Most people just see beer.
They pronounce a familiar word or two to the bartender, words like
Bud or Miller or Coors or Heineken or Pabst, occasionally appending their
request with the phrase “Lite,” and for their troubles receive essentially the
same product: pale straw in color, sporting an ephemeral head, tasting of
Even that’s technically interesting. Even mass-produced, advertising-driven lagers have their own internal logic and layers, whether we’re talking sociology (how individuals connect and self-identify with industrial products), chemistry (it’s actually quite challenging to brew a perfectly innocuous beer), or economics (chronicling the rise and competitive nuance of the now-multinational corporations behind the above-listed brands). But they’re less interesting than other segments of the industry, and “Hey, watch me change this cup of fizzy water into slightly alcoholic fizzy water” is a relatively underwhelming parlor trick, regardless of where the modest magic occurs.
Some people see a bit more than just beer. While hovering at a tiny 6% market share in the U.S., craft beer is a sort of counter-narrative to industrial pale lager: at its most refined, it’s beer created locally, on a comparatively small scale, with an approach that prioritizes the creation of a unique and flavorful product. It’s taken about 45 years to get to the point where one can state with reasonable certainty that craft beer’s reached the mainstream, but within that time window we’ve seen the number of U.S. breweries go from about two dozen to over 2,000. As a professional beer writer, I can finally assume that a majority of readers have at least heard of craft beer.
Whereas industrial lite lagers typically fail to excite much imagination, clever Super Bowl commercials aside, craft beer tends to be more effective in terms of getting people to think about what’s in their glass. There’s that resiny note of grapefruit, or a peppery note where no pepper was used, or a caramel richness that encourages a person to at least ask, Well, where did that note come from? Or, Why do these taste so different? Plus, the fact that beer is such a ubiquitous and comparatively affordable product (one can readily buy some of the best beers in the world for about ten dollars a six-pack—imagine that being true of something like wine) means that those of us who write about beer, and particularly craft beer, are afforded a rather lush common language and a quite unique intellectual inlet for talking about other things. Our audience is predisposed to put a little more effort in.
Because here’s the thing: We’re never talking about just beer.
Let’s take the example of Lagunitas IPA. Unlike the typical mass-produced lager, it pours a bright orange-amber color, maintains a solid white head that encourages the release of aromatics, and throughout has distinct Concord grape-like notes and citrusy bitterness. For something that includes neither Concord grapes nor citrus fruit, there’s a natural curiosity there: What ingredient or combination of ingredients offers these familiar notes?
The sensory details alone get you into the culinary arts: understanding what each core ingredient of the brewing process brings to the table. For something like Lagunitas IPA, hops play the key role, providing bitterness while also contributing various flavors and aromatics ranging from passion fruit to oranges to pine needles. For other beers (porters, stouts, bocks, etc.), malted barley will be the main contributor, providing a beer’s sweetness and (occasionally) a bit of roasted bitterness, with notes like dried dark fruits, chocolate, or crystalline sugars. Yeast provides the carbonation and alcohol, plus occasionally (for styles like German hefeweizen and Belgian lambic) some of the main defining characteristics. Water’s important, too, the quiet but predominant fourth ingredient, though it remains unclear what it does other than providing liquidity in the final product—at least it remains an unknown factor at this stage, one step away from looking at a pint glass of Lagunitas IPA and seeing just beer.
At this point, it’s really just a question of how far one’s willing to descend down the rabbit hole. Because while it’s entirely possible to toss hops and malted barley and yeast and water into a bucket and shake it around, what ultimately comes out of that bucket won’t necessarily be beer, or at least not beer one’s inclined to drink. From culinary basics, one gets into brewing science: the chemistry and physics and biology underpinning the creation of fermented beverages. It’s one thing to understand that hops provide the bitterness; it’s another thing entirely to know how and why to use them. It’s no coincidence that so many of the early craft brewers in the U.S. came from homebrewing and technical backgrounds: engineers, scientists, mechanics, etc. The chemical properties of hops make their ultimate contributions dependent partly on how long they’re boiled: a lengthier boiling period preferentially favors bitterness (from the isomerization of the hop’s alpha acids), while a shorter boiling time or none at all will instead preferentially leave behind the more volatile flavor and aroma compounds. The malting of barley—the physical process of getting barley wet and allowing it to sprout, then kilning it in response to the desired flavor contributions—progresses to complex Maillard reactions and intricate time/temperature charts.
And don’t get me started on yeast: the billions upon billions of biological microorganisms feasting on the malt-derived sugars, producing alcohol and carbon dioxide and often-subtle byproducts—essentially doing the grunt work of fermentation while surrounded by an elaborate brewer-supplied buffet—unaware of the larger picture. Even water chemistry comes into play: accentuating or lessening hop profiles, providing necessary minerals…
It’s never just beer. Even the above scientific considerations barely serve to scratch the surface. Underneath the equation-governed and repeatable science of brewing are more intriguing, more messy concerns. How does one psychologically make buying choices and prioritize different values when purchasing artisanal products? How is it that alcoholic beverages influence a culture’s social and institutional fabric, and how and why do these things differ so significantly across various swaths of time and geography and cultural precedents? Lastly, taking a step back and looking at beer writing itself: How do we choose to talk about and rhetorically formalize our relations to consumable products? Because whether it’s beer, or wine, or food, or sports, it’s never about just one thing.
is a professional beer writer and editor based in Petaluma, CA. He’s the author of The Northern California Craft Beer Guide and has written for publications including All About Beer, Black Warrior Review, Wine Enthusiast, and Saveur. Prone to academic indecision, he earned his MFA in creative writing (fiction) from the University of Maryland, College Park and his M.S. in particle physics from Cornell University.