By Alexis Zanghi
11:15 AM EDT, May 9, 2012
Beer is the new wine. We've been hearing it in the bar business for at least three years running now. And why shouldn't it be? Beer is complex and varied. Beer's an excellent complement to food. And in an increasingly DIY, locavore culture, beer is something that can be made in a kitchen, with ingredients found locally – or better yet, in a local brewery or brewpub. But, much like wine, craft beer — as specialty brews made in small batches are known — can be overwhelming in its complexity. Here's some of the basic terminology — with insights from those in the know. And, as it happens, May 14 through May 20 is American Craft Beer Week, so there will be hundreds of events around the country, and several right here in Connecticut, including the Rising Pint Brewfest in East Hartford, showcasing beers from all over. It's a good time to test your tasting skills.
A flavor added to stabilize craft brews, hops are added as an extract, as a pellet, or as a whole flower. They're that bitter aftertaste that rounds out a rich IPA. They're that intriguing bottom note in a fruitier amber ale. Hops are sort of like the bitters in a good Manhattan cocktail — they may not be the primary ingredient in a beer's flavor profile (though they certainly can be), but an absence of hops can be fairly conspicuous.
Stands for India Pale Ale. The leader in the craft beer market, IPAs account for close to 15 percent of all craft beers sold in the United States. In such a varied market, 15 percent is a tremendous majority. (It's sort of like elections in a European country. There's, like, eleven different parties to vote for, so when one party takes 15 percent of the vote, it's kind of a big deal.) Chances are, you've had an IPA. Sierra Nevada India Pale Ale, Oskar Blues' Dale's Pale Ale, Lagunitas IPA, Dogfish Head 60 Minute — these are all lions in the IPA market. IPAs are strong — in flavor and in content.
In New Haven, New England Brewing Company makes the Sea Hag IPA. It's named after New Haven's legend of the Sea Hag, a woman who stowed on board the ship, destined for India, upon which her brewer-swindler husband was fleeing his many creditors. She died in the cargo hold, probably fairly bitter, much like the beer that shares her name. New England Brewing also makes the Ghandi-Bot, a double-hopped (or Imperial) IPA — and when you see that in your local package store, buy it: it's usually sold out in a week or so. Bloomfield's Thomas Hooker Brewery makes a creamy Hop Meadow IPA with West Coast hops.
IPA's stand up to strong flavors like beef, char, and mushrooms. And while IPAs might dominate the craft beer market now, some brewers surmise that the tide might be turning. Says Tony Karlowicz of Back East Brewing in Bloomfield: "I think there is a shift away from IPAs, and you see part of the market going towards stronger beers [like Trappistes, stouts, and porters], but you also see a lot heading towards 'session beers.'"
For a long time, when I heard the term "session," it definitely didn't refer to any liquid substance being consumed. In fact, most people typically had to leave the bar to engage in a "session." But it turns out that "session beers" are a thing unto themselves. Lighter in alcohol content (around 4% - 5%), session beers are something that can be consumed in great quantities over an extended period of several hours, without overwhelming the palate — or your level of sobriety. Pilsners, lagers, and wheat beers all make excellent session beers. (I suppose they could be used to complement the other kind of session, but I'll leave that up to you).
Gently hopped, slightly sweet, and generally lower in alcohol, brown ales are popular in cooler months. If you've ever had a Newcastle, you've had a brown ale. But Connecticut brewers are developing their own variations on brown ales. P. Scott Vallely of Charter Oak Brewing (headquartered in New Canaan), is unveiling the 1687 Brown Ale this summer — so named after the year that Captain Joseph Wadsworth hid Connecticut's charter in an oak tree somewhere near Hartford. Why would a new brewer be eager to enter the market with an unusual brew that isn't consuming a massive share of the market? "My thought is that with the brown ale ...I just feel that I go into a pub or a liquor store now, and everything's an IPA...nobody's marketing the brown ale," Vallely says. The 1687 Brown ale is made with Centennial Columbus and Cascade hops, and Valley calls it "complex" and "very interesting for beer drinkers, but very drinkable for the novice." He recommends it with pork and sausage, or with a cigar on a cool night.
Smooth, with a rich red color, and often lower in alcohol, amber ales are palatable and by and large easily "sessionable." At Back East Brewing in Bloomfield, the fledgling brewery is entering the market with their Back East Ale, which co-founder Tony Karlowicz calls "a very well balanced beer with a fruity aroma and a clean finish, almost like a lager. It's an ale made with a lager yeast." Back East is opening as a brewhouse and brewpub this summer, with an initial 10-barrel capacity, something that Karlowicz says is "a lengthy process. It takes a long time. Now we're getting the equipment in... It's a process going through all the permits, doing work on the building, remodeling our tasting room, ordering all the supplies. It's kind of what people were telling us when we were starting out in the process." But hopefully all that work will pay off: "We make beers that we like, they're unique, they're different, and hopefully they'll sell a lot."
Ever had a Guinness? Then you've had a stout. Stout refers to beers made with a variety of toasted grains, with a rich dark color and often a creamy head. In Connecticut, Thomas Hooker has collaborated with Munson's Chocolates to produce a chocolate truffle stout worth trying.
These are just a few of the basic terms you've probably wondered about as you've begun your beer journey. Or maybe, you're far enough along that you've even thought about brewing your own, at home. Home brews are an increasingly popular past-time, and virtually every brewer interviewed for this article started out brewing their own, at home.
Christopher Donofrio of Norwalk has been brewing his own for two-and-a-half years, out of his apartment kitchen. He's part of a growing network of home brewers, visiting brewing supply stores (like Maltose Express in Monroe, or Zok's in Willimantic), recreating — or just developing new variations on — old beer recipes. His advice to home brewing novices: "Don't be too hard on yourself. You'll always make mistakes. Every time you make one, you're closer to making the beer you want."
Rising Pint Brewfest, Saturday, May 12, 12-5 p.m., Rentschler Field, East Hartford, (800)-745-3000, risingpint.com. This is the second annual festival. Sample beer from over 60 breweries and over 250 craft beer varieties, and food from area restaurants, 21 and up. Live music from local bands. Tickets are $35, which includes an unlimited sampler and parking.
Brewfest at the Beach, Friday, May 11, 6-9 p.m., Ocean Beach Park, 1225 Ocean Ave., New London. Tickets are $30, which includes 15 sampling tickets. There will be more than 150 beers available.
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