In Praise of Beer

I love beer. I love the caramel toasty notes of a rich American amber. I love the coffee and chocolates of a well-crafted stout. I love the citrusy floral notes of pale ale. I love the varieties, the possibilities, the potential. I love that you can smoke the malts and make a beer that tastes just like a perfectly cooked slab of bacon. I love pairing beers so well the flavors swell and swoon.

You know what else I’ve decided I love? Beer people. Maybe it’s just here in the Great Lakes region, but beer people have always impressed me as welcoming, warm, open. Theirs is not a passion of exclusivity or a fanaticism steeped in expense. This is not a passion based on the scarcity of a harvest or the limited number of barrels. Beer people want you to love beer. And they are perfectly willing to make as much of it as you would like to drink. This is a passion based on abundance. Let me set the scene.

I am sitting at a tasting event next to the folks from Potosi Brewing Company. Across the table are some members of the Milwaukee Beer Society. About 40 people have gathered at The Rumpus Room’s private space, invited by the founders of The Crafter Space. The Crafter Space aims to be craft beer incubator, providing scale-up efforts to home brewers and related brewing industries looking to take the next step. Our event this evening is specifically focused on tasting India Pale Ales, with two certified cicerones who are both Master Cicerone candidates this year, Jason Pratt and Brian Reed from Tenth and Blake. There are nine Master Cicerones in the world. Nine.

Jason and Brian are casual, engaging, occasionally beer geeky (we’ll get to the discussion around melanoidins in minute). Tenth and Blake is the “crafty” beer division of MillerCoors. They now own Leinenkugel’s and Blue Moon, and import a lot of interesting European specialty beers. But the tasting tonight will start with one of their beers and then go on to taste three beers from different brewers. They just want us to learn these beers, and to learn to love beer. But the event doesn’t start for a few minutes, so I have a moment to venture over to the main bar of The Rumpus Room.

Yes, Sugar Maple and Burnhearts are die-hard beer bars, which raise the standard for Milwaukee, but The Rumpus Room is growing on me. The selection of bottled beers is impressively wide and the tap selections have a little something for everyone. The décor is a polished take on early 1900s bars. I’m ordering a Robert the Bruce from 3 Floyds Brewing Company, a malty, toasty Scottish Ale, because I want to steer clear of any overly hoppy flavors that I’m anticipating in the IPAs. I always taste a bit of cooked fruit in Scotch ales that somehow reminds me of pie.

As I return to the private room and sit down to enjoy my beer, we talk about beer and what people do for a living and what stuff people love. I enjoy beer people. I finish my first selection as John Graham from The Crafter Space goes through introductions. And we’re right into the tasting.

The first beer is a White IPA from Blue Moon Brewing and the nose on the initial pour is all citrus, beautifully orangey citrus. But the flavor is more crisp, floral flavors. Our cicerones explain that nearly 90% of flavor comes from aroma, and there are two ways we actually detect aroma. Ortho nasal is the aroma we get when we inhale through the nose. Retro nasal is the aromas we detect when food or drink is in our mouth. Right before you take a drink, what’s the last thing you do? You inhale slightly. The air mixes with the drink or the food and flows up into the nasal passages, which pick up different aroma compounds. So the beer can be all citrus on the nose, but not taste like oranges on the tongue. The flavors are predominantly coming from a blend of four different hops, with different mixes added before and during fermentation. This is an easy beer to drink, not overly complex or demanding.

Our next beer returns me to 3 Floyds with a bottle of Zombie Dust. John explains that it was actually bottled today. So, yeah, it’s fresh. The guy from Potosi is telling me how much he enjoys this beer, so we cup our hands over our glass, give it swirl and inhale deeply. More herbaceous, floral notes. We sip. “Oh, this is different,” he remarks, “I remember this as being crisper.” Our cicerones explain the beer is as floral as it will ever taste, as those flavors dissipate over time. These are the alpha acids from the hops. As a beer ages, the beta acids from the hops will oxidize and add additional bitterness. So a chilled, slightly older Zombie Dust is going to present as a bit more bitter, more “crisp”. This beer is a bouquet of flavors.

The conversation on our next beer goes into another bit of chemical alchemy. We are tasting Bell’s Two Hearted Ale. I have to be honest, I’ve enjoyed Two Hearted many times and never thought of it as an India Pale Ale. The Centennial hops in this beer are balanced with a strong malt flavor which leads to a discussion of melanoidin flavors. “Ah, what are melanoidins?” comes the question from the crowd. Oh yeah, a chance for beer geekery from our cicerones. So you know how sugar, a touch of moisture and heat creates caramels? If you add amino acids to that cocktail, you get melanoidins. This is the same process that creates foundational flavors when the Maillard reaction occurs with proteins. It is this malty flavor of toasted bread which counter-balances the hop aroma. The discussion then turns to year over year variations in the Centennial hop, which is part of the reason brewers blend different hops to create consistent flavors. I prefer the variations.

The final beer comes to the table in a carafe, on draft in the main room, Double Crooked Tree from Dark Horse Brewing. This beer is as literal a take on Double IPA as there can be. The folks at Dark Horse have simply doubled every ingredient in the recipe but the water. A Double IPA is not quite that technical in definition. It typically means a higher alcohol level balanced with a bit more bitterness. But Dark Horse felt like it should be literal. I love this beer. For me, this is a heavenly balance of all the floral, herbaceous character of the hops with the deep, rich caramels of the malts. Complex without being over-powering.

Beer offers so many different possibilities to combine flavors, styles, and techniques. A tasting like this offers so many chances for learning, conversation, and appreciation. A tasting event like this is a wonderful experience of the emerging trends of Great Lakes Cuisine.

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