1. Food

What is Beer?

By May 14, 2006

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In the coming weeks I will be filling out the Beer Styles category with profiles of various lager and ale styles. This has brought a question to mind that might be more philosophical than anything – “What is beer?”

The lager section will be easy. Lagers require either a cool cave or refrigeration technologies that, until recently, were out of reach for most homebrewers. Consequently, relatively few lager styles have developed and most of those are German. Thanks to Reinheitsgebot, this means that the majority of lager styles are still pretty strictly defined. Those that have strayed a bit from their roots haven’t strayed far enough to make them difficult to categorize.

But once we leave Germany and start looking at the ales that have flourished in other parts of the world, things start to get messy. As near as Belgium is to Germany, the beer makers there participate in brewing practices that would give proper braumeisters fearful shivers. Unmalted grains abound and the lambic brewers regularly introduce fruit and berries to their fermentation tanks.

Then crossing the Atlantic we find brewers throwing everything but themselves into the mix. Beers with coffee, fruit and chocolate are common. Anheuser-Busch has come out with a brew containing an inexplicable mix of ginseng, caffeine and guarana. There are even microbrews with a hot pepper floating in the bottle. Despite all of these bizarre combinations these beers begin where all beer begins – malted barley, hops, yeast and water.

But there are other brews that have been called beer that stray even further than the simple addition of unusual ingredients. Choctaw beer, for instance, can only be associated with beer through the loosest of definitions. Different recipes for this brew call for corn meal, berries, roots, dried peaches, and tobacco. It has been described as thick and milky, clearly not a recognizable ale to the average beer drinker. But every indication is that it is brewed in much the same way as ale and uses a warm fermenting, top flocculating yeast – an ale yeast. So, since it carries the word “beer” and is made with an ale yeast, shouldn’t it be included in my list of ales?

The same questions arise when one gazes into the past. The precursors to modern ale are often referred to as beer. These brews did not contain hops and were served flat and warm or even hot. Gruit and braggot are two examples of these early ales. Actually, a particular view of the etymology of the word ale could lead one to the conclusion that these are the true ales and the stuff we drink today should be called hopped ale. But language, like good beer, is a living thing and this would be a pointless argument to make.

So, what is beer? More to the point - what is ale? Fortunately in completing my list of ale styles, I can use the loosest of standards to answer that question. Visitors to beer.about.com may very well be looking for information about Choctaw beer and I will only be to glad to include a profile of it. I will loosely define ale and any top fermented beverage whose manufacture includes grain and has not been distilled. The rest I will leave under the categories of wine or spirits.

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