On the Hop – the Pleasure of Beer

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How’s your zythology?

Okay, I can see you’re puzzled. The name is a contraction of two ancient Greek words, zythos, meaning beer and logos, meaning study. A zythologist is, in effect, a connoisseur of beer.

“What’s to be picky about?”, you might say. “Beer’s a drink that comes in cans, bottles or out of taps. You teem it down your neck, it quenches your thirst and gives you a convivial glow. Too much and you fall over.” An over-simplification I fear, fed by the scorn that many wine writers feel for what they consider a lesser beverage. Lesser? Think again. Beer is one of the most complex drinks known to man. It contains more ingredients than wine. The principal raw material, barley, has to undergo a complex malting process before use. The choice of yeast has a major influence on the taste of the finished product, requiring careful selection. The hop, used to both flavour and preserve beer is, itself, a complex plant, containing over 200 separate compounds. Small wonder that beer brewing, in olden days, was considered a magical process almost akin to alchemy and entrusted solely to priests and monks.

Beer is the ‘northerner’s wine’. In countries where it was too cold or too damp to grow grapes, cereals – wheat, maize and barley, chiefly – flourished. Beer became the drink of choice and a rich culture grew up around it, embracing such activities as beer festivals, games such as bar billiards, pool and darts and the alcohol-fuelled shuffle known as a ‘pub crawl’ which fell out of favour as the mega-breweries sought to batten down the hatches on choice.

Today however, there’s so much around that it’s possible to simulate a pub crawl without leaving home. The taste spectrum is immense – all that of wine, and more. Dry lagers often suggest wine or green apples; British bitters can hint of anything from new mown hay to marmalade; strong ales can give you fruitcake, honey or malt sensation; stouts, liquorice, coffee or molasses in the glass. There are smoked (peated) beers, redolent of seaweed-clad rocks and fishing vessels and beers containing a percentage of fruit, cherries, raspberries and gooseberries being the most common.

Today there’s a huge revival of interest in what have been called ‘craft’ or sometimes ‘micro’ brewers; whose regionally-based and distinctive products are worlds apart from the global uniformity of taste offered by the behemoth monopolies. Getting up close and personal with them will enhance your enjoyment and turn you into a true zythologist in no time at all.

The classic beer styles all originate from northern Europe but today it’s perfectly possible there’s a German Weissbier made in Yorkshire, an English bitter in Melbourne and an Irish stout in Seattle.

The most common method of categorising beer is by the behaviour of the yeast used in the fermentation process. Beers using a fast-acting yeast which works on the top of the fermenting vessel are termed “ales”, while those using a slower-acting yeast, fermented at lower temperatures, with the yeast settling on the bottom of the tank are called “lagers”.

In terms of alcoholic strength, beers normally range from ‘alcohol free’, more likely 1% by volume, to around 12%. My own classification divides beer into 4 categories, starting with what I call “near beer”. Thus far, only Erdinger, in my opinion, has come up with a non-alcoholic brew worth drinking. The next category is what I term “quaffing” beers. Then there are “sipping” or “contemplative” beers and, lastly, “head wreckers” with alcoholic poke verging on that of a bottle of wine, not for everyday drinking.

Most beers are cleared of yeast residues by filtering. However some beers (known as “bottle conditioned”) retain some yeast. It’s usually recommended that these should be carefully poured. With wheat beers, however, it’s customary to pour in the yeast, or even swirl the bottle.

Not all beers should be chilled. Barley wines and strong ales give more flavour if served at room temperature. Otherwise, as a rough guide chill lagers and wheat beers to 7-9 degrees and dark beers to 12 or 13.

Beer is every bit as food friendly as wine. The harmonious marriage of Asian beers, slightly sweet and curries and other food of the region has long been noted. Try a wheat beer with fish, an amber ale with boeuf a la bourguignonne or, best of all, a large wineglass of barley wine or imperial stout with a full Irish breakfast or brunch.

Finally, If anyone doubts the full extent of beer’s taste spectrum, here are some excerpts from my tasting notes of a random selection, all but one in the “contemplative” sector – the Ruddles being the exception – and culled from the shelves at Drink Store, Stoneybatter which I’d recommend to Dublin hop heads along with Redmonds of Ranelagh and McHugh’s, Kilbarrack.

Robinson’s Old Tom Strong Ale (8.5%) “dark chocolate, molasses, fruit cake and slight peppery finish.”

Victory Hop Devil (6.7%) “heady, herbal perfume of hop flowers over orange zest and pure malt flavours.” The same American brewery also does a stout called “Donnybrook.

Aventinus Doppel Bock (8.2%) “dark ruby in the glass, there’s a banoffi pie-in-a-glass vibe going on with a refreshing, tangy finish.”

Paulaner Hefe-Weissbier (5.5%) “thirst quencher; big fruity flavour dominated by apples, bananas and a hint of cloves.”

Oude Geuze Boom ‘Marriage Parfait’ (8%) “Spontaneously fermented, no induced yeast. Prominent citrus nose gives way to tart, dry, peachy flavours.”

Ruddles County (4.7%) “Easy drinking, mellow, full-fruited bitter.”

Aecht Schlenkerla Rauschbier (5.1%) “Weirdest beer I’ve ever drunk. Intense, kippery ‘Western Isles’ tang. Smoked beer is maybe an acquired taste. Interesting kit, though. For best effect drink wearing a sou-wester, oilskins and yellow welllies”

Chimay Bleu (9%) “Impressive heavy hitter from the traditional Belgian brewery. Massive weight of sultana and currant fruit lurks under the appetizing creamy head.”

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