Thursday, July 1, 2010

How bad beer came to be, a basic history

Beer back in the day

Beer is a pretty simple drink. In most culture it's usually made from malted barley, which adds sweetness, and flowering clusters known as hops, which add bitterness. There are other possible additions to the recipe, quite often wheat and sometimes fruit. Many modern breweries also include yeast in their beer recipe, because yeast builds the fermentation process.

The Germans, who traditionally take their beer quite seriously even came up with a Beer Purity Law in nearly 500 years ago. In 1516, in the city of Ingolstadt, a law known as the Reinheintsgebot was passed that outlines the ingredients of beer as only water, barley and hops.

So, a simple drink. But within the limitations of what actually goes into making beer, there are plenty of possibilities, thus the many different types and flavors of beer available today.

More recent history

Before the late 19th century, most beer was regional beer. If you walked into a local tavern and ordered a brew, that brew was almost certainly thrown together by a local brewer. The reason for this is twofold. First, proper refrigeration technology did not as of yet exist. Second, transportation back in ye olden days was slow, usually by ship or horse. And beer couldn't travel for long without refrigeration because it would go bad, stale, skanky, whatever you want to call it.

Along comes the late 19th century. Railroads hit the scene, thus decreasing travel times immensely. And modern refrigeration is invented. Put the two together and you've got fast vehicles that can support refrigerated cars big enough to hold lots of beer.

So, beer could go anywhere. Which is what brought about today's modern, large beer companies. Think Anheuser-Busch, for example. Trains and refrigeration allowed brewers to sell their beers not only across the country, but across the globe.

Along come the cheapskates

As happens with any company growing in size, eventually the bosses look for ways to cut costs. They've got to make a buck or two, after all.

Malted barley could be expensive. But malted barley is important in making many beers. So, how to cut the costs there? By cutting down on the malt being used. Instead, other grains were tossed into many beer recipes, grains such as rice and corn which were cheaper to come by.

Unfortunately, rice and corn don't taste like malted barley. They don't even taste like wheat. They tend to weaken the flavor of beer while also lightening the color.

Thus you have most of today's mass-marketed beers. Budweiser. Miller. Coors. You know their names.

More on the coloring

Traditionally, beer kind of has a cloudy look to it. If you looked inside a clear glass or bottle of beer, it would almost seem as if stuff was floating around in there. That's because stuff was floating around in there, stuff like bits and pieces of the very malts and hops used to make the beer. There generally wasn't enough floating in the drink to ruin it or to turn it into sludge, but still there was stuff there floating around in your beer.

It seems many consumers don't like stuff floating around in their drinks. Understandable to some extent.

If beer sits still for a while, at least a few days in most cases but sometimes longer, gravity will take care of the job and those floating bits will sink to the bottom of the bottle or barrel. This will leave behind clear beer, at least until the bottle or barrel was moved.

Still, this natural separation takes time, and time means money.

What mass brewers have done to rectify this situation is to add clarifying agents to their beers. These clarifying agents work to bring together all that loose stuff floating around in the beer, and once clumped together the brewer can scoop the stuff out along with most of the clarifying agents. What kind of clarifying agents are used? There are plenty of different kinds: some types of yeast, gelatin, isinglass, etc. The list could go on.

Basically all these extra ingredients do is to make your beer clear.

Mass-marketed beer

There are many different types of beer commonly referred to as "bad," and taste is obviously subjective. Beer one person loves might taste like the bottom of an ashtray to someone else. It's all subjective.

Still, among beer aficionados, there are beers generally thought of as "bad" or "awful" or, at least, "not very good." Many of the modern, mass-marketed beers fall into this category. To be fair, those beers to serve their purposes. They might not taste great to the beer snobs, but they're usually cheap, wet and easy to find just about anywhere you go. Also, mass-marketed beers are consistent; like them or love them, a can of Schlitz in Florida is going to taste pretty much like a can of Schlitz in Alaska.

So, we've got mass-marketed brews. For experienced beer drinkers and tasters, it's easy to spot a mass-marketed brew with but a sip. The flavor is often weak and watery. The color is usually quite pale, almost like urine. The smell is also often weak, but sometimes noxious. Then you have light beers which commonly have even less taste and often seem loaded down with carbonation.

The simple truth is most of these beers taste this way because what makes beer, malt and hops and sometimes wheat, have been reduced. Instead, fillers have been included, like rice and corn.

True beer snobs might not even consider these mass-marketed brews real beer. But I won't go that far.

For one thing, there's nothing wrong with these mass brews from a business point of view or from the view of your average Joe. But the beer snobs want more.

I want more. Which is why I taste all kinds of different beers, from the good to the "bad."

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