WHT ALES YOU

Lots of us like a drink after work or over the weekend when we’re chilling out and everyone has their favourite ‘tipple’; but how many drinkers really know what goes into their drink or anything about its origins?  

I thought I’d delve into their histories, week by week, starting with the world’s oldest-known and most popular drink – beer.

Residue of the first known barley beer was found in a jar at the Godin Tepe excavation site in modern day Iran, and this has been dated at around 3400 B.C but it is generally accepted that it had been around for several millennia prior to the Persian find.Obviously the precise date of the first brew is not known but we do know that beer, like bread, developed best in farm-based, agrarian societies where there was enough grain and time for fermentation. And historians and archaeologists have discovered that ancient man loved beer as much as we do now: the Babylonians had about 20 recipes for beer, Egyptian Pharaohs were buried with vats of it and even the workers who built the pyramids were essentially paid in beer. 

One of the first written recipes for beer actually comes from a poem, a 3800 year-old ode to brewing that was etched into clay tablets. Found in ancient Sumer (modern day Iraq), the “Hymn to Ninkasi” celebrates the Sumerian goddess of beer and also conveniently outlines steps for brewing with lines including “The filtering vat, which makes a pleasant sound, You place appropriately on a large collector vat” 

Whenever and wherever it began, beer rapidly took hold as one of civilisation’s favourite—and safest—ways to drink – yes, I did say ‘safe’!  Historically speaking, water wasn’t always reliably potable in many cultures, and alcoholic drinks like beer, sanitised by the application of heat, would have been less liable to cause the drinker to fall ill.   

These ancient brews would not resemble the beers we drink today. Records show that the ancient Babylonians drank their beer with a straw, it being thicker, full of grain. But by the 16th Century, Germany’s “Reinheitsgebot” beer purity law had essentially removed everything but water, hops, and barley from acceptable brewing ingredients.  

The obvious omission of yeast was added back to the list a few centuries later. Those ancient beers might not also have been hop-based, since the crop was not found or cultivated everywhere. Ancient Egyptians stabilised and flavoured their beer with ingredients including wild herbs, dates, olive oil and meadowsweet and for centuries, beer cultivation in Europe relied on a mixture of herbs and spices called gruit.

Only around the turn of the first millennium A.D. were hops regularly finding their way to beer, with Germany exporting hops for brewing around the 13th century. If that word is new to you, as it was to me, here is an explanation from ‘All about Beer’ magazine

Long before hops were first cultivated for brewing a millennium ago, beers were either unflavored or infused with a mélange of herbs, roots, blossoms and spices. Popular through the Middle Ages in Europe, these botanicals often served the same antiseptic purpose as hops later would, but were also used for their medicinal or healing properties. Many were euphoric, narcotic, psychotropic or even toxic.

According to historian Martyn Cornell, these herbal mixtures were variously known as gruit, grout, grute, kraut, kruit or kruyt, all of which meant “herb” in Continental European languages. 

Brews made with them are referred to as gruit beer or ale (beer being proper in this context), but often today simply as gruit. In Britain, similarly suffused ales were also common and are more appropriately labelled as “herb ale,” since the term gruit and its derivatives were not used there. I’ll refer to all of them with the catch-all, gruit.”

Today our beers are mainly thin and clear and recipes are based on hop-brewed derivatives. But terminology can also be confusing so here are some brief definitions of the different beer types from The Beer Store 

Ales

Brewed with top fermenting yeast at cellar temperature, ales are fuller-bodied, with nuances of fruit or spice and a pleasantly hoppy finish. Generally robust and complex with a variety of fruit and malt aromas, ales come in many varieties. They could include Bitters, Milds, Abbey Ales, Pale Ales, Nut Browns, etc. Ales are often darker than lagers, ranging from rich gold to reddish amber. Top fermenting, and more hops in the wort gives these beers a distinctive fruitfulness, acidity and pleasantly bitter seasoning. Ales have a more assertive, individual personality than lager, though their alcoholic strength is the same.

 Lagers

Lager originates from the German word lagern which means ‘to store’ – it refers to the method of storing it for several months in near-freezing temperatures. Crisp and refreshing with a smooth finish from longer aging, lagers are the world’s most popular beer (this includes pilseners). A lager, which can range from sweet to bitter and pale to black, is usually used to describe bottom-fermented brews of Dutch, German, and Czech styles. Most, however, are a pale to medium colour, have high carbonation, and a medium to high hop flavour.

Stouts & Porters

There’s very little distinction between a Porter and Stout but they do have their differences. Porter is a dark, almost black, fruity-dry, top fermenting style. An ale porter is brewed with a combination of roasted malt to impart flavour, colour and aroma. Stout is also a black, roast brew made by top fermentation. Stout, not as sweet to the taste, features a rich, creamy head and is flavoured and coloured by barley. Stouts often use a portion of unmalted roasted barley to develop a dark, slightly astringent, coffee-like character.  

Malts

Generally dark and sweeter in flavour, malts contain hints of caramel, toffee, and nuts. They can be light to full bodied. In addition to type, a beer’s character can be described by its style. 

There is also a confusing plethora of beer colours and descriptions:  Amber - Amber is a very versatile full bodied malt aromas with hints of caramel, these beers could be either lager or ale. 

Blonde - Blonde ales are very pale in colour and tend to be clear, crisp, and dry, with low-to-medium bitterness and aroma from hops and some sweetness from malt. Brown - Dark amber or brown in colour, brown ale have evidence of caramel and chocolate flavours and may have a slight citrus accent or be strong, malty or nutty, depending on the area of brewing. Cream -A very mild, sweetish, golden style of ale. 

Dark - Dark ale is a British type beer, combining hops, yeast and a blend of malts. It’s a medium chestnut brown colour, with a delicate fruity smell and robust, malty character. Fruit- Most fruit beers are ales however, they typically do not carry an ale character. In order to allow for the fruit flavour to come through nicely, the malt’s flavour is not dominant and there is a low bitterness level to the beer. 

Golden - First developed in the UK, Golden ales are straw coloured with a slight hint of citrus and vanilla. The beer can sometimes contain spicier flavours. Honey - A full-bodied beer with a creamy texture and copper colour. Honey beers are slightly sweet with hints of caramel. India Pale Ale - A hoppier version of pale ale. Originally brewed in England with extra hops to survive the journey to British troops stationed in India. Light - Extremely light in colour and mild in flavour. Light beer has fewer calories and/or lower alcohol content. Lime - Typically light in flavour with a refreshing lime taste. The intensity of the lime can differ from very subtle to strong.- Pale - Pale ale has a fruity, copper-coloured style. It originated from England. Pale ales are robust beers that can be enjoyed with strongly spiced foods. Pilsner - Made with neutral and hard water. Tend to be golden in colour with a dry, crisp, and somewhat bitter flavour. Pilsner stands out from other lagers due to its more distinctive hop taste. Red - Red ales can either be red or light brown in colour. They are moderate to heavy in flavour and contain hints of caramel that is offset by the predominant hop characteristic of the beer. Strong - This is a broad grouping that can describe any beer over 7% ABV. Strong beers are typically dark in colour, some are almost black. Different styles can include old ales, double IPAs, and barleywines. Wheat - Light and easy to drink with very little aftertaste. Wheat provides a soft character to beer and is sometimes hazy or cloudy with a touch of spice notes. It probably won’t surprise you to learn that I’ve only touched the tip of the beer iceberg but I hope it’s given you a little more insight into the history of the world’s most popular alcoholic beverage through the ages and right up to the present day.  

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