Premium Boutique Beers
From Bro Mike of Devotion
A change of pace from the world of wine to the world of beer.
What has changed in the beer market?
Beer and its multi-billion dollar industry is undergoing a dramatic change. The beer market is following the same trend as most other food and drink products, where people are tending to trade up and go for flavour more than anything. Beer isn't just for when you finish mowing the lawn or when you're cheering on your footy team, and people are discovering that. This has resulted in a move away from industrial mainstream beer to premium boutique beers, including hand-crafted varieties. While the mainstream beer market has been shrinking after peaking in the 1970s, the premium and boutique beer market has been growing strongly in Australia particularly over the last decade or so. Foreign-brewed beers are behind some of the growth as are several newer micro-breweries. There is a much broader palate of flavours that beer presents rather than just the non-challenging flavour that standard lagers and ales offer. There is now the champagnes of beers, the brandies of beers and the Grange Hermitage of beers, all with different flavours, and beers that you can sip and savour. More time, effort and creativity is going into the beer-making process, with everything from raspberry and chocolate-flavoured beers to full-bodied stouts being produced. The new beers are also appealing to new demographics, with younger drinkers and women coming on board.These days a younger market is a more discerning market, possibly because the economy has been so good that there are a younger demographic that have more of a disposable income to indulge their desire to try a more premium product. It’s also a lot more acceptable now for women to drink beer. Beer is also being seen as a viable match for food, following the popularity of wine and food-matching. Some pubs, bars and hotels are also introducing menus with food and beer matches and staging beer appreciation classes, where guests get to try beer and food combinations such as raspberry beers with chocolate truffles, and stout with oysters. The classes also target the female market and have had impressive results. It's going to be a really, really exciting time for boutique beer, in much the same way that the last 20 years has been for wine.
So what do you look for in Premium/Boutique Beers?
Assessing beer is a complicated but rewarding task that requires a great deal of experimenting, dedication and patience (you never spit beer when tasting and nobody wants a hangover). The enormous variety of styles readily available today will keep any beer lover on their toes and therefore demands a lot of knowledge by the reviewer in order to appropriately review every style. With that in mind, let your senses familiarize themselves with what each style has to offer so that you may judge with less prejudice (and everyone is biased to some degree). Consider the following to help yourself more objectively examine your well-deserved beer.
The appearance of your beer may very well be the most overlooked aspect to beer in general. It is the only one of your senses that you can literally hide. Never try judging a beer by drinking from the bottle. Make sure you properly pour your beer into a suitable glass (which could be a whole discussion in its own right) and pay close attention. Notice how the bubbles behave as they are poured and surface to create the head. Note the size and formation of the bubbles and how long they last (some seem to have a never-ending growth of head). Look through the glass at the liquid to see how clear or cloudy it is. A cloudy beer is not usually a bad thing, so consider the style. A bottle-conditioned ale, like most Belgian ales, will contain yeast in the bottle (don't be turned off by these living "creatures" as they have the valuable nutritional bonus of vitamin B). Finally, observe the colour of the beer. Hold it up to the light. Colours of beers vary greatly, from the lightest blonde, to cranberry red, to perfectly opaque black (stouts). All styles have their typical colours (however, the colour of a beer has virtually no relation to its texture or alcohol content). Be sure to watch the beer all the way to the last drop. The remnants of foam on the side of the glass (called Brussels lace) will differ by the quality and style of the beer.
Aroma is probably the next most ignored characteristic of beer. The shape of glass and turbulence of your beer will affect the wafting bouquet of scents. Some styles, such as a Belgian Framboise Lambic (made with raspberries), will arouse all those at your table, while a lager may be much more subtle. Swirl the beer in your glass and put it to your nose. Certain styles are often heavier on either the malts or the hops. A malty beer could be grainy, toasty, coffee-like and even chocolaty. A well-hopped beer is usually pleasantly flowery or citrus. Numerous scents may be present in a complex beer, which can make the judging difficult but also exciting. Other common smells are alcohols, esters, fruits, nuts, spices and resins. Unfortunately, there are sometimes unwanted odours to poorly made or handled beers. These include phenols (plastic-like), oils, diacetyl (butterscotch), sulphur, cooked vegetables, mouldy or wet cardboard, leather, skunk, metallic and stale smelling odours. Occasionally a beer may have an unusual aroma, but it is usually apparent when it is unintentional. Remember to take a periodic sniff of your beer. If you are unsure if the beer is up to par with the style, try another sample from a different batch and be sure to sample other beers of the same style. Aromas also become clearer as the beer warms.
The feel is how the beer physically feels throughout the consumption. Take a sip and let the fluid roll over your tongue slowly, being sure to cover your entire mouth before swallowing. Some beers may be smooth and gentle while others may take control and bite at first chance. Notice the carbonation, which could be almost non-existent or fizzy. The body is how thick and viscous the fluid feels as it flows. A light lager may pass like water (no surprise), and a complex ale may seem thick and almost chewy. The sensation of alcohol is usually the final touch in a stronger beer. After the swallow, a Belgian strong ale may leave a cozy, warm feeling like a wine (some beers can be up to 17% alcohol volume).
The most obvious element of a beer is its flavour. Does it taste good? Of course, flavour and aroma partially overlap, working together to make a great couple. Take a sip of the beer and see what first comes to mind. Now think of the basics. Does it start sweet or bitter? Or maybe you find it tart or sour. If it's an ale, especially a Belgian, it may be fruity. What types of fruit do you taste? Or if it seems nutty, what types of nuts? A lot of styles are well hopped and can taste quite bitter. Remember that certain styles are supposed to be sweeter or more bitter than usual, so try not to bias your review because you prefer the opposite. Also, be sure to notice any changes as the beer travels past your tongue and down your throat. A beer will often start sweet and end bitter (because of the layout of your taste buds) along with changing character in your mouth. This means you may have to separate flavours from the start, middle and finish, or aftertaste. A well-made, complex beer's flavour will seem to morph from one flavour to the next. You may also notice different flavours with different sips. As with aroma, the flavour will also increase with temperature and usually seems to change with time. I know this one is difficult but, try to take your time when drinking. With many styles, spending 20-30 minutes before finishing a glass will rarely keep your taste buds bored.
After you have finished your beer you will probably have a good idea as to your overall liking of it. The overall rating of a beer is where you can ignore the style and say what you really feel. Maybe you think it's not fit for human consumption. In contrast, there is that beer you are considering changing your dogs’ name to.
So what should you do?
Choose the right beer for the right occasion. Try comparing many beers of the same style together to get a grip of that style. Drink with friends and compare your thoughts. Keep an open mind. Your tastes, ability and even breweries change over time, so try re-assessing beers from time to times. Be patient with those who are new to the beer world and don't tell others what they should and shouldn't like. Different containers have different results. Try different size bottles and kegs when possible. Always remember to have fun and drink in moderation. Enjoying beer is what you make of it.
A future article will look at the different styles of beer and their various features.