The Beer Trials, An Essential Guide

Ξ June 11th, 2010 | → 0 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Book Reviews |

Sometimes on a hot afternoon a rosé or sharp Albariño just won’t cut it. With the weather we’ve had here in Santa Cruz, temperatures sure to spike over the weekend, I often turn to a cold beer to slake a thirst satisfied no other way. But what if I want those moments to be more than merely satisfied? What if I want exhilaration? If I only had a guide…. Well, I am happy to report that they are at it again, those Fearless Critics. Fresh off their groundbreaking The Wine Trials, this ever-widening circle of drinking friends has now returned with yet another very helpful guide, The Beer Trials. This time they’ve willingly sacrificed weeks of their lives for the humble beer drinker. And I am glad they did. What a world of taste and variety I have been missing!
 
As I discovered during a trip to Vermont some time ago, there has occurred an extraordinary explosion of artisanal, high quality beer production here in the states. It is no longer about Bud versus Coors, or dueling Michelobs, the choice of Corona or Pacifico for the beach. There are now new names to conjure: Saison Dupont, Russian River Pliny the Elder, Magic Hat, Boulder Planet Porter, Widmer Broken Halo. Just how massive has been the cultural shift to high quality beer making, abroad as well, I have only recently begun to learn. This book certainly helps! After years trying to grasp the intricacies of the wine world, is was in just the few weeks since the publisher sent me a copy, that this casual beer drinker can now more confidently find the IPA of my dreams. And understand why one might be better than another.
 
Yet the authors’ artisanal rap does not go to their heads. They are not fighting a variation of the culture wars. The Beer Trials is no high brow versus low brow. Their tone is itself humble, and humorous. Yes, I may keep my fond memories of stealing sips from my father’s Hamm’s.
 
“If this is a book with an agenda, then that agenda is simple: to broaden your horizons, and narrow your search, by arming you with better information about beer. If we can help you find a new beer to love, then our purpose is met.”
 
Written by Seamus Campbell and the intrepid Robin Goldstein, with the contribution of a dozen professionals, from homebrewers to the BJCP-approved enthusiast, The Beer Trials provides much more than a list dozens and dozens of beers from around the world. It is as well a guide to beer styles, flavors and ingredients. The section on adjuncts, additives, and unusual flavors was highly instructive. As was the chapter on off-flavors and flaws. I had no idea the flavor of malt could be further broken down into pale, English pale, crystal, medium crystal, Munich and Vienna. Now I do. Neither did I know what could be the differences, for good or ill, that adding oats, corn, rice, molasses, wheat or rye, brings to a finished bottle. Skunky, tart, sour, buttery, and soapy, these flaws are discussed. And the stylings created by proper use of Acetobacter and Brettanomyces? Of Brett they write,
 
“Brett produces a variety of phenolic compounds. [....] The most desirable of these is closely related to the clove-flavored phenol produced by weizen yeasts., and can come across as meaty (like bacon), smoky, or spice [....]
‘Old leather’ is the classic British description of Bretty beer — intriguing enough to inspire the recreation of 19th-century British beers, with authentic Brett flavors.”

 
As with The Wine Trials, all tastings were done blind. And again we are presented with compelling observations about the distorting effects of lifestyle marketing, observations central to all of the Fearless Critics’ work, and one of the many reasons I find their efforts important and commendable.
 
“If your job as a consumer is to look beyond all categories of lifestyle marketing, that doesn’t mean skepticism of Anheuser-Busch’s Super Bowl ads. It also means skepticism of the well-intentioned but ultimately narrow and unscientific opinions of the beer snob who insists that all great beer must be Belgian and cost at least $10. That enthusiastic beer geek may turn out to be even less aware of lifestyle marketing than your average Bud Light drinker.”
 
After a few pages explaining their methodology, their (harmless) scoring system, and price point symbols, we dive into the soul of the book: an examination of enough beers, more than 200, to keep me occupied throughout the Summer! Amber and Pale Lagers, Belgian, Brown and Dark Ales, including Porters, Stouts, and my personal favorite, India Pale Ale (though I will now look for a neuvo British Brett beer!), and Smoke, Sour, Strong, and Wheat beers are all well represented.
 
Another fine guide for a thirsty public. Highly recommended.
 
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