The following styles are discussed below…
Pale Ale, IPA, Stout/Porter, Amber
Pale Lager,Pilsner, Kölsch, Alt, Dunkel, Oktoberfest/Märzen/Vienna
Before we talk about one of the most legendary styles of beer, let's first talk about wine. I'd like to make an analogy to a technique used by the French Chateaus, compared to how craft breweries make beer. American wine makers are more likely to focus on grape varietals, like Merlot or Chardonnay. Our French counterparts do not. French wine makers tend to blend grape types to achieve great results by blending grapes to take advantage of each grape’s strongest characteristics. The French use Merlot as a backbone to most of the wines they make because it is easy and inexpensive to grow this hearty grape, and it tends to mellow the otherwise in-your-face characteristics of the bolder Cabernet. These Chateaus take the expensive Cabernet grape and blend it with the less expensive Merlot, and then craft it into a fine wine perhaps adding a smidge of a specialty grape here and there to give the ultimate in visual effect, mouthfeel, taste and smell.
For beer, the backbone of all the classic styles is a common, easy to produce base malt, which is maybe 75-95% of the total grain used. American 2-Row, Pilsener, and British Pale are common Pale Malt varieties. There are only a handful of these pale base malts, and a bi-zillion specialty malts which add color, flavor, mouthfeel and aroma. Grains that are roasted, get darker, and thus impart that color into the beer. It is a myth that all dark beers are big beers, or that they all taste alike... the darkness is achieved by adding a very small amount of dark roasted grain... which doesn't necessarily change the flavor much at all, unless you add more of it. Thus, the color of a beer tells you .... squat. But I digress... anyway, most beers you drink will be a complex combination of blended malts, but all the specialty malts combined will rarely be more than 15% of the total grain used for any given beer.
All beers are made with a core pale base malt... and are thus start out to be about 90% identical. That said, the 10%(ish) variance leaves LOTS of room for creativity. As much as I love creativity, I also have a deep love of a simple straight forward ale. Take all the malt fanciness out, and then see what the brewer can do. If the malt and hop profiles are simple, the brewer cannot hide. There’s just nothing there to cover up poor technique.
Pale Ale is the Merlot of craft beer. It is made almost entirely from inexpensive base malt, an ingredient that is otherwise used as filler for something fancier. It is called a Pale Ale, not entirely because of the end color, but more because of the grain bill. Most any pale ale will be made almost exclusively with one of the basic Pale Malts, so the style is named after the malted grain, as much as it is in the resulting color. It has almost no specialty grain blended in, so the flavor of the base malt is laid bare for all to enjoy, unpolluted by all those delicious specialty grains. What you end up with is wonderfully simple straightforward ale.
The thing I love about it is that when you remove all fanciness from a beer, the brewer then shows his stuff because there is literally nothing to hide behind. It is just the brewer and his beer. Well.... and a few hops... more so on the West Coast of the US. The Americanized version of this style is usually much hoppier than the European versions. Also, sometimes the beers called Bitters or ESB's in the UK are arguably synonymous with what we call Pale Ale.
The history of the beer revolves around the emergence of better fossil fuels. In the days of old, up until the mid to late 1600's, the malting process (tricking grain into almost sprouting, then using heat to kill the process at its sugar peak) involved the use of woods and coals that left the malt dark in color, and often over-cooked. Once the coke style of coal came in to play, the kilns were much easier to refine, and the result was increased control over the process. The result was the possibility to produce a malt that was lighter in color than had ever been seen before, and thus to create a beer that also was lighter in color than had ever before been possible.
That was good news for us who love happy endings, and love a great pale ale.
India Pale Ale
A straight-up Pale Ale is known for its simplicity. There is nothing fancy about the malted barley used. Most versions have almost no roasted or otherwise fancified specialty grains, but rather are made almost entirely from Pale Malt, named such as improvements in coal quality made it possible to malt barley without over cooking it. It is the brewmaster's skill on display, as there is little else to cover up any mistakes. A Pale Ale is a wonderful, yet simple beer, and it is certainly the predecessor to the India Pale Ale, commonly referred to as IPA. The latter is also typically simple malt-wise, but much more complex when it comes to hops.
So, if you're like me, when you first heard the name of this beer, you probably deduced that somewhere back in time, someone in India decided that they'd make their own version of Pale Ale. Oh, contraire. Turns out that the India Pale Ale has its origins in Great Brittan. So... if it is British... why did they name it after India? Allow me to explain... or at least try to... it gets complicated.
There is some debate as to where the term 'India Pale Ale' originated from. Legend has it that as the British colonized India, their love for beer proved to be problematic. You see, the beer shipped to the East had to travel by ship around Africa and then back up to India. No matter the season, the beer was in for a few temperature changes, and beer hates temperature changes. So, the beer that arrived in India tasted like a skunk died in the barrel. The troops there were about to revolt, because their wages were partially subsidized by beer... and if the beer was no good, then 'why am I on your side and not theirs? ' The ingenious Brits experimented with slightly higher alcohol beers loaded with hops, and found that they were hearty enough to make the trip... and thus world peace.
The question is... is that really true? Several reputable web sites out there still claim that it is, citing names and dates and such. And yet, there is little hard documentation to verify the legend to be based in fact. Here's what we can say with relative certainty... In the late 18th century there was a world renown brewer in England named George Hodgson of the then-famous Bow Brewery. His beers were extremely popular in India, for sure. That is probably due to factors other than the style or quality of the beer, and more to do with simple logistics. The Bow Brewery was located very close to the shipyard that served the vessels headed to and from India. It would be the 18th century equivalent of a brewery at an international airport. Combine the proximity to the largest India traders, with the fact that they had very liberal credit terms, and you probably have a more feasible explanation for why these beers were so prevalent in India.
His specialty was an 'October Beer' that was designed to be cellared for up to two years. My guess is that it was the British ale counterpart to the German Oktoberfest lager. So it did in fact have the benefit of durability, which lends itself to the legend, but there is little documentation to suggest these beers were designed to prevent spoilage, and even less evidence of problems related to spoilage which would motivate recipe changes to begin with. Furthermore, the Porters sent over were very well suited for the journey, so it's not like there was no beer to be had. There is no evidence that Hodgson's recipes were a reaction to complaints from the shipping industry, and probably predated any evidence of the same. The durability was probably more coincidental in nature. Furthermore, contrary to many citations, it is unlikely that his beers were the first to be called India Pale Ales, a term that evolved some 50 years later. It is clear that his October Ale was at the very least the ancestor of IPA's, but not likely that it was ever called such, nor was it the same style. Related article (doubting), Related article (believing), the legend.
In any event, the India Pale Ales of today clearly evolved from the tinkerings of the brewers of the 16th-18th century, no matter the reason why they tinkered in the first place. The American versions of the style are much hoppier than their British counterparts, and the IPA's from the Western US are all the more so. The American versions use a completely different style of hops, and a completely different way of imparting the hop flavor into the beer. As different as they are from each other, all of the aforementioned are hoppier, bolder versions of the classic Pale Ale, and all are evolved from the same heritage.
When drinking this style of beer look for a clear amber color, varying from light amber to deep copper, and pay particular attention to the smell. The wonderfully complex flavors should balance some sweetness against the hop bitterness and in the process cover up any solvent-like flavors from the alcohol. IPA's may be slightly higher in alcohol than their Pale Ale counterparts, as they were in the old days, but in our time are more commonly about the same percentage of alcohol as their Pale Ale counterparts. This is related to beer laws from state to state. If you let your beer drift much above 6% ABV you severely limit where you can sell it. In Arkansas the grocery stores can't sell high alcohol beers, and the same is true in many other states. So if you want to sell a lot of IPA, you better keep the alcohol content moderate, even though historically it was ever so slightly higher.
IPA's are great beers to look at, smell and most of all taste. Imperial IPA's (high alcohol versions of the same) are among my very favorite styles of the beers. They tend to have all the benefits of the standard version, and are even more complex in flavor, as they have more alcohol to hide. They also have a superior mouthfeel. Both should linger on the palate long after the last sip. Be careful in pairings, as the strong flavors can overwhelm some foods... it is great with spicy foods, strong cheeses, and such, but not with more delicate foods. Also, if you are doing a beer tasting, these should go late... start with lagers, wheats, and amber ales, and then work your way up to the IPA's and Imperials.
The beer we affectionately refer to as a Stout today has little to do with its own history. What? Yup. Allow me to explain...
First, I digress...
A key to understanding the Stouts of today, and the history leading up to them, revolves around the invention of a particular processed barley, Black Patent Malt, which was invented in 1817. Until then, black colored beers as we know them today, did not exist. So any so-called Stout prior to that date had almost no relation to the black colored beers we think of today. Nor did they have anything else in common to what we now call Stout. There were literally dozens of different kinds of 'stouts' around in the days leading up to the 19th Century. The word 'stout' in those days was pretty much synonymous to what we now refer to as Double or Imperial. It was the word alongside the actual style, which simply indicated that it was the high gravity version of the same. If you ordered a Stout, the bartender would have have asked '... a stout what...?' There were Pale Stouts, there were White Stouts... You see, in those days the trendy beers were the ones light in color. Dark(er) colored beers were passe. Until the revolutionary Black Patent Malt hit the market, there was little to motivate someone to make a stout(er) version of a dark(er) beer. In any event, the word stout had nothing to do with color... but rather intensity
For well over a hundred years, the darkest of the dark were brown ales. The darkest of these was a brown ale known as Porter, which was the beer of choice for the working class (perhaps named after the same... a beer for those who port? nourishment to replenish their hard labor?... there is some evidence to support this theory...) The brown version of the Porter dates back to the early 1700's. Once Porters incorporated the Black Patent Malt post 1817, they split into two sub categories... the traditional Porter of the day (which also darkened over time, and became what we now call Porter) and the new Brown Stout, which was probably more black than brown. It had a slightly higher gravity, and thus slightly higher in alcohol. Over time it evolved into Stout Porter, and then just Stout. None of the other Stoutly named beers continued to be called such, and thus the Stout Porter survived them all. And because of that, we now associate the word Stout with the color black, when it comes to beer. Since the traditional Porter also eventually became blackish in color, for many years Stouts and Porters were all but synonymous. Recently they've diverged a bit into their own style, but to this day there is not a great deal of difference between the two ales.
The odd thing is that 'Stout' was the word used for the higher gravity, thus a bigger, bolder, higher alcohol version of a Porter... but now those have essentially reversed. Your basic Guinness is a low-alcohol session beer, clocking in at a just a hair over 4% ABV, while the typical Porter is over 5. There are sub categories of Stouts that have higher alcohol... Foreign Stout (7ish%) and Imperial (high 9's low 10's), but the typical Stout is pretty tame. So is now the use of the Stout nomenclature an oxymoron? Yup, pretty much. There are many other variations on the Stout... among them... Oyster Stout (real oysters, primarily used for the shell's ingredients... offsets poor water quality), Coffee Stout, Oatmeal Stout, Milk Stout (made with lactic ingredients) and Chocolate Stout.
For a traditional stout the presentation is absolutely critical. Stouts vary greatly in flavor depending on how they are served. Until just a few years ago, I would have insisted that I did not like Stouts. Then I agreed to meet my friends Mr. & Mrs. Bones at a local venue called Joubert's Tavern (pronounced Zho Bears). Joubert's is a little dive of a pool hall, but the bartender, at that time, was from the old country. Perfectly presented, I enjoyed my Guinness immensely. It was poured perfectly, and served at the correct temperature in the proper glass.
Stouts can be conditioned and propelled by pressure from either pure carbon dioxide or with nitrogen mixed in. Stouts actually smell better (and arguably taste better) if it is carbon dioxide based. Porters are traditionally CO2 exclusively. The nitrogen gas is what gives it a beautiful appearance with a fine, creamy head. If a stout is served from a keg that is in a cooler with all the other varieties of beer, then you probably got trouble. Stouts are much better when served cool not cold, and other varieties such as Pale Ales and India Pale Ales are better cooler, and lagers are better cold (not ice cold!!!) rather than cool. If a bar is a top notch beer venue (very rare), there will be different coolers for the different styles.
Often times in tastings I'll offer two identical stouts (I fib and tell them they are different), yet the guests will always predictably pick the one properly presented... right temp, right glass, right pouring technique. The technique with a nitrogen based stout is to pour the beer about halfway or a little more, let it settle, then pour it the rest of the way. If you order a nitrogen based stout, and they bring it to you right away... it was not poured correctly. Glasses with wide openings are ideal as these are best sampled by chomping right in... not so much sipping, not so much gulping but almost like eating. Appropriate because historically Stouts have been great sources of nutrition.
The ideal Stout is presented in a clean, rinsed, un-chilled Nonic glass (a standard glass with a round bulge about halfway down), it will have a thick creamy beige colored head, opaque black in color, the smells and tastes should have mild sorghum/molasses, licorice, coffee and chocolate notes, and should sit richly on the palate. There might be a little acidity, but you should never taste any hops. If the presentation is wrong, even the best Stout will fail to produce any of these.
Amber Ales are immensely popular, yet very loosely defined. In any event, they are the ultimate in gateway beers. If you know someone who is open to trying new and better beers, and particularly if they are used to drinking the stuff on TV, then dig into your stash and find one of these delightful beers and pour it up. Amber ales, also known as Red Ales, are very similar to Pale Ales, but tend to be a little richer on the malt side and a little milder on the hop side, but that is not a guarantee. Brewers of both Pale and Amber Ales are free to use whatever hop levels they wish and still call it what they will. Those hop increases cause a boost in fragrance, flavor and bitterness, depending on where in the boil they are introduced.
The definition of an Amber Ale is so loose that one might just say it is a Pale Ale with more color. In the New York Times piece they had a nice quote "a term invented by American brewers to account for the stylistic gap between pale ales and brown ales". This became necessary when buyers were taken back with the Pale Ales of amber color, not realizing that the beer is as much named after the type of malt used (Pale Malt) rather than the color. They expected their beer to be golden, not red. Thus the distinction...
In this article they noted the nuance that when the brewer named his beer a Red, it was more likely to be hoppy, and reserved the Amber name for those featuring the malt side. I've noticed that adding the word American to either a Pale Ale or Amber is a clue that the beer has more hoppiness, or more specifically contains more American grown (or American style) hops. In any event, it is my opinion that an Amber Ale should never be so hoppy as to drown out the malt. Those beers need to simply be renamed India Pale Ales, or perhaps we could create yet another category... India Amber Ales.... or .... maybe not.
When you categorize beers, the first fork in the road is the junction between Ales and Lagers. These two main categories are differentiated simply by the yeast used to ferment them. That said, these are VERY different yeast strains. Ale yeast is primitive, rowdy, aggressive, and hearty... pretty much the party animal of yeasts... It likes the weather warm ... (think spring break). The lager yeasts on the other hand are more stately. They were developed and refined more recently in our history of beer. These yeast are picky eaters, prefer to chill out when they dine, they eat slowly and politely, and eventually get around to making beer. Lagers are known for their preference for a long winter's nap after a long period of cold fermenting munching politely as they go. They are so dependent on this extended chilling out period that their name became a verb synonymous with the same. To cold store a beer for a longer period of time is called "lagering". It is grammatically appropriate to say you 'lager (v) a lager (n)'.
The biggest difference between these two very different yeast strains, and in particular their eating habits, are at the depth of the liquid at which they dine. The ales are the ones who party hearty and therefore need more oxygen. Therefore they tend to hang out at the top of the tank near the surface of the sweet water. The lager yeast are so sedate that they need far less and therefore do most of their activity lower down in the tank.
Just as we have Pale Ales, we also have Pale Lagers. They are very similar in their basic design, and in fact the Pale Lager is a direct descendent of its Pale Ale counterpart. Gabriel Sedlmayer learned the techniques use to make British Pale Ales and took those techniques to Germany where he combined that technique with the lager brewing methods of home. This happened sometime in the mid 1800's. The emphasis on each is the use of a lightly colored malted grain, with little to no specialty grains added. It is the beer maker alone with his most basic malt. Historically these lighter malts were not possible until the development of Coke, a refined coal, which gave the malters more control over the temperature and thus the latter part of the malting process where the drying occurs. No longer were the brewers limited by over-cooked dark malts, they could now create a much prettier beer. Pale Ales will remain fairly sweet after fermentation, as significant amounts of sugar survives the process. The ale yeast parties quick and passes out in its own alcohol production. The lager yeasts, during the long cold fermentation process, will stay active longer, and more fully attenuate (the yeast will eat more of the sugar) and the result is a very dry, slightly bitter beer.
Pale Lagers are sometimes considered the Rodney Dangerfields of the beer world. They get no respect. To those who think lowly of this style... may I beg to differ... they deserve respect... lots of it, well... at least some of them deserve lots of respect. In general, lagers don't rate very high, but they deserve a place in your beer closet just the same. Granted, the worst beers in the world are pretty consistently Pale Lagers... the Budweisers... the Coors... the Millers...the light versions of the Buds, the Coors, the Millers...Pale Lagers one and all, dominate the lowest rungs of the ladder. Of the 20 lowest rated beers in the world, only two are made by someone other than these companies... and 15 of the 20 worst beers are Pale Lagers. So no wonder they get a bad rap. Still, not all Pale Lagers are swill, particularly the ones that aren't on TV... There are a ton of very good Pale Lagers out there, respectable beers made with the loving hands of crafts men and women who care.
Another reason Pale Lagers get lower ratings is that some styles of beer are just so big and in your face that these light refreshing little lagers just can't compete in side-by-side ratings systems like RateBeer.Com. If you were to stack all the beers of the world on top of one another, with the worst on the bottom and the best on top, you wouldn't uncover a Pale Lager until you've plowed through the top sixteen percent of the pile. Even the very best Pale Lager in all the land rates a mere 84*. The bigger styles of beers make it almost impossible for these lighter styles of beers to compete. Still, the 84 rated Pale Lager is a very good beer. When you look at a beer at RateBeer.Com make sure you pay attention to the second rating, the rating where they only compare the beer within the style it professes to be. The best Pale Lager in the world carries an 84/100 rating. The second number is the one that tells you it's a world class Pale Lager.
When you come in from mowing the lawn on a hot summer day I would recommend you avoid the in-your-face biggie huge beers like the Imperial Stouts (lots of those at the top of the pile) and instead reach for a good lager. You see, the prime feature of a great dry lager is its ability to quench thirst, and thus the term, 'lawnmower beer' was born. A well made lager, it is said, will quench your thirst quicker than water. It is more capable of getting hydration into your body than the mere fluid of the faucet.
All yeasts leave their signature, and lager yeast is no exception. The trademark of the lager flavor is evident in the aftertaste. There are many ales that are designed to be crisp and dry to match thirst qualities with the lagers. Kölsch, for example, is an ale that is finished out in cold storage (lagered) and is in all ways treated like a lager. They look alike, at first they taste alike... but the finish is quite different. There are many lagers that the reverse is also true... heavily hopped, richly malted and very ale-like.... but the aftertaste will give it away every time.
So, just because the Pale Lager beer on the shelf might not carry a 90+ rating, take the time to look at that second number in the RateBeer.Com rating. That second number will tell you how good this lager is compared to other lagers... and whether it is what you want when you've finished your bike ride, your jog, your...
Pilsner, loosely speaking, is kind of like the lager version of an India Pale Ale (IPA). To describe Pilsner we first need to talk about Pale Ales, and then IPA's, as Pilsners have their roots firmly planted in the Pale Ale terrain. Until there were Pale Ales, the world of beer was completely dark. A beer the color of a Pilsner, one of the pretties beer styles in the world, would be impossible beforehand.
Pale Ales became very popular when the coal industry, in the late 1800's, developed a special product called Coke (not the beverage advertised at halftime during the Super Bowl). This fuel took malting to the next level. Malting is the process wherein one gets grain all warm, moist, and cozy, so that it begins to sprout. Right before it does so, it spikes in sugar content. Malters then dry out the grain thus slamming on the brakes to the sprouting process. Malted grain has a higher level of sugar, therefore ideal for brewing... I mean, we want those yeasties to have plenty to eat, right? Coke burns so consistently that one can dry grain without cooking it. The development of Pale Malt, the very malt that Pale Ale's are named after, was directly tied to this coal. To this day, Pale Ales are made almost entirely with this malt, with little or no other specialty malts blended in.
Pale Ales were the bee's knees when they first hit the market. In those days no one had seen a golden colored beer before. Legend has it that, while Pale Ales were popular where brewed, they were not popular in India, because they degraded so badly during shipment around the tip of Africa and back up to India. A new style emerged that became known as India Pale Ale, which had a little more alcohol and a lot more hops, and thus better survived the long trip to India quite.
Pilsner has a similar story. Pilsen located in what is now Czech Republic, is the birthplace of Pilsner. Prior to its creation in the early 1840's, the citizens of Pilsen suffered through beer of varying quality through the aging cycle of their ales.. These beers would taste fine in the winter when they were fresh, but degraded during the summer months when brewing was not possible (no central a/c in those days you know... no refrigerators with ice makers in the door either). Even when stored in caves at cooler temps these brews did not hold up long enough to last until brewing season. It got so bad that at one point the street gutters were full of beer, emptied there because they became too gross to drink.
Enter Josef Groll, hired to come to Pilsen to solve the problem. Groll reputed to be expert in the Bavarian styles, came up with a solution which was to combine the Bavarian lager techniques with the latest in British brewing technology with their advances in malts and hops. The malt he used was very similar to the British Pale Malt (now known as Pilsner Malt), which these folks had never seen before, and to combine that with a much more aggressive hop profile using significant levels of the locally grown Saaz hops, which he added across the boiling process. Note that hops added early cook longer, and add only bitterness which cancels out some of the sweetness. Boiling for an hour or more will destroy the flavor and smell of hops. Conversely, hops added about 15 minutes before the end of the boil don't cook near as long, and thus add flavor. When you add them at the end (or after the boil) they add both flavor and aroma. He cold fermented this concoction with the best German lager yeasts available. This hoppy lager easily proved to be durable enough to survive the summer, stored in cool caves. The only worry was to make sure and make enough before the warm weather set in.
The beer he created was an instant success, and that same beer is still in production today, under the brand name of Pilsner Urquell (75/95). It is still one of the very best Pilsners ever made. The people of Pilsen were blown away with the taste, and were amazed at the color as well as the clarity... and the smell was like nothing they'd ever imagined.
When you choose a vessel to enjoy a Pilsner, keep in mind that the flavor and aroma is so pronounced that a special glass is not needed to accentuate the same... so you might prefer to have a nice tall glass to accentuate the beauty. This is truly one of the prettiest beers in the world.
I began to understand the story of Kölsch the hard way. A few years back I was in Europe and spent a day in Köln Germany... aka Cologne. While enjoying a lovely outdoor cafe I ordered a Kölsch and afterward asked if they served Alt. The waitress leaned over and spoke in hushed tones. She very politely told me that I was smack dab in the middle of a major faux pas. Turns out they have those in Germany as well. She quickly educated me as to the fierce rivalry between Cologne and Dusseldorf just down the road. One simply does not go to Cologne and ask for an Alt. I assume the reverse is also true in the big D, but can only speak from experience as to what happens in Cologne. Lesson learned. Alt is the beer of the Dusseldorf, and Kölsch is the beer of Köln. Period.
I imagined brewing a Kölsch to be a centuries old tradition, handed down from father to son. Tradition yes. Old... no. It can't be, really. All golden colored beers are relative newbies. Pilsner was the first pale beer in Germany and that was in the mid 1800's. It was a hoppy lager version of the 'new' British style Pale Ale of the day. None of these yellow beers would have been possible before, because until the malters started using the recently discovered coke coal to fire their kilns, there was no way to dry the malt without cooking it. With the steady even heat of a coke fired kiln, pale malt was now possible. So Kölsch came from that period... right? Nope. The beer we now know of as Kölsch came much later...
Before we get to that, there is some background and history that led to this beer style. Cologne has a rich beer history, and as a part of that history there has been an on-again off-again tendency to form alliances, like Guilds and Unions etc. Conquerors, World Wars and the changing times and taxes all influenced whether these associations were legal or practical. World War II pretty much wiped out Cologne. There was a shortage of materials to build breweries, and a shortage of grain to brew with, so the road back to brewing in Cologne was a slow deliberate trail. There was fierce competition, but there was also a bond amongst the brewers. This would slowly evolve into the Kölsch Convention.
The weather in this region is quite cool, so much so that even before refrigeration, brewers could brew in the summertime, if they brewed ales. Ale yeast strains do their thing in the 70 degree range, lager yeast dines in the 50's. That is probably why this area of western Germany did not go all-lager, like the rest of the country. Dusseldorf took it one step further... they didn't go golden pale beer crazy, either. So, post WWII you have these two neighbors heading in they same... yet different brewing directions... both sticking with making ales, and both completely out of step with the rest of this now lager crazy country... different in that one used the older style (alt=old) dark malts, the other the pale Pils malts. Only now, in 21st Century Germany are they starting to rediscover great craft ales.
Post WWII the Kölsch style of beer evolved, but not as a single style... there were lots of variations... lagers... ales... all called by this name, not because it was a known style, but because of where they came from. The word Kölsch literally means Köln-ish. If you are from Cologne you are Kölsch, if you speak in a dialect of the region, you speak Kölsch, if you brewed any beer in Cologne, it was said to be Kölsch because anything identified as a part of the Cologne culture was and is called Kölsch. The beer's variations finally evolved into a single style, but it was all the way to 1985 until it became official. The brewers of the region were officially united and committed to this unique style of brewing, and as of that date the name is now a registered appellation just like Champagne and Chianti. If you take the recipe home with you, it becomes a Kölsch-style beer... not a Kölsch. It can only be Kölsch if it is brewed by one of Cologne's regional brewers of the Convention, and it must be brewed there in the Cologne area.
Some call this beer The Champagne of Beers, not at all because it tastes like Champagne... it does not... nor, thank God does it taste like Miller High Life (1/8), also nicknamed the same... it tastes much better. They call it that because like Champagne, it has an appellation, a sort of patent, if you will. It's a good thing too. If not, the style could be pushed and pulled in any sort of direction. Case in point... Miller Lite (0/2) is marketed as a Pilsner. One might taste it against the classic Pilsner Urquell (75/95) and note the difference. In fact there is no similarity at all. They are not the same style, but because there is no appellation there is nothing to stop them from claiming Miller Lite is a Pilsner. As fate would have it, these two 'Pilsners' are now owned by the same company, South Africa's SAB Miller.
Kölsch beers are basically ales made with all the techniques used to make lagers, including an ale yeast designed to ferment at a cool 60ish degrees. One side effect of fermenting an ale yeast at such a cool temperature is poor flocculation, in other words, at the end of their cycle the little yeasties don't clump, and if they don't clump they don't weigh enough to sink. We need the yeast to sink. One needs the yeast to separate itself from the liquid, otherwise the taste and beauty of the beer would be adversely affected. So, once this beer is finished, just like with lagers (the noun) one needs to store it at cold temps for a long period of time (lager, the verb). Eventually the yeasties settle.
The resulting beer is a thing of beauty. Bright golden in color and nicely carbonated, it is served in a glass called a stange. The stange is a tall slender glass very similar to a Tom Collins glass, only with very thin glass on the upper part. To toast with one of these, one must touch glasses at the bottom, as they are too fragile to toast from the top. The glass contributes to the beautiful head and really brings the color to light with its small see-through circumference.
The city's obsession with this beer style can be fun. Each pub only serves Kölsch, and each pub only serves one brand of Kölsch. They don't have to ask you what kind of beer you want, they just ask if you want one. They come around with big trays of filled glasses and you either want one or you don't. From there on it is like iced tea in the south. They bring around a pitcher and refill your glass without even so much as asking. If you finish a glass, and you haven't set your coaster on top of it, well, you must want another one, right? Your tab is tabulated by the coaster itself. The waiter puts a mark for each glass refilled.
There is a rich tradition with the wait staff there as well. Historically, the wealthy citizens of Cologne traveled to Spain on Pilgrimage. Commoners could not afford the trip, but could afford to work as waiters along the trail. They'd save up enough money and go to the next town and do it again and again until they completed their journey. The trail of Jacob (Köbe) waiters became known as Köbes (Jacobs). In current day Cologne if you see a waiter or waitress in a kilt-like garb, holler "Köbe" and they'll respond... male or female, even though you are calling them Jacob. Furthermore, it is not impolite, quite the opposite. The name held in high esteem, so it is like the opposite of saying "Hey you".
The typical Kölsch or Kölsch Style beer is medium bodied, slightly sweet, refreshing, and very easy to drink. The alcohol content is modest, usually in the high 4's, so it makes a great session beer. One might detect a hint of fruit, like apples or peach but it is very subtle. I love the way it finishes, smooth like a good lager, but with no lager aftertaste. . This is a GREAT beer for those used to the swill on TV.
The word Alt in German means 'old'. This is appropriate because the style is based on one of the longest running traditional styles in all of beerdom. The alts of today are very similar to beers that have been produced for hundreds of years. This is rare, because most of the beer styles we drink today are fairly new to the game.
In the early 1500's German beer makers were tightly regulated in a way that made experimentation all but illegal. Grain, hops and water (they didn't know about yeast, so the laws didn't include this mystery ingredient) were all one could use. Malters weren't very sophisticated, so all the malts were dark in color, therefore all the beers were dark in color. So there was not a lot of variation in the types of beer made in Germany. Furthermore the regulations were such that one could not brew in the summertime, as these beers were notoriously bad.
Fast forward to the mid 1800's and two very important things happened that changed beer forever. First, advances in the coal industry made it possible for grain to be malted without 'cooking' (what is malting? You add water to the grain then it begins to sprout, then quick dry it at its sugar peak). Gold colored beer made its grand entrance and was all the rage. Second, they figured out how the magic of fermentation worked... specifically that yeast was a living organism that made it all happen. Not magic after all, it was basic biology. Who knew?
So what happened next was like a one-two punch to the world of beer. Some folks started to fiddle around with these new pale colored malts, while other folks started to fiddle around with cultivating special yeasts. As to the latter, folks were highly motivated to find a way to ferment beer at cooler temps because of the German climate, so the development of a cold tolerant yeast was key, especially with the fact that one could only brew in the cooler months. With all the improvements in shipping, there were all kinds of new cooties from lands afar that were now being introduced into the environ of Germany. One such little bug was from Patagonia, and when they fiddled with that one they found they had a whole new kind of organism to ferment with... thus lager yeast was born. So almost all of Germany went crazy over a newfangled gold colored lager (in this usage the word lager is a noun... stay with me here). It is still very popular all over the Germanic cultures of Europe.
In a small area on the western side of Germany the weather was so cool that they were granted an exception to the summertime restrictions. They could brew year round, and as a result they didn't really care much about all the lager craze, their ale yeasts worked year round thank you very much. One small subsection of this ale-dominant region did catch on to the pale malt movement either. Cologne Germany, post WWII, developed Kölsch, but the rest of the region kept right on making beer they way they always had. Traditional dark colored malts, fermented with traditional unrefined ale yeast, are the cornerstones of the beer style we now know as Alt.
Both Kölsch and Alt not only have the yeast in common, but one other little anomaly. The fact that they ales, brewed in a cool climate, makes for a problem that must be solved, and both styles solve it the same way. When ale yeast is finished doing its thing at these colder than ale temperatures, it doesn't finish up its chores. Ales fermented at their normal (70ish) temperatures, end the fermentation cycle with the yeasties clotting up (flocculation) and falling to the bottom. In a cool state they stay suspended in the liquid long after they've quit making (crapping actually) alcohol. The solution for both styles is to place them in cold storage near the freezing mark (to cold store beer is to lager, so in this usage the word lager is a verb) Over time, thanks to lagering, all the yeasties eventually settle to the bottom.
With Alts using these older style traditional malts, one side effect is that not all of the sugars are the kind that yeast will eat. As a result there is a lot of stuff in the end product that otherwise would not survive the fermentation process. What this means to you the discerning beer drinker is that you will have more of a full bodied, sweeter, maltier beer to enjoy.
Finding one of these Alts can be a bit tricky, unless of course you live in Dusseldorf Germany, a town which has become synonymous to this classic old style of beer. Around town here in the Little Rock area one can only find it in the most dedicated of beer venues. I ordered one at the Saucer the other day, a Uerige Doppel Sticke (98/100). My server, a long-time veteran of the bar, looked at me in confusion. She told me she thought they didn't have it, but she checked and sure enough she found me one. I very much enjoyed it. This beer, made in Dusseldorf, is the highest rated Alt in the world.
This particular Alt illustrates a significant difference in the Alt and Kölsch traditions. The Doppel (double) is a higher gravity version of another Alt made by the same brewery. See, Alts have a wide range of possible characteristics, like they can have high or low alcohol contents. Kölsch, on the other hand, is an appelation, meaning that there are specific controls over the definition of what a Kölsch is. You would never ever see a Kölsch Lite, or a Doppel Kölsch, or even a Kölsch Reserve. Kölsch is Kölsch, with only the slightest variation from one brewer to another. And if it is not made in Cologne (Köln) it is a Kölsch Style, not a Kölsch. One can take a wide latitude with Alts and still call it an Alt... very different from their counterpart, the golden ale made right down the road.
Generally speaking an Alt (or Altbier) will feature the malt flavors. Try to pick out flavors like dried fruit, dark candy sugar, caramel, or molasses. There should be a balance of bitterness to sweetness. You won't usually taste or smell hops in an Alt, but the bitterness should be there to offset any otherwise excessive sweetness. The classic version would be dark and murky in appearance, but modern day versions will be more more likely be clear and range from dark brown to copper colored. Again, the style is pretty broad, so it is a bit hard to pin down. The lower alcohol versions are easily drinkable and make good beers to give to beer snobs, aspiring beer geeks and newbies alike.
Uerige Alts are pretty much the industry standard, producing the 1st, 4th, 15th and 50th highest rated Altbiers in the world. The local distributor stocks the three highest rated ones, Uerige Alt (90/96), Uerige Sticke (96/99) and Uerige Doppel Sticke (98/100), so if your store doesn't have any they can get them for you through Glidewell Distributing. They come in reusable bottles with clamp down lids, great for home brewers. Another alt-ernative that is more widely available in our region of the US right now is O'Fallon Sticke It To The Man (82/92). You'll often see the word Sticke associated with Alts. Literally translated it means 'secret'. When used in the name of an Alt it indicates a special recipe or seasonal version of the beer.
This beer is a bit of a rarity. It has been on the verge of extinction before and may be again. If that ever happened it would be a shame, though, as this beer has a distinguished place in beer history.
Oktoberfest, Märzen and Vienna
In the early days of brewing, particularly in Austria and Germany, beers varied greatly in flavor depending on the time of year they were produced. Beers produced in the winter were quite superior, summer not quite so much. It got to be so extreme that there were laws passed to prohibit brewing in the summer. No one knew why, but everyone knew that brews produced in the summer tasted bad. So from mid spring through the summer months, the breweries shut down. In the early spring they worked from “can to can’t” trying to make enough beer to last through until fall.
There were a few areas around Cologne (Köln) that were exempt from the law, for two reasons. It is cooler there in the summertime, and the traditional regional styles call for ale yeast instead of lager yeast. Lager yeast requires a much cooler fermentation to insure a clean taste. The combination of warm-tolerant yeasts and cooler climate, made these areas conducive to brewing year round. It took a long time to figure out that there were microbes in the air in the summer that go dormant in the cooler air, thus revealing the cause of the summer beer flaws. In the 1870’s refrigeration changed everything.
In those early days they quickly learned that a slightly richer, hoppier brew tolerated storage better. So when they went into the March brewing-in-overdrive mode, they also cranked up the malt and thus the alcohol content. Then to further promote a better rest, they stored these kegs deep in caves where the temperature was quite brisk. With this combination they found that the beers not only survived, but actually got better over the summer as they rested.
In March the brewing season ended. This beer brewed for storage gets its official name from that month of glorious brewing. Märzen, German for March, may be the official name, still, most folks call it by the month we guzzle down the last of it, October (aka Oktober).
Keep in mind, October was also the month they celebrated the return to brewing. And if you’re gonna brew, you need vessels, and if the vessels you got are full of beer, then they need to be emptied, and if they need to be emptied the best way to do that is to have a festival, and if you are going to have a festival then you might as well name it after then month in question. (Technically, Oktoberfest starts in September and spills over into October, but hey… ). Also a factor here is the grain harvest. When the brewers returned to brewing in October they would have had plenty of grain to make beer with.
Märzen evolved over time. Early on the style was quite broad. It was function over form, if you will. They were making a durable beer that aged well, without much of any other boundary considered. Many were in fact ales, rather than the lagers we see today. Whatever kind of beer a brewery made, they just cranked up the malt, alcohol and hop profiles.
In the mid 1800’s grain malting techniques improved with the advent of better grade coal. Up to that time, color was rarely a consideration relative to this style. They were all dark. With improvements in coal came the ability to tightly control temperature. Grain malting involves creating an ideal environment for grain to sprout. Just as it is about to sprout, the malter intervenes to stop the process. The grain is loaded with sugar and we want to keep it there. With this new technique, they could dry the grain out (thus stopping the gestation) without cooking it in the process. The resulting malt was what we now call Pale Malt. The world went smooth-fool-crazy over the new blonde colored beers made from this new wonder.
It was during this time that, with the availability of this Pale Malt, the style became more defined. The variations grew smaller and smaller. By the 1840’s this beer was becoming very similar to what we drink today. Brewers experimented with adding a lightly toasted version of the Pale Malt to the mix. This malt ultimately became what we now know as Vienna Malt. Thus the color was darker than the popular blondies, thus bucking a very strong momentum. At the same time the last brewer still using ale yeast switched to lager yeast, thus establishing the style as purely lager.
Brewing a beer with lager yeast with some toasted malt became known as brewing the Vienna Way. On the Austrian side the beer was called Vienna. On the German side it was called Märzen, with the slogan "gebraut nach Wiener Art" (brewed the Vienna way). A few years later the German version used an even darker roast malt that is what we now know as Munich Malt. Up to then the two styles were identical, the names changed to protect the innocent.
To this day the two styles, Märzen and Vienna are almost indistinguishable. In each measurement of the styles there is overlap. There are beers that fall into both ranges, such that, the only difference is what the brewer decides to call it.
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