In honor of "American Craft Beer Week", I thought it might be nice to change things up a bit, and do a brief discussion on beer (I know my beer making, and drinking, friends will appreciate that).

Beer's history precedes that of wine, and probably was discovered by accident, when some cooked grains that an early nomadic hunter-gatherer carried, came into contact with water, and fermented. Mesopotamia is thought to be the origin of brewing, when the Sumerians produced bread from barley, and dipped it in water to ferment...basically "liquid bread". There is even some thought that the words "bread" and "brew" were once the same word.

Beer is made from a simple list of ingredients: water, grain, hops and yeast. The water portion is pretty self explanatory, but many will argue that the mineral content will affect the final outcome. So the water source is often emphasized, but in reality, with today's chemistry, water can be treated to create the desired mix. Where things get interesting is the type of grain used. The most common are: barley, wheat, oats, corn, rice and rye. Barley, wheat, oat and rye are "malted", a process which stimulates germination in the grain, and converts the starch to sugar (which is needed for fermentation). This "green malt" is then dried to create the malt we're familiar with. This is then ground down into "grist" and mixed with water to help dissolve the sugars. Each of these grains imparts different flavors on the finished product. Barley is soft, sweet and clean. Wheat is slightly tart. Rye is spicy. Oats are oily and silky. Rice and corn are light.

Hops is a flower, or more precisely a cone, from a plant that is related to hemp/marijuana. Hops was probably first used as an aroma agent to replace a variety of flowers and herbs, and found superior to those when its' preservative power was uncovered . Today it continues to be used to add aroma and bitterness (to balance the sweetness of malt). There are literally hundreds of varieties, and they vary just as much as grape varieties do, and are affected by the soil and growing conditions...just like grapes.

Lastly is the yeast. While this may seem like a minimal part of the beer, it will in fact affect the final product. There are three types of beer: Lager, Ale, and Lambic. Each of these is determined by the type of yeast used. Lagers use a yeast that ferments at lower temperatures. These yeast move to the bottom of the fermentation tank, and ferment from the bottom. Lagers are cleaner, rounder, less fruity, and drier than ales. Ales, on the other hand, ferment at warmer temperatures, and ferment from the top of the tank. Ales leave behind complex esters and sugars. Lambics are wild yeast beers, and are only produced in Belgium (in the Zenne Valley).

Bacon Jam Appetizer
Today, it is common to see additional ingredients like fruit, coffee and chocolate. Just like wine, beer has classic food pairings too: Guinness Stout with Oysters; English Ale with Cheddar or Stilton Cheese; German Lagers with Bratwurst; and Belgian Gueuze (a lambic) with mussels. I'd also dare to say my Bacon Jam from last weeks' blog would work well with Stout.

So what are your favorite beers, and beer pairings? I'm sure my friends from the local home brewers club will chime in.

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