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Quaffology 101: How to really appreciate a beer

You really don't want to guzzle it ice cold. As in Champagne, bubbles and glasses make a difference.

June 15, 2005|Charles Perry and Sang Yoon | Special to The Times

Oh, you think you already know how to drink beer. Grab the bottle from the fridge, pop the top and pour it down the hatch.

That's not drinking beer. It's just getting it inside you. Sure, after mowing the lawn, maybe that's all you're after, but some of this stuff actually has flavor.

Quite a lot of it these days, in fact. Not only can we get the great English and Belgian ales, but out here on the West Coast we have a bright new generation of craft brewers. Last year, sales of craft beers in the United States were up 7%, a higher growth than imported or mainstream beers enjoyed.

So we know you're buying a lot of good beer. You might as well enjoy the flavor.

You were right about the first step -- taking the beer out of the fridge. But now put it on the counter and leave it there five or 10 minutes before drinking it. Sure, beer is fragile and needs to be refrigerated, but when it's ice cold, it has scarcely any aroma. It should be about halfway between refrigerator temperature and room temperature, around 50 degrees for lagers and up to 60 for ales.

And you were right about opening it, but once you do, don't chug it straight from the bottle -- not if you want to taste it. Beer is largely about the bubbles, and the bubbles need to run free, and that means in a glass.

As long as the beer is under pressure in a bottle (or keg, or cask), it's stable; the water and carbon dioxide molecules stick together. But when the beer is poured out, it gets shaken, and the agitation makes the bonds break, releasing the CO2 as bubbles.

In a glass, those bubbles form a head, and that's where the aromatics in the beer congregate. The bubbles loft them into the air, just as they do in Champagne. If you drink from the bottle, or pour without creating a head in the glass, they can't do their job, and you miss out on most of the flavor.

Give it some air

One of the differences between bottled beer and draft is that by the time draft is poured into your glass, it's already been agitated by traveling through the hose to the tap. So in effect, it's been poured twice, and this is why draft beer is known for being aromatic and having a soft head.

But that doesn't mean draft is automatically better. If everything's done right, bottled beer can have just as much aroma, and its pricklier carbonation gives it more liveliness. (This is why a brewer will package the same beer differently for bottle, under higher pressure, than for draft.)

So pour boldly at first -- splash it right in there to make a good head of foam. Then pour the rest of the bottle gently down the side of the glass under the head, because you want to leave plenty of carbonation in the beer. Beer doesn't have the attractive fruit acidity that wine has. Without bubbles exploding in your mouth, it's flat -- bland and syrupy.

Beer is not terribly picky about what kind of glass you use, as long as the mouth is wide enough for the aromas to spread, but not so wide that they dissipate (a giant frosted beer mug is for chugging, not tasting).

Likewise, the glass should be deep enough that the head doesn't rise to the rim, taking up all the room for the bouquet to develop.

One thing: If you want a good head of foam, the glass has to be squeaky clean. Oil or soap residue interferes with foaming. In fact, if a glass starts to bubble over, you can stop it by touching the foam with your fingertip, just because of the oils in your skin.

Now swirl the glass a little to get the whole aroma. You'll get that dry, crisp, bready effect of lager or the spicier aroma of an ale, maybe with some dried fruit aromas. And, of course, the resinous, bay leaf-like smell of hops.

If a beer is made with one of the fancier varieties of hops, there may be pine or citrus notes. Some West Coast craft brewers use the ultra-piney Cascade variety of hops, which can also have flowery notes.

Beware of skunks

Here's something you don't want to smell: skunkiness. That's when the beer smells unpleasantly organic, like rotting cheese, say. Or when a beer smells warm and "cooked" even though it's cold. It can develop when a green bottle is exposed to sunlight, because one of the acids in hops goes nuts under light in the blue-green spectrum and attacks other components in the beer, creating the skunk smell. Beer in brown bottles doesn't have such a problem.

Skunkiness is quite common. Some Americans think it's a natural part of the flavor of certain imported lagers that come in green bottles. It isn't, and if you go to Europe, you'll see those same beers being sold in brown bottles. Why brewers have decided Americans prefer beer in green glass is a mystery.

It happens in domestic beer too. One glass in a six-pack might be skunky and the rest all right, or they might all have a stink. Here's all you can to: Avoid green bottles and do what you can to keep beer away from sunlight.

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