Today I drank beer in class. At 11:00 AM.
Actually, I drank 20 different beers today (not the whole bottles! just sips!) in my six-hour-long Beer Tasting class with Professor Mirco Marconi. As a big fan of Philadelphia’s local microbrews, a sucker for sour beers, and a girl with a sweet spot for a hefeweizen in the summer, I was especially excited for this class.
Mirco Marconi is a taster extraordinaire and the professor for our Sense of Smell, Beer, Chocolate, and Cured Meat classes. He works in education for Slow Food Emilia-Romagna and has co-authored two (Italian) books about beer. Marconi led us through the history of beer, the beer making process, and the differences in beer styles among the three major beer regions: Germany/Czech Republic, UK/USA, and Belgium. Then we began our tasting, focusing on the sight, smell, and taste of the beers. For this blog post, I thought I would just skip to the fun stuff and write up some tasting notes on the 20 beers we sampled.
[To my friends back home: don’t worry, I am not going to become more of an insufferable beer snob than I already was. I just now know the technical differences between a lager and pilsner and have learned all about wort, hops, and fermentation.]
For the tasting, we used the Slow Food Beer Guide rubric, in which you write down your impressions of what the beer looks like (color, foam, cloudiness or clarity), smells like (is it fruity? hoppy? caramel-y?), and tastes like (often very different from the smell). Then, you rate the beer for bitterness/hoppiness, sweetness, sourness, and balance, on a scale from one to five.
Now for the beers:
1. The Helles Edelstoff by Augustiner (5.6% ABV) is a Munich Helles Lager, a super-drinkable “session” beer that has that straw yellow color and lasting white foam that comes to mind when you think beer. It smells of honey and, well, beer: it’s one of the most basic beer styles. In flavor, it has a delicate bitterness that is well balanced by its sweetness, but it is very watery. I’m not very fond of this style of beer in general, as I prefer a fuller body to my beer, but I could see myself going for a Helles Edelstoff in the summer heat.
2. Goose Island’s Summertime (4.7% ABV)is a Kolsch beer, a German-style beer that is top-fermented (i.e. the yeast rises to the top of the vat during the fermentation), which is the oldest fermentation style. It’s a cloudy, corn-yellow beer with a slightly fruity, caramelized scent. It’s richer in taste and flavor than the Munich Helles style, but I still found this a bit boring compared to the hoppy beers I’m used to drinking.
3. Up next was the Rothaus Pils by Braurei Rothaus. This beer was a good example of a typical German pilsner (5.1% ABV), with a cloudy, straw yellow color and a mildly bitter flavor that had a clean finish. One difference between a pilsner and a lager is that lagers are more sweet-oriented and pilsners are more bitter-oriented, because pilsners contain some hops. Now you know!
4. Birrificio del Ducato’s Via Emilia pilsner (5% ABV) was the only Italian beer we tasted, and I liked it a whole lot better than the Rothaus Pils. The Via Emilia is dry hopped, i.e. the hops aroma of the beer is enhanced by adding unboiled hops to the beer once it has cooled. [Hops have two main roles in beer: adding bitterness and adding citrusy, fruity, or simply hoppy, aromas. Dry hopping increases the aroma without increasing the bitterness.] The Via Emilia is a golden yellow beer with a slightly floral scent and a clear bitterness that is nicely balanced. I’d buy it in the future.
5. The Jeffrey Hudson Bitter by Oakham Ales was my favorite beer of the “blonde” category. A golden ale with a fruity scent (caused by the top-fermented yeast), this beer starts out with a very round flavor at the beginning, then tastes fruity, and finishes bitter. It’s a complex but drinkable (4.2 % ABV) beer that would be great for the summertime.
6. Schneider Braurei’s hefeweizen, the Weisse Original, was different than the pale yellow hefeweizens I’m used to. It’s an amber beer with the typical cloves-and-banana scent of weizens, but it also had some caramel notes and was slightly sour. It’s a bit watery (5.4% ABV), which makes it a good session beer.
7. This bière blanche (5.1% ABV) by Brasserie du Bocq was very refreshing. It’s a cloudy beer, thanks to the use of raw wheat in its grain mixture, and it’s citrusy and spicy thanks to the dried bitter orange peel and coriander seeds that the brewmaster adds to the mix. It’s not terribly sweet and has a dry finish.
8. I was one of the only fans of the Cuvée de Ranke, a gueze (mix of wood-aged lambic and fresh beer) from Belgium. But, as I said, I love sour beers (my favorite is Russian River’s sour ale, Supplication), so I didn’t mind the mustardy, vinegary flavor of this amber beer. The sour flavor of guezes, lambics, and krieks (lambics with sour cherries in the barrel) comes from Brettanomyces bruxelles, a yeast that is avoided in wine making (as it signals spoilage) but great for sour beers!
9. The Orval trappist beer (6.2% ABV) by Brasserie d’Orval kicked off our tour of the “freaks” — beers that don’t fit into any one category. Orval is the only beer brewed by the trappist monks of Brasserie d’Orval, and they do their one task well: this slightly sour, malty, fruity beer is fermented three times: first with a top fermentation, then with Brettanomyces yeast, then in the bottle. The monks also dry hop the beer, giving it a nice citrus aroma. I loved this complex beer.
10. Marconi referred to Schlenkerla’s Rauchbier Marzen as “liquid speck.” This smoked beer (5.1% ABV) truly smells like bacon and barbecue sauce, and it tastes like meat, too. The brewmaster dries the malts for this beer on a birchwood fire, which affords it is (overwhelming, to me) smokey flavor.
11. International Arms Race (7.5% ABV) was my least favorite beer of the day. It is the product of a competition between Scotland’s Brewdog and America’s Flying Dog breweries to create an “IPA” beer that without using any hops. [Indian Pale Ales by definition are hopped beers; the Brits started adding hops to beers sent to colonial India because hops are antiseptic and kill the bacteria that can grow in beer at high temperatures.] In order to create the bitterness of an IPA, Brewdog used a spice and fruit mixture. For me, this is a Christmas Ale, and I don’t particularly like Christmas Ales, because they are way too spiced.
12. On to the hops! The Haymaker is a pale ale (5% ABV) of the British variety. It has a apple-fruity smell, thanks to the yeast used, and a caramel flavor from the use of Crystal malt (which is a very common malted barley used to add color and flavor to beer). It’s a highly drinkable beer with a mild bitter aftertaste, but I prefer more hops.
13. I was sort of surprised to see the Sierra Nevada Pale Ale (5.6% ABV) on our tasting list, because I haven’t drank it since I discovered the wonders of Yards Brewing Company’s Philadelphia Pale Ale (one of my favorite beers for easy drinking). But Marconi loves Sierra Nevada, touting it as a pale ale that is perfectly balanced between sweet and bitter. Sierra Nevada uses Cascade hops, an American breed that gives off a classic citrus-hop aroma.
14. I liked the Kipling by Thornbridge Brewing Company quite a lot. It’s a South Pacific Pale Ale (5.2% ABV) that uses New Zealand-grown hops, which are becoming quite popular. The New Zealand hops have a serious passion fruit scent, which is funny, since the Sauvignon Blanc wines from New Zealand are also known for their passion fruit aroma. There must be something in the soil there. This fruity, bitter beer finishes dry and is very drinkable.15. The one beer I didn’t photograph was one of the most unusual of the day: the Nipponia by Niuchi, the only craft brewery in Japan. I recognized the owl on the label from many a glance at the very expensive Hitachino Nest Beers in the case at the Foodery in Philly. It’s an Imperial Pilsner (6.5%) that isn’t at all bitter, but is rather a bit yeasty and citrusy, with a scent of candied lemon peel. Niuchi Brewery uses local barley and local hops for this beer.
16. We turned to my favorite style of beer next: the Double IPA. More malt, more hops, more ABV (9% for Chouffe Houblon), Double IPAs are strong in body and bitter in flavor. This beer ranked high for Marconi because it starts out soft and round and finishes dry, which is a sign of a good beer. I really loved this beer for its balance between body and bitterness.
17. Brewdog redeemed themselves for me with their Hardcore IPA, a Double IPA (9.2% ABV) that uses both American and New Zealand hops. The Hardcore IPA another example of body balancing bitterness: this beer was fruity and citrusy, thanks to the bitter hops, but with a round, malty flavor.
18. Now for the dark beers. The Foreign Export Stout (8% ABV) is a stout for, well, foreign export. The Brits upped the alcohol level and added hops to this stout to control bacteria growth for shipping overseas, similar to what they did with the IPA. This is a molasses/coffee/chocolate scented beer that for me was a bit thin compared to the roundness of a Guinness, which is a dry stout. It’s not too sweet and has a bitter aftertaste, thanks to the hops.
19. Another American beer on our list from a brewery I like quite a bit, the 17th Anniversary Wood Aged Double IPA (10% ABV) by Great Divide is a super-complex beer. It starts off round with flavors of dried fruit and smoke (duh, wood-aged) and finishes clean and bitter. It’s like the beer version of a sherry, but a bit sweeter than some really dry sherries.
20. The last beer of the day was also the strongest (11.3% ABV). The Rochefort 10 is a special trappist beer, and it is considered to be one of the best dark beers in the world. It is buttery and rich, with a slightly dry, clean finish. The trappist monks ferment this beer with three different yeasts, adding fruitiness, and they use hops to balance the flavor. It is sort of reminiscent of a sacher torte (dry chocolate, fruity jam) and would be a great dessert beer.