Pick your brew

May 27, 2012, 09:55 IST | Anjana Vaswani

Pubbing was probably less complicated when Kingfisher was flying well ahead of the flock. But with foreign beer brands pouring in and many Indian varieties available, how does one pick an ale from a lager? Sommelier Nikhil Agarwal demystifies the golden brew and some of its avatars to make the choice easier

It was a decade ago that Nikhil Agarwal, sommelier and director, All Things Nice, started sipping booze for a living. It may sound like a dream job but with 18 beer varieties lined up for him to sample today, the sommelier who has just flown back from a wine-tasting session in Italy hours prior to our meet, seems a tad besieged. “What to begin with?” he scratches his head. He examines the stock, and from the murmurs, we can decipher he seems to be constructing a mental pyramid of sorts, wondering whether to reserve his favourites for the end of the session or to tackle the lighter beers first and build up to more intense flavours.

According to sommelier Nikhil Aggarwal,  the temperature of a beer makes a huge difference. Pics/ Rane Ashish  

Agarwal proceeds to instruct the servers at Opa, the Greek restaurant at Juhu. The beer list offers Kingfisher, Carlsberg, Asahi, Corona, Stella Artois, Hoegaarden and Amstel and these are amply chilled, but the varieties we’ve brought in need a few minutes in the beer chiller. The temperature of the drink makes a huge difference. With the exception of Austrian beer Schneider Weisse, which Agarwal tells us, can be served at about 5 degrees celsius, “Most beers are best consumed between 4 degrees and 8 degrees celsius.” He explains, “If the beverage is too cold, it will numb the taste receptors on the tongue; if it’s too warm, the beer will taste flat — all the delicate aromas will be lost.” It’s a bit of beer trivia from Agarwal’s vast collection. He also tells us about, “Reinheitsgebot,” Germany’s Beer Purity Laws that originally restricted brewers from using more than the cardinal three components — water, barley and hops.

“Like with any recipe, the constituents of a brew contribute immensely to the taste of the beer. So even the taste of water used in production affects the drink’s flavour,” says Agarwal, interpolating that the distinction between ale and lager in fact, results from the different types of yeast used in the brews. Ales are top fermenting yeasts and fermentation occurs at higher temperatures, which Agarwal says, “typically produces floral and fruity characteristics, while Lagers are bottom-fermenting yeast and produce beers with more hoppy and malty characteristics.” Here is Agarwal’s take on some of the beers now available in the city:

Make: Chinese
ABV (Alcohol by Volume): 4.8 %
Price: Rs 188
Verdict: Rumoured to be a zero-fat beverage, this beer has a distinct sweetness balanced with the bitter notes. There’s definitely some power in the malt flavour but it’s light and crisp, with a quick finish.

Leffe Blonde
Make: Belgian
ABV (Alcohol by Volume): 6.6 %
Price: Rs 240
Verdict: Prepared with malted barley and wheat, the ale has a robust fruit flavour. It’s a rich full-bodied ale, which leaves a beautiful lingering bitterness.

Peroni Nastro Azzurro
Make: Italian
ABV (Alcohol by Volume): 5.1 %
Price: Rs 200
Verdict: A lot of people will love this. It’s a decent lager, though not the most superior variety available. The inclusion of Italian maize in the brew is evident in the taste. It has a diluted bitterness, a malt taste that coats the tongue.

Fuller’s London Pride
Make: British
ABV (Alcohol by Volume): 4.7 %
Price: Rs 200
Verdict: The recipient of numerous awards, this ale gets its dark golden colour from its roasted malt content. The sweetness in the aroma doesn’t translate onto the tongue. This one is for the big boys.

Birra Moretti
Make: Italian
ABV (Alcohol by Volume): 4.6 %
Price: Rs 200
Verdict: As a consequence of the roasted barley content of the lager, there’s an intense malt flavour that lingers; a balanced bitter taste that comes through smoothly.

Schneider Weisse
Make: German
ABV (Alcohol by Volume): 5.4 %
Price: Rs 195
Verdict: The preserver of the wheat beer brewing style that was limited only to royalty once upon a time, this is a fresh and fruity beverage with a hint of sweet spice. It is full bodied and well balanced.

Make: Japanese
ABV (Alcohol by Volume): 5 %
Price: Rs 195
Verdict: This is a popular Japanese brand and
the label that declares it’s, ‘super dry’, should tell
you what to expect. It’s intense, crisp
and fresh.

Murphy’s Stout
Make: Irish
ABV (Alcohol by Volume): 4.2 %
Price: Rs 350
Verdict: This is a complex brew that is especially favoured by dark beer aficionados. These beers have a specific pour technique to ensure the right amount of head. The bitterness dominates, but the coffee and chocolate characteristics are just as discernible.

Make: Dutch
ABV (Alcohol by Volume): 3.5 %
Price: Rs 225
Verdict: It has subtle malty notes with a nice blend of hops and a quick finish, which means the taste doesn’t linger for too long. It’s a nice drink, with a lot of flavour, ideal for when you are in the mood to drink many beers without letting it get to you. This one is light and refreshing.

Make: Belgian
ABV (Alcohol by Volume): 4.9 %
Price: Rs 250
Verdict: Marked by an immediate sweetish fruit essence and a generous amount of froth, this beer has a distinct citrus, apple-laced aroma. It’s very popular in India.

Make: Belgian
ABV (Alcohol by Volume): 8.5 %
Price: Rs 446
Verdict: One of the classiest beers from this selection, it has a beautiful golden gleam. There’s a wonderful malty flavour that rounds off the fruity aroma. It’s smooth, has a dry finish and a flavour that lasts.

Make: Danish
ABV (Alcohol by Volume): 5 %
Price: Rs 75
Verdict: Though it has fruity and floral notes, the malt flavour lingers. Crisp and refreshing, it has a good amount of bitterness.

Erdinger Weissbier
Make: German
ABV (Alcohol by Volume): 5.3 %
Price: Rs 235
Verdict: Brewed in the city of Erding from which it gets its name, this beer from the world’s largest seller of wheat beer, has a unique taste. It’s full-bodied but makes for easy drinking with fruit notes.

Stella Artois
Make: Belgian
ABV (Alcohol by Volume): 5.2 %
Price: Rs 235
Verdict: There is an underlying sweetness with malty flavours and crisp bitterness.

Bud vs. Bud
Both, the USA and the Czech Republic have beer brands called, “Budweiser,” a fact which first sparked off an international dispute as far back as the late 19th century when both breweries, Anheuser-Busch (American brand, founded by German immigrants) and Budejovicky Budvar (Czech) started exporting their products to international markets. The original Bud, reports suggest, was the product of Budweiser Burgerbrau, beer supplier to Württemberg royalty back in 1895.  It’s the American beer brand that’s available here and, even abroad, Agarwal points out. There’s a remarkable difference in the taste of the imported Budweiser (Rs325) and the local one (Rs250). “Both beers have an ABV of five per cent but the foreign import is immediately more floral and fruity,” Agarwal says.

How is beer made?
In the sweltering heat of ancient Mesopotamia, a farmer comes home at the end of another gruelling day and reaches for a glass of water. His throat is parched. He couldn’t care less that the liquid may be contaminated, he’s completely oblivious to the fact that bread has been soaking in it for a day or two. It’s a vague story with obscure details at best, but this is how experts believe beer was born. The oldest recorded evidence, however, is found in the epic of Gilgamesh, the fifth king of Uruk, (modern-day Iraq), a story that was originally carved on 12 clay tablets. A translation of the Sumerian tablet (II), which introduces Enkidu, created by Anu, the sky god, to rid Gilgamesh of his arrogance, reads:  They placed food in front of him, they placed beer in front of him;
Enkidu knew nothing about eating bread for food, and of drinking beer he had not been taught.

The harlot spoke to Enkidu, saying: “Eat the food, Enkidu, it is the way one lives. Drink the beer, as is the custom of the land.” Enkidu ate the food until he was sated, he drank the beer-seven jugs! — and became expansive and sang with joy! He was elated and his face glowed. Those brews, experts believe, were made with crushed or malted grain and records suggest that by 2000 BC, the Sumerians had at least 16 different beers made from barley and wheat. Today, with innumerable varieties available around the world, brewing still starts with mashing, but the term refers to the process of mixing milled grain with water, and heating this, allowing for rests at certain temperatures so that enzymes in the malt can break down the starch in the grain into sugars. Six other steps follow, typically. After lautering or the separation of the extracts, these are boiled. Hops (flower clusters) are added during this stage, and this ingredient contributes to the flavour of the brew. Yeast is introduced next to commence the fermentation process. Once fermented, the brew is conditioned and filtered (not all beers are filtered though).  

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