Sunday, January 15, 2012

Ask Mr. Beer

NOTE:  This post is rated PG-13 for references to alcoholic beverages.  Also, this post originally appeared with a slightly different title.  I have changed the title and some of the text at the request of a reader who holds a certain copyright.

Dear Mr. Beer,

What beer should I drink to impress my date?

Bill P, Columbus, OH

Dear Bill,

Don’t kid yourself.  There’s little chance your choice of beer would seem impressive.  Your date might think beer is for philistines, or might associate your choice—however tasteful it might be—with her ex-boyfriend who was mean to her dog.  If you really want to impress your date, fix her bike or write a sonnet for her.

Dear Mr. Beer,

My friends fancy themselves beer experts and I want to show that I’m also very knowledgeable.  Is it okay to describe expensive beer the way you’d describe a fine wine?  Is there a vocabulary available for this?

Chip M, Boston, MA

Dear Chip,

There’s no need to bloviate like wine aficionados do.  If you want to impress your friends, here’s a simple way:  next time they serve you a beer with a twist-off bottle cap, act amazed, like you’ve never seen one before.

Dear Mr. Beer,

Say I’m at a party digging through a cooler for a tasty brew.  Is there any way to tell ahead of time how bitter a beer will be?  Thanks!

Louise S, Tucson, AZ

Dear Louise,

Sometimes you can go by the brand.  If a beer sounds dangerous, like “Ruination IPA,” “Knuckle Dragger,” or “The Rassler,” it’s probably at least strong if not bitter.  If it has “hop” in the name, well, it’s probably hoppy (i.e., bitter), e.g., “Hopasaurus Rex” or “Hoptober.”  An IPA will tend to be bitter, especially if there’s a numeric modifier, e.g., “Double IPA,” “Quadruple IPA.”

Getting even more quasi-scientific, some beer companies are providing a numeric bitterness rating, right on the bottle.  The units are IBUs--International Bitterness Units.  For example, New Belgium's Ranger IPA, which is pretty hoppy, is 70 on the IBU scale.  Their more mainstream beer, Fat Tire, is only 18.5.  These numbers not only help you select a beer you like, but they're good for bragging rights.  (For a website ranking the bitterest beers click here. ) 

(For what it’s worth—i.e., very little—there’s also a scale for measuring a beer’s color, and this is expressed in EBCs; e.g., 4 for a pale lager, 138 for an imperial stout.  I fail to see the point.  If you’re drinking the beer from a bottle, who cares what color it is, and if you’re drinking it from a glass, well, just look at it!)

Dear Mr. Beer,

I’d swear Heineken here in the States tastes different than the Heineken I had in Holland.  Is it?

Helen N, Oakville, CA

Dear Helen,

Well, it could be different.  They do bottle batches specially for the American market.  You may recall it coming in a brown bottle there, whereas it’s obviously a green bottle here.  Also, you cannot get Heineken in a can in the Netherlands.  It’s only available in bottles there, because they refill, rather than recycle, their bottles.

Could special bottling, or bottles vs. cans, affect the taste?  Maybe.  I first had Heineken in a can on an airplane, where everything tastes awful by association.  Meanwhile, a Dutch woman I know had Heineken in a can over here and thought it was the greatest thing in the world.

Dear Mr. Beer,

Have you had McEwan’s Scottish ale, and if so is it any good?  Also—unrelated question—how do you decide what questions to answer?

Lawrence H, Greensboro, NC

Dear Larry,

(You don’t mind if I call you Larry, do you?)  McEwan’s is excellent.  When I try to describe it, I’m oddly inspired to do so in French:  présente des arômes de pâte à pain, de fleurs et une finale passablement fruitée avec des notes de cerises.  Définitivement une bière de degustation.  Loosely translated:  it has a good and yummy taste, well worth drinking.

As for deciding what questions to answer, that’s a trade secret.  I will allow that efficiency plays a role.

Dear Mr. Beer,

Let’s get down to brass tacks.  Once and for all, what’s better:  beer or wine?

Jonathan R, Washington, DC

Dear Jonathan,

It’s not hard to guess how I’m expected to answer, and I feel like I may be walking into a trap.  Look, that’s really almost a religious question, and cannot be definitively answered by me or anybody else.  But if you're looking for ways to argue that beer is better, here are a few:  a) a great and impressive beer, like a Chimay Première from Belgium, is only like $12 for a 750ml bottle … way cheaper than a fancy wine; b) beer gets you around the debate about cork vs. synthetic corks vs. bottle caps; c) beer is better for hydration.   But before you decide to trot these out, consider that you are far better off keeping them to yourself as a way to feel smug.

Dear Mr. Beer,

Is it considered unseemly to eschew cheap beer?  Or to put it another way, is there a polite way to turn down a beer when you realize you’re being offered Coors or Budweiser?

Harris L,  Danbury, CT

Dear Harris,

Listen, I didn't get to be Mr. Beer by being a snob.  I love all beer, even cheap beer, even bad beer.  I can't see why you’d want to turn down any of it.  Not only would you probably come off as rude, but you might miss out on something passably tasty.  (Yes, cheap beer can be enjoyable, though it is an acquired taste.)

Meanwhile, consider that you might not be as discerning as you think.  (How would you do in a blind taste test?)  Plenty of wealthy, educated, hip types—you know, like the trust fund kids who become journalists because they can, and drive old beater Toyotas to maintain their cred—are going around these days drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon, just to show allegiance to their working class brethren.  True, most of them are drinking this beer ironically, but some of them aren’t in the joke and yet still seem to enjoy their PBR, and anyway the alcohol still works its magic.  I’ve always liked Newcastle, and when some cosmopolitan type informed me that it’s considered rotgut in England, that didn’t make my beer taste any different.

In fact, one of my favorite beer memories involves very, very cheap beer.  I was in college, and I was flat broke.  (“Broke” as in I’d just deposited the last of my cash into my bank account so my rent check would clear.)  A friend and I were going to a barbecue and needed to bring our own meat and our own beer.  My friend was almost as broke as I was and for funds we had to dig around under sofa cushions and all through his car.  We ended up with a little less than five bucks, which at Safeway we parlayed into a pack of house-brand turkey franks, a pack of house-brand buns, and a 6-pack of Meister Bräu.  Not the greatest food and drink, but good enough, and the people and side dishes at the barbecue were all excellent.

Dear Mr. Beer,

Can you recommend some food/beer pairings?  Maybe some rules of thumb (like how “red wine goes well with meat,” but for beer)?

Leyla A, Seattle, WA

Dear Leyla,

Beer/food pairings aren’t unheard of; there’s even a such thing as a beer sommelier.  That said, for me beer is best on an empty stomach.  I don't like any other flavors competing with it (though it’s pleasant to counter the spiciness of Mexican food with a watery beer like Corona).  Now, you might say, “Aha, but what about the nuts and pretzels bars give out for free during happy hour?”  That's to get you to drink, of course.  It doesn’t make it a pairing per se.  When’s the last time you were drinking beer at home and somebody said, “Gosh, I sure wish I had some nuts”? 

Now, it is the case that when eating pizza you might have a sudden craving for beer, but that’s just to improve your hedonistic experience.  Take it a step further:  you’re eating pizza and suddenly you say, “I wish we had some beers right now.  And geishas!  We should get geishas!”  Am I right?

Dear Mr. Beer,

In one of your previous columns you mentioned a happy beer memory.  I love this concept of beer memories.  What is your all-time favorite beer memory?

Thomas W, Austin, TX

Dear Thomas,

I’ve had all kinds of glorious beer in all kinds of wonderful settings, but really the most memorable was the very first time I had beer.  I was just a bit shy of my eighteenth birthday, and I was such a non-troublesome, well-behaved teenager that I felt, on principle, I should at least one time drink a bunch of beer before I was of legal age.  This was in Colorado back when the legal drinking age, for three-two beer, was only eighteen—so I was running out of time.  I got my brother to buy my friends and me some six-packs of generic beer.  They were dingy white cans with “BEER” printed in a plain black font.  My brother, who was an even bigger goody-two-shoes than I, decided to join us in drinking them.

Of course I’d had sips of beer before, but never enough to really taste it.  I didn’t expect to like generic beer—and I didn’t—but that wasn’t the point.  We all sat around the dining room table, methodically working our way through can after can of the beer.  Three-two is weak to begin with and this was generic to boot, so it was a whole lot like drinking water.  After six of these I still didn’t feel a thing.  At this point my brother’s friend walked in.  He was even more straight-laced than we were, and surveyed the proceedings with a plainly judgmental eye.  I can’t blame him; it wasn’t a very sophisticated thing we were doing, and besides, we’d neglected to invite him.  He turned his attention to my brother and said grimly, “Are you drinking that for the taste?”  My brother looked at him a moment, looked down at the generic beer in his hand, looked back up and said:  “No.”  In that moment I felt very proud of my brother.  I can’t exactly say why.

(Note that I’m not advocating drinking to excess.  Ads for good booze always say, “Those who appreciate quality enjoy it responsibly.”  That’s a good start, but why should people who can’t appreciate quality be let off the hook?  They should behave responsibly, too!  I’ll confess that as a teen I had the worst intentions with this little stunt, but it came out okay in the end.  It’s probably impossible for a large fellow to get drunk on generic three-two beer, because he’d probably feel so bloated by the sheer volume of liquid he’d give up, just like I did.)

Dear Mr. Beer,

I really want to use my knowledge of beer as an affirmation of my self-worth.  Is there any way you can help?

Todd M, Sausalito, CA

Dear Todd,

Sure, you can take this little quiz.  Match the beer quotation with the person who uttered it.
  1. Abraham Lincoln
  2. Henry Lawson
  3. Homer Simpson
  4. Flann O’Brien
  5. Jack Handy
  6. Steven Wright
  7. Tina Fey
  8. Dave Barry
  9. H.L. Mencken
  10. Benjamin Franklin

 b. “Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.”
 c.  “Sometimes when I reflect back on all the beer I drink I feel ashamed. Then I look into the glass and think about the workers in the brewery and all of their hopes and dreams. If I didn’t drink this beer, they might be out of work and their dreams would be shattered. Then I say to myself, ‘It is better that I drink this beer and let their dreams come true, than be selfish and worry about my liver.’”
 d.  “I am a firm believer in the people. If given the truth, they can be depended upon to meet any national crisis. The great point is to bring them the real facts, and beer.”
 e.  “Beer makes you feel the way you ought to feel without beer.”
 f.  “In a study, scientists report that drinking beer can be good for the liver. I’m sorry, did I say ‘scientists’? I meant Irish people.”
 g.  “I like beer. On occasion, I will even drink beer to celebrate a major event such as the fall of Communism or the fact that the refrigerator is still working.”
 h.  “24 beers in a case.  24 hours in a day.  Coincidence?”
 i.  “Marriage is based on the theory that when a man discovers a particular brand of beer exactly to his taste he should at once throw up his job and go to work in a brewery.”
 j.  “Beer … the cause of, and solution to, most of life’s problems.”

Answers:  1.  d;  2.  e;  3.  j;  4. a;  5. c; 6. h; 7. f; 8. g; 9. i; 10. b  Note:  Ben Franklin is widely credited with quotation 10, but it turns out he never actually said it.  But in the words of another who liked beer, “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”

dana albert blog

1 comment:

  1. Dr. Beer is a registered trademark of Jay Hersh. By using this name here you are in violation of US Patent and Trademark laws. You are requested to please cease and desist from using this name in regard to beer and beer tasting. If you have any questions with regard to this request you may contact me at thank you.