer turns her on. But who knows a “hard-hat” who says it turns him off?
The question of hop effect appears to have first come up in the year 640. Saint Arnoul, once Bishop of Metz, observed that bulls fed on the spent mash (nonalcoholic) of heavily hopped beer became docile and friendly. Deducing that humans would react the same way, he prescribed an infusion of hops and water for those in need of sedation. And for this, it is said, he became patron saint of brewers—which implies that his prescription worked.
Most beers are bubbly, owing to carbonic acid gas, a natural product of the primary fermentation which imparts to the brew a certain esprit, as it does to champagne, and is credited with increasing the intoxicating powers of alcohol. The usual European method of carbonating beer is to allow the gas to “bind” itself into the beer naturally, during a leisurely secondary fermentation in cool cellars. The result is a smooth, nongassy joy to mouth and stomach. The usual American method–invented, oddly enough, by an English chemist, in 1781—is to squirt the gas into the beer under high pressure. A large segment of the American public, long conditioned to vapid, highly charged soft drinks, swallows the burpy product of this unnatural union without protest. Three beers widely available in this country—Budweiser and Michelob. both domestic, and Heinekens, imported from the Netherlands—are carbonated by the natural and expensive method. Only Budweiser has occasionally advertised the fact, suggesting that its dominance in the marketplace (23 percent of the American market in 1974, or 34 million barrels) may be due to something other than high-powered marketing techniques.
Time is another aspect of beer-making we hear a lot about. “Cold-aged” was once somebody’s hot ad slogan. Well, all lager beer (lager is the German word for storehouse) is aged in cold cellars, at just a little above 32° F. But since time is money, many brewers fudge more than a little on aging. Some, in their eagerness to supply thirsty consumers during a heat wave, have been known to pump their beer into the market long before the aging, or “lagering,” phase is completed. However, beer does not continue to improve in the aging tanks after a certain period—two to three months, depending on the type of beer or ale. Ale, incidentally, is fermented with a different strain of yeast. The distinct, somewhat tart flavor of American and Canadian ales is produced by the special yeast, as is the slightly higher alcoholic content—in the vicinity of 4 percent (by weight). (Canadian beers tend to have a more robust flavor, owing to the preference of Canada’s Scotch-English brewmasters for a larger proportion of grain in the brewing mix.) English ales and beers, on the other hand, are often uncarbonated and tend toward blandness. Beers from another side of the world, such as San Miguel (Philippines) or Kirin (Japan), are around 3.8 percent alcohol (by weight). These and some Mexican beers achieve a pleasant medium between the Continental Pilsners and the American types of Pilsner in flavor and smoothness; they are light without being vapid, empty, or bitter. So, by the way, is a fine, light beer from Israel called Maccabee, which is sparsely distributed along our eastern seaboard.
The international character of many exotic beers is due chiefly to German brewing technology and equipment, exported to faraway lands for many decades. As long ago as the mid-1800s, sophisticated techniques for brewing lager beer made their first American appearance in New Jersey. (By the end of the century, P. Ballantine & Sons, who dominated that state with their ales, porters, and stouts, were forced to build a beer brewery to keep pace with the rising tide of lager brewers.) And today Germany continues to export its technology in the form of trained Braumeisters; I have encountered them in Chile, Mexico, the Philippines, and many years ago in Carson City, Nevada. These gentlemen were doggedly holding to the brewing methods of the Fatherland—to the extent that this is possible in a strange land. Compromises with tradition, such as the use of corn, syrups, or rice, were based on American methods. The point is, contrary to the reports of euphoric returning vacationers, the beers being brewed in distant, romantic places are not local superbeers, they are pretty much German-American products. The so-called rice beers of the Orient are also a myth. Rice wine, yes; but beer as we know it must contain some malt—whose enzymes produce the fermentable sugar necessary for triggering the brewing process.
Speaking of myths, the idea that draught, or “draft,”beer can be provided in bottles or cans is another one. Most packaged beer is pasteurized to insure that any remaining microorganisms, such as yeast, will cease and desist from further activity that could affect shelf-life (roughly one hundred and twenty days). But the high temperature of pasteurization tends to spoil the taste of the beer. Thus the true beer-lover prefers draught beer, which is not pasteurized and must be kept in cold storage. Packaged beers that are sold as draught fit the definition only technically, inasmuch as they are treated with antioxidizers, or by a process which filters the very life and taste out of them. One notable exception is Coors beer, of Colorado, a lovely light beer brewed aseptically and packaged in cans and bottles without pasteurizing.
The Coors company must insist, therefore, that its beer be kept cold—right up to the point of sale to the retailer—a policy that has led the Adolph Coors Company to limit sales to 167 distributors in eleven western states. Only thus, the company maintains, can it assure the quality of its product. But early in January of this year, the United States Supreme Court refused to reverse a Federal Trade Commission order that Coors ease up on what the FTC called anticompetitive pricing and distribution practices. The company will no longer be allowed to restrict sales to distributors who agree to handle Coors according to the company’s specifications, an odd blow against quality.
A study by Mike Royko, beer lover and columnist tor the Chicago Daily News, is not going to unnerve U.S. beer barons, yet it could be a wisp of barley straw in the wind. Royko conducted a beer-tasting session not Iona ago, and published the results under the title “Suds Soakers Sink Big Beer Superclaims.” Eleven citizens, whose ethnicity ranged from German to Polish to Irish to Norwegian to Jewish to WASP, tested twenty-two beers and one ale in unmarked glasses. Out of a possible fifty-five points, the upper nine beers scored in this order:
Würzburger (Germany): 45.5
Bass Ale (England): 45
Point Special (Wisconsin, U.S.A.): 45
Heinekens (Netherlands): 36.5
Zywiec (Poland): 34.5
Löwenbrau (Germany): 29.5
Huber Premium (Wisconsin, U.S.A.): 29.5
Kirin (Japan): 29
Stroh’s (Detroit, U.S.A.): 26
Mr. Royko goes on to say that the lowest-rankmg beers were Budweiser and Schlitz, “the two biggest TV braggarts,” Heartwarming, as well as sad, is the fact that the two highly rated Wisconsin beers probably belong to an endangered species. As Newsweek recently observed, “there were 750 breweries in the U.S. in 1933 . . . now there are only 64.” And the sixty-four are going fast in the face of heavy competition and some rather unsporting practices, like price-cutting, by the big boys—this in spite of beer consumption having gone from 40 million to 133 million barrels annually over the past forty years. “Quantitative Colossalism.” as sociologist Pitirim Sorokin of Harvard once described the American scene: quantity up, quality down.
But the quality of beer, at least in the United States, doesn’t necessarily correlate closely with taste preference, a highly subjective affair conditioned by a wide range of personal attitudes. Geographical and social variances seem to matter as well. In April, 1971, New York magazine presented the results of their First Underground Gourmet Beer Olympics. The results were based on taste testing by differing socioeconomic groups. Two juries were set up. One was “blue collar” (printer, bartender, etc.), the other was “white collar” (columnist, salesman, etc.). The fifty-six entries, produced by forty-nine breweries in twenty-two countries, were rated on a scale ranging from super to excellent to good to fair to poor.
As in the Chicago testing, Würzburger led the field. It was the only beer rated “super.” Among thirteen entries from eleven nations, two American beers rated “excellent”: Rheingold and Old Bohemian. The “good" category included Schlitz along with twenty-four imported beers. Budweiser also appeared, side by side with superb light beers such as Carlsberg (Denmark) and Kronenbourg (France). Schaefer got a “fair” rating, as did the presumably august Dinkel-Acker. Carling rated a “poor, but so did such classics as DortmunderUnion and Kulmbacher. Chacun aá son goût. □