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In the Spirit: What you Know about that Craft Beer?

Ten years ago, West Virginia had less than 5 craft beer breweries.  By 2020 that number grew to 28.  That’s an insane 460% growth rate, indicating the people of West Virginia take their beer seriously and have developed a palate for great craft beers. Allow me to take you on a journey though the world of craft beer.

As a native of upstate New York, moving to West Virginia in September of 2020, I bring with me completed coursework in brewing, an Associate’s Degree in hospitality, TIPS certification and am now a certified beer server though the Cicerone certification program.  Do you see a trend here?  Yes, I like my beer and feel like I am in good company here in the Mountain state!  Like many, I lost my job due to the pandemic and saw an opportunity to start a new chapter in life as a Beverage Supervisor for The Greenbrier where I enjoy sharing my knowledge with the beverage team and guests regarding beer and it’s different styles.

What is beer?  Beer is simply an alcoholic drink made from yeast-fermented malt flavored with hops and is one of the oldest drinks produced by humans.  The earliest evidence of beer can be traced back to the Sumerians of Mesopotamia around 6,000 years ago.  The Sumerians are the earliest known civilization, and the Fertile Crescent of Mesopotamia was the place where grains were first cultivated in large quantities.  One could argue beer helped start civilization as we know it.

Both complex and simple at the same time.  All beer starts the same way with four main ingredients; water, grain, hops, and yeast.  In fact, beer is about 95% water and arguably the most important ingredient.  If water is the heart of beer, then yeast is its soul.  Many brewers believe that the yeast is what determines a beers overall character.  For all the different styles of beer there are only two main types of yeast – Ale and Lager. Within those two categories you will find many subcategories.

Before we go any further, I’d like to introduce a few basic terms that you should become familiar with.  Alcohol By Volume (ABV) is a measurement of the alcohol content in terms of the percentage volume of alcohol per volume of beer. International Bitterness Units (IBUs) is a measurement of how bitter a beer is.  It can range from 0 (lowest—no bitterness) to above 100 IBUs. Usually, the general population cannot perceive bitterness above or below a specific range of IBUs (said to be below 8 and above 80 IBUs by some sources). Color (SRM) is a scale that ranges from 1 (lightest) to 40 (darkest).  An example of a beer with an SRM of say 2-4 would be a Bud Light and an example of a beer with an SRM of 40 would be a Guinness stout.

Ales tend to be darker, have a cloudier appearance, higher alcohol content and a stronger, fruitier, more robust flavor with stronger bitter tones from the hops.  Ales also have a faster, more thorough fermentation.  Lagers lean towards a lighter, clear appearance, have a lower alcohol content and a sweeter, smoother, crisp flavor from the higher sugar content, slower fermentation and cold treatment. These aspects are most strongly affected by the yeast and brewing practices, with the additional flavors and post-fermentation handling also playing an important role in the final product.  A general rule of thumb calls for ales to be served at a warmer temperature (45-55° F) than their lager counterparts (40-45° F).

The Bohemian style Pilsner originated in 1842, with “pilsener” originally indicating an appellation in the Czech Republic.  Bohemian-style pilsners are darker in color and higher in final gravity than a German Pilsner.  When talking about a Bohemian Pilsner there is only one and that is Pilsner Urquell.  The German Pilsner is possibly the most iconic beer style in modern history, capturing the attention of beer drinkers across the world.  A classic German-style pilsner is straw to pale in color with a malty sweetness that can be perceived in aroma and flavor.  An American larger (Pilsner) has little hop and malt character.  Its straw to gold in color, very clean and crisp and highly carbonated.

Belgian-style witbier is brewed using unmalted wheat, sometimes oats and malted barley. Witbiers – “Wit” means “white” – are spiced with coriander and orange peel. This style dates back hundreds of years. Belgian monks developed their own style, which is darker, sweeter and higher in alcohol content than many beers, particularly Dubbels and Trippels.

Finally, the American India Pale Ale (IPA) is characterized by floral, fruity, citrus-like, piney or resinous American-variety hop character. Originally a beverage for English sailors heavily hopped to increase fermentation and preserve its value, the IPA style is all about hop flavor, aroma and bitterness. It is the top-selling craft beer style in supermarkets and liquor stores across the U.S.

Choose glassware based on the beer style and its alcohol content.  Stronger beer = smaller glass!  Snifters – Recommended for very strong beer such as Barleywines and Imperial Stouts.  Tapered Pilsner Glass – The tall “V” shaped glass perfect for pilsners. The narrow shape shows off the beer’s pale color. The outward taper supports the head.

Thank you for allowing me to take you on this journey that is craft beer.  This is just the tip of the iceberg and I recommend checking out more resources.  There are so many options in brewing beer, which grains and additives to use, styles to emulate or blend, fermentation techniques, that you can truly make your own. What I love most is that a beer is truly only limited by the mind of the brewer.  I encourage you to visit nearby Weathered Ground Brewery in Cool Ridge or Greenbrier Valley Brewing Company in Lewisburg.  Also, coming soon to downtown White Sulphur Springs, Big Draft Brewing, offering 16 different craft brews.  I hope to see you there!

– Stephen Smith, HashtagWV #133. July 2021. Stephen is the Beverage Supervisor at The Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs, WV.

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