Beer bust

Severely brew-challenged? Have a winter beer tasting and learn while you drink.

BEER HAS an image problem. People who wouldn't think of buying Wonder Bread or Folgers instant, who can't drink a glass of wine without the ritual of swirl, sip, and savor, dismiss beer as something you drink when you're thirsty, of no intrinsic interest, a sort of alcoholic Gatorade. This attitude drives Charles Finkel crazy. For him, beer is a beverage as complex and sophisticated as wine, and worthy of just as much respectful attention; he's a pioneer promoter of quality winemaking and craft brewing in the Northwest, beer trade magazines, and ex cathedra interviews in newspapers from Los Angeles to London to Vienna. But he is not above giving the benefit of his expertise even to the severely brew-challenged, so long as they're sincerely willing to learn. All true beer is made from just four ingredients: water, yeast, malted grain, and hops. Each component has an impact on the final brew: Different yeasts contribute different trace flavors as they work, while the mineral and acid content of water lends its own subliminal background. But the taste and mouthfeel (thickness or viscosity) of a beer are principally determined by the brewer's choice of hops and grain. Hops can be spicy-peppery or mellow and "green," added in dried form early in the process or sprinkled fresh into the barrel at the finish. The main grain of choice for beer is barley, but there are so many variables in how the grains are sprouted, then roasted, that an experienced brewer has more control over the final character and flavor of a brew than a winemaker does. To demonstrate the full beer spectrum to a band of Weekly tasting volunteers, Finkel mandated half a dozen general categories, leaving the final choices within each to the experts at Wallingford's premier beer boutique, Bottleworks (1710 N. 45th, 633-2437). The key word for the first specimen in the resulting lineup is "light": in color, hop flavor, alcohol, even barley. "Wheat beer" replaces no more than 10 percent of traditional malted barley with wheat, but the impact on flavor of the admixture is enormous. To their fans, wheat beers (also known by the German term "Hefeweizen") taste "light," "fruity," and "lemony," and on a hot day they make a fine thirst-quencher. But even the best soon begin to taste monotonous, and even the traditional squeeze of fresh lemon isn't enough to render less than the best interesting for long. THE INS AND OUTS of beermaking would be easier to learn if the terminology of the field were more consistent. Take the word "ale," for example. Technically, all traditionally brewed beers are ales, because they're fermented with yeasts that prefer to breed at the top of the tank rather than at the bottom (like lager and pilsner beers, both top of the line and mass market). True ales come in an enormous range of flavors, from clear, golden brews not that much more assertive than the all-American beer norm, to amber-toned fluids redolent of hay, earth, and autumn leaves. It all depends on how heavily the fermenting mash is laced with hops, and how thoroughly the malted barley is toasted to caramelize the sugars in the sprouted grain. Ales are consistent in one respect: Nearly all exceed the average 4 percent alcohol content of mass market beers, which have to abide by a myriad of state regulations leftover from Prohibition. Handmade ales like the ones we sampled typically have 6 to 7 percent alcohol (and some decline to specify). Few yeast varieties can live in an environment above 10 percent alcohol, but some specialized brews, often called "barley wines," rise to or above that figure. But compared to the essentials of hops and barley, alcohol content has little effect on the character of a beer. Among ales, those produced by artisanal breweries in Belgium (and American emulators thereof) are a study in themselves. Many are produced in tiny quantities, in traditional facilities hundreds of years old, with unique yeasts native to the premises. Flavor? Honey, cider, bread, coffee, grapefruit. . . . Belgian beer is so varied that Seattle even has a tavern (Capitol Hill's Stumbling Monk, 1635 E. Olive Way, 860-0916) devoted entirely to its nuances. When you shop for Belgian brews in the bottle, a knowledgeable salesperson is essential: Some of the most respected brands take a good deal of getting used to. The longer barley is roasted, the darker it grows in color and the more complex its flavors become. Mouthfeel begins to play a major role. Some "dark beers" are no more richly flavored than some clear amber ales; others no darker in color seem to cling to the tongue, revealing tones of chocolate, cream, and mocha. The darker dark beers are often referred to as porters and stouts, but the boundaries between such categories are impossible to define. "Stout" should by definition be stouter, thicker, more substantial than porter, but you can't count on it. (Guinness, the most famous of stouts, is actually on the light side compared to most porters.) Winter, the season of skis, sweaters, and hearty stews, is the time for sampling the broadest spectrum of quality beers: Many breweries only produce porters, stouts, intensely herbal India ales, and luscious aperitif barley wines around the holidays. Take advantage of the current bounty by devising a tasting of your own. Accompanied by some first-rate beerwurst, some malty pretzels, or perhaps a steaming pot of a beer-based beef-and-vegetable stew, you can mount a dark-days party that combines education and delectation. FINE BREWS Here are the beers that the estimable Mr. Finkel and Bottleworks chose for our tasting (the good people at Bottleworks or the all-knowing Rob at the Stumbling Monk could certainly help you mix it up a bit). You will want nice clear glasses (of a consistent size and weight if you're going to make meaningful comparisons), because color and bubbliciousness are qualities you ought to be appreciating along with head (that's the foam), nose (that's how it smells), taste (self-explanatory), and aftertaste (ditto). One of our number was scolded for drinking straight from a bottleā€”OK for finishing off the dead soldiers at a house party, not OK for properly enjoying fine brew. BIG HOUSE BREWING CO. Walla Walla Wheat Beer (% N/A) $7.49/six-pack SIERRA NEVADA (CALIF.) Celebration Ale (6.8%) $7.49/six-pack PETRUS (BELGIUM) Triple Ale (7.5%) $2.69/8.4 oz. ANCHOR BREWING (CALIF.) Old Foghorn Barley Wine Style Ale (9.4%) $2.50/7 oz. ELYSIAN BREWING CO. Perseus Porter (% N/A) $7.49/six-pack LA CONNER BREWING CO. Stout (% N/A) $7.49/six-pack

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