I can’t help but notice how often beer drinkers doggedly order the same brand over and over again. While I admire commitment and fidelity as much as anyone, the advantages of Bud Light over Miller Lite can’t be so overwhelming as to prevent a person from ever branching out a little. As Michael Jackson (the beer expert not the Pop Icon) once observed, a person would never go into a restaurant and order “a plate of food,” so why would they just order “a beer?” With just a little bit of exploration into what the world of beer has to offer, we can have a much better chance of finding the right beer to fit our mood, not to mention our menu selections.
First, lets try some lagers. These are beers which are fermented at colder temperatures than ales, with the yeast doing its fermenting at the bottom of the tank. Most American beers are of this type. This style of brewing generally results in beers that are cleaner, more attenuated, and less fruity than ales are. The quintessential lager, and extremely distant cousin to the most popular American beers, is Pilsner Urquell. It has a very appealing aroma, clean and flowery. Although it has an almost soothing, soft malty feel on the palate, it depends more on the hops for its defining characteristics of a resinous nose and dry finish. It’s a great accompaniment to seared snapper. A darker, sweeter style of lager is Oktoberfest. Saint Arnold, Houston’s only microbrewery, makes a fine example. If a beer could be called toothsome, this is it. It is amber-red, with a smooth malt character balanced by an attractive spiciness. I can’t think of a better way to help some smoky, sweet barbequed ribs taste any better. The same could be said for a pepperoni pizza. The darkest and strongest of lagers are double bocks. This style comes from monks who traditionally made very full-bodied, alcoholic beers to be used as liquid bread during lent. Brewers give their double bocks names that end in “ator”: Maximator, Optimator, Celebrator, etc. Paulaner’s version is called Salvator. It has a rich molasses nose and an equally rich and sweet taste, balanced with just enough pleasant bitterness from the hops to keep it from being cloying. It makes for a nice dessert in and of itself, or goes great with a vanilla bean crème brûlée.
Ales are fermented at a higher temperature than lagers, with yeasts that rise to the top of the tank. These beers usually are more fruity and complex. There are many styles of ales. Bitter is the most popular style of ale in Britain, being the typical draft beer offered in pubs. It’s frequently a fairly light ale, with a firm hop character. A classic is Fuller’s ESB (Extra Special Bitter). A light reddish-amber, it has a flowery hop nose, is fruity, clean and refreshing, but with enough maltiness to remind you that you’re drinking a beer for grown-ups. Pale ales are similar to bitters, but usually a little rounder in nature. Saint Arnold Amber Ale is a great one. It is honey-amber in color, smooth, clean, fruity and very drinkable. It’s a great example of how the right balance of malty body and fruity hopiness make for a great beverage. I love it with seafood gumbo. Brown ales are stronger and more malty than either bitters or pale ales. A good one to try is Newcastle Brown Ale. Although there’s a distinctive hop character on the nose, the full feel on the palate seems to come across more like ripe bananas than malt. It’s delicious with lamb stew, especially if the stew has a lot of onions in it.
Other beers to try are the Belgian ales. They are similar to other ales, but more so. They are more aromatic, have more of a distinctive hop character, spicier malts and are some of my personal favorites. Chimay Capsule Bleue is a great one. Its color is a golden-caramel. The nose is flowery with lots of black pepper. On the palate it is very full and round, slightly sweet, but very focused with a complex spiciness. Its finish is long and evolves through several stages from molasses, to raisins, nutmeg, black pepper and juniper. It’s a natural with Stilton.
Porters and stouts are very dark, toasty beers. Within any one maker’s line, the porter will always be a little lighter the stout, but either one will be a substantial drink. Samuel Smith’s Taddy Porter is typical. Its nose is reminiscent of buttered burnt toast and licorice. On the palate the toastiness continues, joined by fruits more jammy than jelly and an austere lightness. Its complex finish ends with a final hint of licorice. It’s a culinary experience all by itself. Guinness Stout is the world’s most popular dry stout. It is very dark, as roasty as an overcooked standing rib roast, and has as more hop bitterness than just about any other beer. It is also amazingly creamy, fruity and rich. Its finish is longer and more complex than most wines, and it accomplishes all of this without being so heavy as to discourage you from having another. All in all it is quite a mouthful. It’s a great match with any shellfish, but is especially fine with raw oysters. It may be as far away from a lite beer as you can get and still be drinking beer.