Saturday, July 6, 2013

Beer > Wine

Did that headline grab your attention?  Or were you just confused because you didn't recognize that I was basically using symbols that one uses in math to indicate that beer is "greater" than wine?  Honestly, I don't think that beer is better than wine.  This isn't so much because these things are a matter of opinion, but I just don't know enough about wine to feel that I can make any kind of an informed opinion about it to say that beer is better.

My point in this is to say that wine has a better reputation than beer, generally speaking, but it shouldn't.  Have you ever been to a restaurant with an impressive wine list, but its beer list consisted of nothing but pale lagers, and maybe, if you're lucky, just one quality brew like a Sam Adams or a Sierra Nevada?  I know that I certainly have.  I went to a pretty popular steakhouse near me not too long ago, and that's exactly what I wrote about in their guestbook - food, good; wine selection, good; beer selection?  Could be better, as it was all just what I described above - pale lagers and Sierra Nevada Pale Ale.

Just a few days ago, I had a really nice time when I went to ØL Beercafe in Walnut Creek.  Check out their beer list, and you'll see that they have quite a variety, focusing on Belgian styles.  What was nice about my visit was that I was with some folks who were really into wine.  They certainly weren't wine snobs, but they were definitely buffs.  It was cool that they were open-minded about what the world of beer has to offer, and I think that they might have been genuinely impressed by what they had.

If you're the kind of person who's having a dinner party, and you want to get all fancy and offer your guests wine, allow me to give you some reasons to maybe consider beer either in place of, or in addition to wine.  These reasons aren't there to say that beer is necessarily better, but it might be more sophisticated than you may realize.

1.  Variety - If all you know is Bud/Miller/Coors, then there's a whole world of different styles that await you.  If you have branched out to things like Guinness, Sam Adams, and Sierra Nevada, then guess what?  You might be ahead of the mainstream curve, but there's still a lot out there.  Just getting into Belgian styles alone will keep you busy.  Ever have a sour ale?  They specialize in those in parts of Belgium, and they can range from the sweeter side to the really sour side.  I kinda prefer the really sour stuff, myself, but I realize that it's not for everyone.  The point is that I can imagine that there might be people out there who think that they don't like beer, but they might just like this.

Basically, when it comes to beer, you've got three major flavors going on - and that's the malt, the hops, and the yeast.  Generally speaking, malt brings the sweetness, hops bring the bitterness, and yeast brings the funk.  English ales and some German lagers focus on the sweetness of the malt, with just enough hop bitterness to ease up on it a bit.  IPAs, especially the American styles, load themselves up with hops, and when they're done right, the malt sweetness is there enough so it doesn't taste like you're biting into a pine tree.  As for the yeast, you won't notice it too much in most styles, even thought it's the ingredient that turns the drink into beer, but when it comes to Hefeweizens and most Belgian styles, it's the yeast that drives the flavor.

Of course, it gets even more complicated than that, as sometimes the malt is toasted, which is where you get your darker ales and lagers.  Then you've got the sour ales which require some bacteria, and the fruit beers which include...ummm...fruit, but for the most part, I'd avoid those.

2.  It pairs well with food - There are many kinds of food out there, and there are many kinds of beer.  People like to talk a lot about what wine goes with what food, but you might be surprised as to how much thought can go into beer and food pairings.  According to Beer Advocate's Food and Beer Pairing Guide:
The more hop bitterness the beer has, the heartier or livelier the meal needs to be to hold its own. Don't overwhelm your palate or meal and ruin what the chef was trying to achieve. 
Another general rule is keep sweet with sweet, and tart with tart. Try to keep your beer sweeter or tarter than the sweet or tart food on the plate. There are exceptions, like pairing drier robust beers with sweet chocolates.  
Throw all of the rules out the window and experiment with contrasting and complimentary pairings. Match foods with complimentary flavors, or try contrasting them and create a slew of unique results.  
 For those of you who are bound to the wine pairing school of thought, think of ale as red wine and lager as white wine. Hoppy beers can also be used in place of a pairing that calls for an acidic wine. Though it honestly doesn't matter, these tips might help you to convert your taste buds over to beer or those of a friend over to beer.  
Taste is very subjective and what works for one person might not work for another. If it tastes good to you, then go for it. However, also be open to suggestions, as these tend to come with some knowledge and possible palate enlightenment.
3.  But you can't beat wine and cheese...or can you?  When I toured the North Coast Brewery, I remember the guide telling us that beer is actually a better pairing for cheese than wine is.  I can't remember exactly what he said, but perhaps it was something along the lines of Beer Advocate's Beer and Cheese guide:  "Think about it, it's harsh sometimes. The overpowering acidity of wine usually kills any chance that your delicate taste buds have of actually enjoying a pairing."  Basically, both beer and cheese were made in farmhouses, and have their origins in grasses (barley that's used to make the beer and grass that feeds the cows).  Plus, "the carbonation in beer also lifts the palate and brings out many nuances in the cheese."

4.  Wine is frikken' pretentious - Are some beers more expensive than others?  Yeah.  The reasons are varied, some of them having to do with the particular style being part of a small production run.  Also, beers that are more complex to make and/or need to be imported will run you a higher price.  Also, higher-alcohol beers might be more sometimes because more alcohol equals more malt, which would make it more expensive - which is also the same for beers that use more hops.

Ever try to read about wine pricing though?  What a headache.  They'll take the same wine, put it in two bottles with different labels, and charge different prices for the same wine because they know that some people won't buy a "cheap" wine.  However, it seems like Joe Average Wine Consumer can't tell the difference between the cheap and expensive stuff (although I hear that even a novice can suss out the REALLY cheap stuff), and it seems like even the experts have a hard time telling the difference in blind taste tests.  I've read about all this stuff more than once, but here's a link if you want to do some further reading.

Lookin' to get fancy with your beverages?  Hold off on that wine for a second, 'cause the beer just might do you one better, minus the snobbery.

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