Reflections on beer from an advocate, retailer, brewer and drinker.
I am the Beer Specialist for Regional Wines and Spirits one of the most comprehensive and unique liquor retailers in New Zealand. My background is as a cheese monger and I have an all round passion for fermented foods. I have a particular passion for English beer styles and I run a 60 litre real ale home brewery.
THERE are several myths that pervade the world of beer. Top of the list is the idea that ‘all malt’ beers are naturally better than beers which use some refined sugar.
One of the reasons for this view is the Reinheitsgebot. Often referred to as the ‘German Beer Purity Law’ the Reinheitsgebot could more accurately be described as the ‘Bavarian bread purity law’. In 1516 the state of Bavaria introduced a law that specified what ingredients could be used to brew beer. The chief aim was to stop the brewers from using precious wheat and rye. Wheat and rye were ideally suited to baking bread while barley was reserved for brewing.
The law was a pragmatic way of divvying up the resources between industries and served a purpose at the time. The Reinheitsgebot specifies that only water, malted barley and hops may be used in brewing beer. The omission of the all important yeast stems from the fact that the law predates our understanding of how fermentation works.
In more recent times the Reinheitsgebot has been used as both protectionist tool and as a way of asserting Bavarian dominance over the rest of Germany. It offers a very one dimensional ‘vanilla’ view of beer and brewing.
In 1906 when the law spread to all of Germany several styles of spiced beer were instantly eradicated, and more recently some East German beers disappeared when Germany was reunified. While the Germans make several styles of beer to a high standard the Reinheitsgebot prevents the diversity and creativity that you find in Belgium or England.
Refined sugar is often regarded as a dirty word by many beer drinkers and that is sad. Refined sugar, either from sugar cane or from sugar beet, plays an important role in at least two of the world’s great brewing traditions. Belgian brewers use a sugar called ‘candi sugar’ that is refined from sugar beet as an extra fermentable. Refined sugar will ferment much more completely than malt derived sugar and therefore makes for much drier more drinkable beers.
The Belgians use ‘candi sugar’ to boost the alcohol of their beers while keeping them perilously drinkable. Try Chimay White the most widely available Trappist Tripel at 8%abv or the classic Belgian Golden Ale Duvel at 8.5%abv, highly drinkable where a German beer would be heavy and viscous. English brewers who brew for a market that drinks by the imperial pint also use sugar to add drinkability to their ales. They also traditionally use sugar to add interesting flavours and aromas to their beers. English brewers traditionally used a range of sugars called ‘invert’ that were known in ascending number (#1 #2 #3...) these sugars got progressively darker and added more character to the final beer. Good examples of English brewers using dark brewing sugars to create interesting flavours would be the complex blended Greene King Strong Suffolk and the ever popular Theakston’s Old Peculier.
Of course sugar can be misused. New Zealand has a long tradition of brewing beers with a high percentage of cane sugar in the fermentor resulting in thin beer that is then ‘fattened’ up with more sugar after fermentation is over. The result is less than ideal. However just because sugar can be misused doesn’t mean it has to be. Cheers!