What’s beer? Liquid awesomeness. It’s the world’s most popular drink after water and tea, and has roots dating back to the start of civilization.
Beer is deceptively simple. Basically, you can think of it as liquid bread: water, roasted grains (usually barley, but sometimes wheat and, less commonly, corn, rice or others), hops and yeast. Flavoring agents, from spices to chocolates to fruits, are sometimes thrown in the brewing process as well.
Each of the four main ingredients plays an important role. If you don’t have good water, you won’t have good beer. Grains serve as the body of the beer; they provide the sugars that are converted to alcohol in the brewing process, and they provide the sweetness in the flavor. Hops add the bitterness, act as a natural preservative and often are used to provide a beautiful aroma. Think of the yeast as the engine of the beer; it drives the conversion from sugars to alcohol, and what yeast you use can determine what type of beer you get.
But isn’t all beer the same? If there’s one thing we at Hop Leaf want to achieve, it’s to change this mindset. Unfortunately, this is a frequent misconception, because the vast majority of the beer sold around the globe is mass-market lagers. In Hong Kong, some of the most common lagers include Tsingtao, Stella Artois, Carlsberg, Heineken, Blue Girl, San Miguel and Asahi.
But beyond the mass market, beer is shockingly diverse in taste, scent and appearance. Some beers are sweet. Some are smoky. Some are sour. Some are tart. Some are super-bitter. Some have an herbal smell, others a citrus smell, and still others smell like fresh pine needles. And believe us, there are plenty of flavors beyond this.
Visually, some beers are clear and golden, others are red and translucent, and others are black and opaque. Some are even cloudy, because brewers keep the yeast in the bottle instead of filtering it out. (And yes, yeast is drinkable. In fact, these unfiltered beers continue to change their flavor because that yeast is still alive and continues to convert the sugars while in the bottle.)
For food pairings, some beers go well with sushi. Some go with Indian curries. Some go with char siu. Some go with fried chicken. Still others go with chocolate cake. You name it – there’s a match. A great beer exists for pretty much every type of food, and for every mood.
What is craft beer? It’s beer made by artisans, usually in smaller breweries.
For many centuries, beer was a local product made by your local brewer. Only in the past century, with improvements in transportation, has beer been invaded by giant global brands. Thankfully, certain countries (Belgium in particular, as well as areas in Germany and England) never abandoned their local breweries, so small brewers survived despite the onslaught of mass-market lagers.
One of the worst-hit countries by mass-market lagers was the United States, which effectively banned the sale of alcohol starting in 1919. By the time Prohibition was lifted in 1933, few breweries remained, and those that did mostly made flavorless lagers. However, starting in the 1970s, spurred on by an adventurous few who began making their own beer at home, a handful of small breweries popped up across the country. Using history and science, these brewers experimented with styles beyond the typical mass-market lager, and some even created their own.
This small number of craft breweries has grown into many, and now there are more than 1,400 such locations throughout the United States. In a dramatic turnaround, the US beer culture has become the most dynamic on the planet. Craft breweries have spread around the entire globe, too – you can find locally crafted beer in Canada, Argentina, Chile, England, Norway, Spain, Italy, South Africa, Singapore, Japan, China, Indonesia, New Zealand and Australia, to name but a handful.
What’s the difference between ales and lagers? It all comes down to the brewing process. Ales have yeast that works from the top down, which means they can work their magic at higher temperatures, and have a much broader range of flavors and styles.
In lagers, the yeast sinks to the bottom and works its magic there, and it needs lower temperatures to ferment. Lagers tend to be crisper and cleaner, with a smaller range of flavors and styles. One lager style, Pilsner, is the first type of beer many people become familiar with – think of beers like Tsingtao, Heineken, Carlsberg, Asahi, Kirin, Budweiser or Budvar.
How do I know which beer will I like? By experimenting. Don’t be afraid to step out of your comfort zone. For those new to craft beer, it’s generally better to start off with the less extreme offerings and work your way on to other styles. We’re glad to help suggest a few to get you started. A great place to start is with one of our wheat beers or our craft lagers.
Also, check out the IBUs (International Bitterness Units); while many people learn to love bitter beers, those beers with higher IBUs can be a shock. Above all, don’t expect the beers to taste like their mass-market cousins, which intentionally avoid flavor. Work your way up to different styles, then decide what you like the most. (And it’s okay if you decide “all of them.”)
How do I best store beer? First and foremost, keep it out of the sunlight. That’s the most important thing. Avoid extreme temperature swings. Some beers are best at room temperatures, while others are better chilled, and some can vary depending on your personal preference. If a beer has a cork in it, you may want to keep it on its side to keep the cork moist.
How can I hold a beer tasting? Like wine tastings, these events are becoming wildly popular. There are a few ways to do it. You can pick a variety of different styles, and work your way up from the beer with the least extreme flavors (say, a wheat beer) to the most extreme flavors (like an Imperial IPA). Or, try a bunch of different beers from the same style, such as pale ales, and compare the differences. Another approach is to get a variety of beers from the same brewery and look for any commonalities between the different styles.
Once you’ve chosen your beer, you don’t need much to get started. Just have some water, crackers or bread to cleanse your palate – and taste away. Similar to a wine tasting, start with smell; inhale the aroma of the beer to pick up the different flavors on its nose. Then, take a small sip, and let it warm up in your mouth to get the full effect of the flavors. Check for the mouthfeel to see how it feels on the tongue. Is it smooth, or prickly? Finally, check for the aftertaste; beers often go through a change in flavors. Bring a notepad to jot down some ideas on each beer.
Most importantly, have fun. It’s not a school examination, and there are no correct answers. It’s likely that everyone will discover some different flavors. A beer tasting is best shared with others, so compare notes. Your friend picked up some notes of pear in their beer, but you didn’t? That’s okay. Try it again, and see if it comes through the second time around.
How can I learn more about beer? Talk to us! We’re all mad about beer, and happy to share. Of course, there are some great resources on the subject, too. Tasting Beer: An Insider’s Guide to the World's Greatest Drink by Randy Mosher is a great place to start.
Also, check out www.beeradvocate.com for a community of like-minded people rating their favorite beers. Find a bar or pub that you like – one that has good beer – and get to know your bartenders. A great bartender can be your shepherd in the beer wilderness. And when you travel, make sure to try out the local beers, especially in towns with their own brewpubs or microbreweries.