By Michael Agnew
I teach people about beer. Most of the people that I teach are not beer-savvy, brew nerds. They are ordinary people (admit it, we beer nerds are a bit unordinary) who have a curiosity to learn something about which they actually know very little.
I teach many of these classes with a certified wine sommelier. Together we lay down the beer and wine knowledge in one fell swoop. Although these ordinary people don’t know much about beer, they often do have some rudimentary understanding of wine. I find that comparisons to wine are useful in helping new people comprehend beer.
This sets me to thinking a lot about the wine versus beer dynamic. While beer spent the majority of the mid-twentieth century mired in homogeneous blandness, the variety and appreciation of good wine seems never to have gone away. Full flavored beer returned to this country just 30 years ago and it’s only in the last five years that it has infiltrated the popular imagination with real fervor. Because of this, the wine people are a little bit ahead of us in a few areas. We’re working hard to catch up, but we’ve got a ways to go.
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Wine Versus Beer, Agricultural Versus Industrial
Wine is an agricultural product. What happens in the vineyard is more important to the final flavor of the wine than what happens after the grapes are picked. It matters what kind of soil is underfoot. Chalky, loamy, granite or volcanic, the character of the soil shows up in the wine. Sunlight and temperature matter as well. Warmer climates produce grapes with higher sugar content, leading to boozier, juicier wines.
Because it is so important, the majority of the vintner’s time and energy is spent tending the grapes. The period of actually making wine, though intense, is really quite short—just a month or so out of the year. Squeeze out the juice, put it in tanks or barrels, and forget it. Once it’s in fermenters, it pretty much just does its thing. This isn’t to say that the winemaker does nothing to influence the character of the wine. They decide whether to use oak or stainless for example. It’s just that once the grapes are picked, the majority of the wine’s final flavor is set.
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Beer, on the other hand, is an industrial product. It starts with agricultural ingredients, but it is the processing that the maltster and brewer put the ingredients through that makes beer. There is a reason that a brewery looks like a factory. It is one. A brewery is a beer manufacturing facility.
Sure, the agricultural nature of the ingredients has to be considered. The variety of barley used—be it Klages, Harrington, or some other—has been shown to affect beer flavor. Different varieties have different levels of starch, protein, and enzymes. It matters where hops are grown. A variety grown in one region will taste and smell very different from the same variety grown in another. And bittering alpha acid content of hops varies from crop to crop.
Brewers have access to ingredients from all over the world, while vintners have only the grapes that they grow. Brewers can pick and choose from a dizzying assortment of malt, hops, yeast, and assemble them in an endless number of combinations. The impact of malting far outweighs the subtle flavor differences of barley varietals. And with a little simple math, brewers can adjust recipes and brewing processes to account for yearly crop and bittering alpha acid variations. It’s really the myriad choices the brewer makes after the ingredients have been harvested that determine the profile of a given beer.