Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Beer class tonight.

Here's the "Mug Shot" for this week's LEO:

How’s this for a college course listing?

Once upon a time, beer was just beer, but no longer. Beginning with an overview of the brewing process and the history of beer, we'll learn how to distinguish Pale Ale from Imperial Stout through words and samples.

The class begins tonight, and much to my delight, I’m the teacher. The Division of Continuing Studies at Indiana University Southeast contacted me a while back about Beer-Ed as a non-credit offering, and after a quick calendar check and ten minutes sipping from one of the required texts, I agreed to take my turn at the lectern.

Saying “yes” was the easy part, primarily because the necessary syllabus did not exist until I sat down to write it. After all, without a rough guide to inform the actual samplings, the endeavor wouldn’t be very educational. Here are a few starting points for students (and LEO readers).

Even before the scientific process was understood, mankind has been wonderfully creative when gazing upon the bounties of nature and determining how to render them into alcoholic beverages. Consequently, human societies and fermentation are inextricably linked. All human societies cook, and all of them ferment.

The production of beverage alcohol through the natural process of fermentation occurred for thousands of years before eventually intersecting with what we might call “modernity” in the sense of science, economics and capital accumulation, at which point the art of brewing moved from households to factories, and became commoditized according to the logic of the industrial revolution and mass marketing.

In spite of everything we profess to know about the history of beer and brewing, particularly when it comes to the alleged holiness of the beer style definition, it must be remembered that beer represents a foodstuff – a beverage derived from agriculture for the purpose of preserving the value of a crop, adding additional value through the transformation of raw barley, hops and water into a finished article, and most importantly, dramatically enhancing human happiness.

In short, modernity stole beer from the people … and now we’re stealing it back. Also, words of advice: Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to be Liteweights. And, to conclude: Friends don’t let friends drink bad beer. Beer should taste like beer was meant to taste … and my class will help you learn exactly what that means.

Sorry, but it’s too late to register for the current session. However, there’ll be another one taking place on Wednesday evenings in July. Call IUS for information at (812) 941-2206.


With less than eight hours of classroom time, it’s axiomatic that the best way to learn is to taste. Beer’s flavor spectrums are both deep and wide, and after three decades of the craft beer revolution, categorizing them can be challenging.

If you find yourself at the bar of the Irish Rover, Louisville’s truly original Irish pub, look at the taps behind the bar. For the most part, they are representative of classicism in beer and brewing: Guinness, Smithwick’s, Harp and other beers that have been brewed for decades and sometimes centuries.

Beer enthusiasts identify these by style: Dry Stout, Red Ale (both top-fermented ales) and Golden Lager (bottom-fermented lager). To ace Beer 101 is to become fluent in these style designations, but to progress from beginning to intermediate beer appreciation is know that in contemporary terms, stylistic rules are made to be broken.

As an example, Bluegrass Brewing Company’s two head brewers, David Pierce and Jerry Gnagy, both brew dark ales from the British Isles. Stout and Porter are similar. While typically black in color, Stout is characterized by the use of highly roasted barley, which is not a component of Porter. Gnagy’s Porter is overly strong, and so prefaced with “Imperial.”

So far, so utterly classicist, but then both brewers age their ales in recently emptied Kentucky bourbon barrels, and by doing so, the tasty result is an expanded style definition for the contemporary era.

In olden times, beer was served from wooden barrels. It seldom was aged in barrels previously used for spirits or wine. Modifying the flavor characteristics of beer by infusing it with flavors from a barrel is a thoroughly modern conceit.

Classic and contemporary: Know the difference. Class dismissed.

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