A generic term for low-alcohol beverages brewed from a mash of malted barley and other cereals (like corn, rye or wheat), flavored with hops and fermented with yeast. Technically, beers are only those beverages in which the yeast sinks to the bottom of the tank during fermentation. Such bottom-fermented brews ferment at colder temperatures for longer periods of time, a process that produces a light, crisp tasting beverage. Ale a generic category for top-fermented beers where the yeast rises to the top of the tank is strong-flavored and high in alcohol. Beverages that fall into the bottom-fermented beer category include bock beer, lager, malt liquor, pilsner and vienna beer. Porter, stout and wheat beer are all top-fermented and are, therefore, considered ales. To add to the confusion, some states don't allow the words "beer" or "lager" to be used on brews containing more than 5 percent alcohol, so the word "ale" is used to describe these beers. Four ingredients play the primary roles in beer-making: water, malt, hops and yeast. Water is critical because it comprises nine-tenths of a beer's volume. The quality and composition of the water from different beer-making regions contributes greatly to the character of the finished product. Malt, which is made from germinated grain (usually barley), provides beer with a slightly sweet character. How malt is treated dried but not roasted, lightly roasted, heavily roasted, and so on impacts a beer's flavor. Hops convey an agreeably bitter, dry flavor that balances the malt's sweetness. Yeast that's been specially cultivated (each brewer has their favorite strain) is used for brewing; different yeasts produce different results. Lambic beer utilizes wild yeast for fermentation. Beer's alcohol content varies, with most beer in the United States ranging from 3.2 to 8 percent alcohol. Some European beers have less than 3 percent alcohol, while others range as high as 13 percent. In the United States, the term light beer refers to a brew with reduced calories and usually less alcohol. In Europe, this term distinguishes between pale and dark lagers. Ice beer (called Eisbock in Germany) is lagered at such cold temperatures (32∞Fthe freezing point of water) that ice crystals form. When this frozen water is extracted, the resulting beer has a much higher alcohol concentration, so some German ice beers reach 13 percent alcohol. Nonalcoholic beer (brew) has had the alcohol removed in one of two ways: by fully fermenting the product, then removing the alcohol, or by arresting the fermentation before it begins. As with alcohol-free wine, nonalcoholic beer (also referred to simply as NA) contains a miniscule amount of alcohol (0.5 percent by volume). That's no more than many fruit juices, which, tahnks to natural fermentation, can have an alcohol level ranging between 0.2 and 0.5 percent. Although such potables are commonly referred to as "beers," U.S. law requires they be labeled "brews." Because alcohol gives beer body and texture, nonalcoholic versions aren't as satisfying to those used to real beer. On a plus side is the reduced calorie count. Whereas an average 12-ounce beer contains around 150 calories (microbrews up to 200), a nonalcoholic brew weighs in somewhere between 60 and 90 calories just about the midpoint between regular and diet sodas. The calories in beer come primarily from malt, which contains natural sugar in the form of dextrose. But we'll never see a calorie-free brew because malt also contributes a big part of beer's flavor. The price of nonalcoholic beer is certainly not as light as its flavor because such brews can be costly to produce. Still, they fill a niche and can be much more satisfying with a meal than a cloyingly sweet soft drink. Storing and serving beer: Beer, unlike most wines, should not be aged but consumed as fresh as possible. Most lighter style beers (such as lager and Pilsner) should be served at about 45°F; colder temperatures cloud beer and diminish its flavor. Stronger ales should be served at about 55°F so their more complex flavors can be savored.
From The Food Lover's Companion, Fourth edition by Sharon Tyler Herbst and Ron Herbst. Copyright © 2007, 2001, 1995, 1990 by Barron's Educational Series, Inc.