Let's make something clear right from the start. This isn't about couch potatoes slamming down domestic beer while watching sports. Nor is this about pounding down beer at a party or bar so that you get way from yourself or become dangerous to others. Let's not go there. This is about the great flavor of domestic craft and imported beer.
Given the popularity of these poor images, some say there is a need for an image overhaul. I agree, let's go for a classy image with a fresh name. Beer is formed from one of two processes and let's use those for a new image. Ales and lagers it is!
There are many more dimensions of flavor than commonly perceived. To me, the most prominent characteristics are the color and hoppiness. Color is determined by how dark the malt is roasted and how much of it is used. Amber, browns, porters and stouts have progressively darker or more roasted malts. The second major characteristic is hoppiness and bitterness which is contrasted to maltiness and sweetness. Malty examples are lagers and bocks. Sweet examples are Scottish ales and Belgiums. The wide variety beer flavors can be illustrated by mapping color and hoppiness.
There are other dimensions of flavor. For example, Belgium ales are not only characterized by lack of hoppiness, but also the flavor of the unique Belgium yeast. Some varieties of hops have citrus overtones which make quality IPA. Probably the most common added flavor is wheat (shown on the chart) but there are also fruit, vegetable, herb, spice, rye, coffee, and smoke flavors.
Within groupings on the chart there is a progression of flavor strength. Flavor is progressively stronger from a pale ale, to an India pale ale (IPA) to an imperial IPA. Porter, stout, and imperial stout progress in a similar way. Bocks progress to doppelbocks and finally to eisbocks. A Belgium trippel is stronger than a double and grand cru is the strongest from a Belgium brewery.
In this chart the larger the font, the bolder the style. Typically, the bolder the style, the higher the alcohol content. A barley wine may have a color and hop balance of an amber ale, but there is more of that flavor coming at you with every sip. So alcohol content is a good indicator of flavor strength.
A Narrow Road
Most domestic beers are a weak variation of the authentic pilsener style (some add rice, corn and other grains to lighten them). While domestics hold a very small portion of the entire scope of flavor, they have the vast majority of sales in the US. In contrast, imports and US craft styles dominate the flavor spectrum. For centuries, the imports have been brewed in a broad range of flavors and the US craft beer revolution emerged in the 1980's mimicking them. One could say that wide is the road of large market share and the bland flavor of the domestics. But narrow is the road of small market share and the great flavor of the imports and US craft brews.
Which road should we take? I say let's take the flavor journey. Most Americans start their journey at the left center of the chart with the domestics. Those who venture out usually try wheat, amber, brown and sometimes porter and stout. That is a good point of entry, but, there is far more.
I have found that I prefer the ales and lagers around the perimeter of the picture over those across the middle because they have more dimensions of flavor. For example, I prefer a sweet Belgium, hoppy IPA, or slightly hoppy amber to a pilsener. I prefer a slightly hoppy amber ale or a sweet Scottish ale to a brown. Since many of the perimeter ales and lagers are only available in certain seasons, I have to stock pile some of them to enjoy them year around.
You can look at your own flavor journey by finding where you started on the chart and where you have traveled. There are likely some interesting territories yet to explore. I regularly sample different varieties and I have listed my favorites which are available in the Pacific Northwest.
If you are a connoisseur, craft brewer, restaurant, or retailer who is serious about flavor, here is a challenge. Print a paper copy of "Flavor by Color and Hoppiness" and mark a colored X on the chart for every beer you regularly drink as a connoisseur, brew as a brewer, or sell as a restaurant or retailer. Most will find clusters and narrow bands of flavor experience and areas that come and go with the season. This will create for you a visual map to the territories yet to explore and experience year around.
More Flavor Chilled
The experts say to drink most styles "chilled," not cold. They say the flavor is lost when it's too cold so you must drink it at the correct temperature (45 F to 65 F depending on style). I store mine in the basement in an unheated room insulated from the rest of the basement. This makes a perfect 52 degree "poor man's chiller" during all seasons. I now agree with the experts that ales and lagers are far more flavorful "chilled" than when refrigerated.
Another dimension in my journey has been complimenting food with different styles of ales and lagers. Confirming what the experts say, certain styles compliment certain foods wonderfully. While pairing wine with food is common practice, I agree that ales and lagers are more versatile than wine because of the wide variety of distinctive flavors.
The pairing with food can be understood with three pictures. The first two images illustrate the principles that underlie good pairing. The first image shows common flavors in foods and how they pair with ales and lagers. The second picture illustrates how meats pair up. Stacking two or more of these principles together will make combinations that create fireworks in your mouth. The third picture illustrates this with some very ordinary foods paired with choice compliments .
Another factor in pairing with food is gauging the strength of flavor. You don't want the flavor of the food to overwhelm the brew. Nor do you what the flavor of the brew to overwhelm the food. You have to gage your preference in strength of flavor. This will depend on the particular food you are complimenting. For example, an amber might go well with a basic tossed salad and a doppelbock with a garlic chicken Caesar salad with chunks of bleu cheese. This will also depend on how sensitive your taste buds are. The less sensitive your taste buds are the more flavorful the food and drink need to be.
I have come to believe that an entrée with a complimentary ale or lager is far better than the entrée alone or the the ale or lager alone. Like many things in life, the whole is better than the separate parts. Now, I rarely have an ale or lager without a meal.