Getting to Know: Beer
It’s not just for guzzling. We use beer’s flavor and fizz in dozens of recipes.
What, exactly, is beer? It’s the nectar created when malt (a grain, most often barley, that has germinated and then been dried and/or roasted) is mixed with water, strained, and the resulting liquid fermented. Fermentation is the process—triggered by yeast or bacteria—that converts the sugar in the malt into acid, gas, and/or alcohol. Many beers are flavored with hops, the seed cones of a climbing vine, which add flowery, bitter, and piney flavors to the mix.
Session beers were invented as a response to ever-increasing alcohol percentages in craft beers such as India Pale Ales. The addition of more hops doesn’t just increase a craft beer’s flavor, it also sends its alcohol content by volume (ABV) sky high (between 8 and 12 percent). Session beers are brewed with the same care for flavor as craft beers, but with an ABV usually between 4 and 5 percent.
Unlike ales, which ferment at high temperatures for more yeast activity and flavor, lagers ferment at cool temperatures before aging to develop more subtle, crisp flavors. Lagers (such as Budweiser) tend to be light- to medium-bodied, which makes them ideal for use in cooking. We use lager for beer batters as well as for cooking our Beer-Braised Cabbage (see related content).
This light, gold- to straw-colored beer gets its name from its birthplace in Pilsen, Bohemia (now Czech Republic). Though it’s brewed like lager, it’s lighter in color and body and has a floral, slightly spicy finish thanks to the Saaz hops that are traditionally used. True pilsners often have a high level of carbonation due to months of aging. Try it in our recipe for Almond Boneless Chicken (see related content).
In the Belgian tradition, seasonal workers who helped with the harvest were paid with beer made by the farmer’s wife from leftover mixed grains. Folklore aside, saisons are funky, yeasty, hoppy ales made from mixed grains and noble hops. Saisons pair well with food, especially cheese. American beers brewed in the same style are often labeled “farmhouse” ales.
India Pale Ale
The extra hops in this style of beer were originally added as a preservative to help it survive the long trek from London to the colonies in India in the late 18th century. European noble hops lend vegetal, grassy flavors to some IPAs, while Cascade hops from North America introduce flavors of citrus and pine. Beware: Extra hoppy beers are often high ABV. Why? Hops contribute bitterness, as well as flavor, to the beer. To balance the bitterness, extra malts or sugars (most of which convert to alcohol during fermentation) are added, which increases the beer's ABV.
Relatively low-alcohol porters first became popular with London’s transportation workers. They are known for their chocolate, toffee, and toasty flavors, which come from the malts used to make them—these dark malts are what make porter so dark. The roasted malt flavors make porter a great match for grilled meats.
This dark, rich brew uses toasted malts, giving stouts roasted, sometimes bitter coffee-like notes. Since sugars are cooked off during roasting, the resulting stouts are usually lower in alcohol (and calories) than you’d expect. The deep flavor and full body of stout makes it a natural pairing with roasted and braised meats. Try our Guinness Beef Stew (see related content).
Wheat beers have a hazy, unfiltered look and taste of clove, banana, and citrus. Brewers rely on warm fermentation (most beers are fermented in cooler temperatures) and a particular strain of yeast to produce the yeasty, spicy flavor of what they call Weissbier, Weizenbier, or Hefeweizen (hefe is yeast, weizen is wheat). Try wheat beer in our Grill-Braised Short Ribs (see related content).
Lambics are dry, sour, and tart Belgian wheat beers that are often infused with fruit. Before brewing, lambic wort (a mix of crushed grain and water) is fermented in the open air, where it develops flavor from wild yeasts. Kreik and framboise are lambics fermented with cherries and raspberries, respectively. The high acidity of lambics makes them pair well with shellfish or oily fish like salmon or bluefish.
Sour beer starts with sweet malt that undergoes warm fermentation. The fermented beer is then placed in old wooden barrels full of wild yeasts and other yeast strains for a second or third fermentation. Bacteria in the barrels eat the sugars in the beer, which produces a beer that is tart and sour, though often sweeter than lambic. Like lambic, sour beers are excellent paired with rich or fatty foods.
More of a tradition than a specific style of beer, Trappist beers are produced by Cistercian monks in 11 European monasteries. The monks follow a brewing method known for its discipline and high standards. The beers are slightly sweet, hoppy, and spicy. Their alcohol levels vary, from around 7 percent to up to 9 percent. Secular brews that mimic the style of Trappist beers are often called “Abbey” ales.