A math professor prefers lager to hoppy suds.

Shall_500.jpgHomepage photo via Flickr by Don Shall

I wouldn’t say I’ve developed any kind of coherent philosophy about beer. If I do have something to say to the world at large on the topic, it’s something that might be controversial and not all that well supported. And that is that a lot of microbrews stink, and nobody’s willing to say it.

The microbrew movement, after all, emerged in reaction to the commercialism and consolidation of the beer industry. Thus, it was primarily about style; it was a pose. Just like when hipsters started drinking cans of Pabst, it wasn’t about the taste of the beer.

Now, this is a gross generalization, and I don’t really intend to defend it. People enjoy drinking their microbrews, and I am not about to tell them they shouldn’t. A bunch of people across the country got excited about the idea of making beer and producing something different than people were used to, and we all benefit from that tremendous variety. Their motives are pure, and the level of interest in good beer has increased immensely in the last couple of decades.

But now we have got to stop and take a look at the product. We’re not trying to be overly critical, just a bit discerning.

Let me confess my biases: I have spent a lot of time in middle Europe; that will be very clear from what I’m about to say. In my defense, there is a great deal of scholarly opinion that would acknowledge that that is the center of the art. When Adolphus Busch and his family were building their business in St. Louis, they could choose any name they wanted, and they chose the one they knew connoted the highest level of the brewing art—a name derived from a small town in Southern Bohemia, in the modern-day Czech Republic, widely renowned for producing some of the best beer in the world. This was Budvar, rendered in German as Budweis. (Incidentally, the Czech brewers of the original Budweiser recently scored a partial victory in their one-hundred-year-old conflict against American Budweiser in 2009, winning an EU lawsuit giving them the exclusive right to the name in Germany.)

I still remember the first time I really appreciated beer.

It is this region of Europe that exported brewing as high craft to the rest of the world, from Coors to the big Mexican brewers and so on, in the mid-nineteenth century. Refrigeration had just been invented, making superior beer exportable and raising brewing standards. That was what real beer was supposed to taste like; everybody understood this. So perhaps it is not unfair to apply those classical standards. This is not to suggest that this is the only kind of worthy beer, or that beer can only be produced by blind adherence to some arbitrary, ancient rules—only that these people have been at it for some time, so maybe they know something.

Now, what is wrong with microbrews? You will observe that the vast majority of microbrews are ales, many of them with an intensely hoppy flavor. What you may not know is that it is vastly easier to make an ale than a lager. “Lagern,” in fact, is a German verb meaning to store; to lay aside. Beer-making in a nutshell: First, you make a sort of soup of malted barley; this is called the wort. You boil it, which releases the malt sugar from the barley. While it is boiling, you immerse the hops, in a cheesecloth sachet, like dipping a tea bag. You leave them in for only a few minutes, because hops have such an overwhelming flavor.

The whole idea of hops is to counteract the sweetness of the wort. Once the wort has been hopped, you take the hops out, let it cool, and introduce the yeast. Then you “lager,” or lay it aside, for about six weeks. This is done in huge chilled vats; before the advent of refrigeration, it was done by monks in caves in chilly regions. The conditions have to be just right, or it won’t turn out. If you take a tour of the Pilsner Urquel brewery, in the Czech town of Pilsen, they take you down into what seems like miles of tunnels where they keep their vats.

Pilsen, as it happens, was the site of a major breakthrough in brewing in the eighteen forties. A new strain of bottom-dwelling yeast was discovered. This made for beer that had a clear, golden color. To this day, ales are made from top-dwelling yeast, and are generally cloudy, while lagers are made from bottom-dwelling yeast and have this beautiful golden hue.

What makes the flavor of beer is the way the rich, sweet texture of the grains is balanced with the bitterness of the hops. The major virtue of a good beer has to be that it quenches your thirst. It’s not like wine, something you sip and roll around on your tongue in small quantities. So the taste has to be balanced very, very carefully.

You can make a mediocre ale and no one will notice; with a lager, there is nowhere to hide.

I still remember the first time I really appreciated beer. I was 14 and had been horseback riding (in the mountains of Colorado) with my siblings. Somebody handed me a beer when I got off the horse, and I gulped it down all at once. The combination of my dehydration and the pure, clean flavor of the beer worked together to create a sort of magic, and that memory remains astonishingly vivid and significant in my mind. That, to me, is what beer is all about.

A good beer cannot be sickly sweet, and it also can’t be overwhelmingly bitter. That’s what I have against a lot of microbrews. You can’t gulp them down all at once. Frankly, I think microbrewed ales have been promoted and become popular mainly because they are easier to make. Ale yeasts also are more finicky—they don’t digest all of the sugars, so they leave all these sugary notes hanging around in the final product. The flavor of an ale tends to be very complicated, while a lager is cleaner and more dry. It’s easy to get bedazzled by the spectacle of a busy, full flavor. There’s a lot going on. But there is greater virtue in simplicity. You can make a mediocre ale and no one will notice; with a lager, there is nowhere to hide.

Here is where I’m coming from with all this. I grew up in Golden, Colorado, where Adolph Coors established his business in the eighteen seventies. I knew a couple of the Coors kids—they were members of our (Episcopal) parish—and my mother was good friends with Holly Coors (the wife of Adolph Coors’s grandson Joseph). During Prohibition, they survived thanks to their porcelain business, Coors Porcelain, which is now an independent entity that makes nose cones for space vehicles. (This history is all recounted extremely well in the book Citizen Coors, by Dan Baum.)

My mother’s sister, Anna Schmidt, married a man named Adolph Frauenfelder, who was known as Spike. He was my favorite uncle. Spike got a job at Coors in the nineteen twenties, so my mom moved with them to Golden and got a job at the Chevy dealership, and that’s where she met my dad. I suppose that means that without Coors beer I wouldn’t be here. Spike eventually became a brewmaster, and Old Man Coors (Adolph Coors II) would take visitors to meet him and any other brewers who had German surnames.

None of this is to excuse the darker aspects of the Coors legacy. Management reacted viciously when the workers struck in the seventies, and it tore the town apart. I despised Joe Coors’s politics, and when he became one of Ronnie Reagan’s chief donors the company became a liberal pariah. This reputation lingers today, notwithstanding various initiatives the company has undertaken to patch its public image.

Nowadays, a large proportion of every dollar you spend on Coors or Budweiser goes to advertising. But in those days the Coors name represented German quality and craft. When I was in college in the nineteen sixties, they only distributed to four states outside Colorado. It fell to the Coors heirs of my generation to nationalize the brand, to bring the company into the modern commercial age. All the local American breweries got gobbled up, and the product was made as generally palatable and inoffensive as possible. This is what the microbrew movement rose up against, beginning in the nineteen nineties, in places like my hometown, Denver.

I’ve just returned from Prague, where the beer is uniformly terrific, and it’s just everywhere. You walk down the street on a summer afternoon, past restaurants with outdoor seating, and you see people in good spirits at tables full of glasses of golden, beautiful beer. It’s wonderful stuff.

Rick Ball is a professor of mathematics at the University of Denver. Molly Ball is a reporter for Politico in Washington, D.C.

Authors’ Recommendations:

Citizen Coors : A Grand Family Saga of Business, Politics, and Beer by Dan Baum.

For the opposite perspective:

“A Better Brew”:http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2008/11/24/081124fa_fact_bilger by Burkhard Bilger, The New Yorker, November 4, 2008

To contact Guernica, Rick Ball, or Molly Ball, please write here.

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32 Comments on “A Beer Manifesto

  1. When I lived in Vegas, all I drank was Coors Light (a Western beer, as I justified it to myself). But when I moved to Portland at age 26, I felt obligated to try out the microbrew scene.

    Imagine my surprise when my first IPA tasted like cat piss. I couldn’t fathom why people in the Northwest were so obsessed with hops.

    But not all microbrewed ale is characterized by hops. My personal genesis away from macro lagers took me first to Belgian ales (Rock Bottom Blitzen), then fruit beer (Pyramid’s Apricot Ale). Next were amber ales (Widmer Drop Top), then pales (Widmer’s wonderfully citrusy Drifter) and porters (Deschutes’ Black Butte).

    It took three years for my taste buds to adjust. In late 2010, I bought a 24 pack of Deschutes’ Inversion IPA at Costco. And I’ve savored it.

    When I first moved to Portland, I was tempted to dismiss the entire craft brew movement as a Race to the Hop. Fortunately, my slow acclimation to microbrew culture has exposed me to dozens of varieties I never would have tried otherwise. Are there good lagers out there? I think Full Sail has proven good lagers are still popular. But it’s that very variety that makes craft brewing remarkable.

  2. It really does depend on one’s palette. My husband is a home-brewer with a palette that prefers the IPAs, some ales, and lagers. The key to good beer is knowing your ingredients. Yeast is important, so are the hops. How they work together can be the difference between citrus (grapefruit)overtones and cat piss.

    Guinness by the way, is a lager.

    My palette appreciates what the hubby drinks but prefers a full mouth of flavor and clean finish. Hence, I drink a lot of the Belgiums and favoring the Dupont Avec Le Bon Vouex.

    I tend to think a lot of the smaller microbrews are overrated, but there are a few that are surprisingly good (Green Flash’s Le Freak is one that comes to mind.)

    And like the other comment states, it is the variety that makes craft brewing remarkable.

  3. I’m a beginning homebrewer and semi-avid microbrew drinker from Oregon, and this piece reads to me like someone trying to extol the virtues of velveeta over artisan cheeses.

    Sure, a lot of micros are too hoppy, or otherwise odd and unpleasant. But there are many that are friggin wonderful. Everyone has different tastes.

    I’m also partial to maltier beers and lagers, and I can tell you that some excellent micro lagers do exist.

    The author here seems to be defending the Bud-Miller-Coors of the world by drawing a line between IPAs and everything that calls itself a lager. In my universe though, the important line falls between the BMC macros of the world and REAL BEERS. “Real” beer has flavor, and is made of malts, barley, hops, yeast and water. The American macros are made of tiny amounts of malts and hops, and some kind of filler such as corn or rice, because those ingredients are cheap. So it’s an eye-roller to talk about “classical standards” or keeping things “balanced very, very carefully” when talking about these velveeta beers. It’s fine if you like velveeta, but people with a palette tend to prefer things with flavor.

  4. This description of brewing is riddled with errors and oversimplifications. As for the lager yeast strain, it’s true what he says but the other half of the equation of what made the beer so good was the incredibly soft water and the decoction method of how the malt sugars were extracted from the varieties of malt in Bohemia. As for ales ales being “generally cloudy” this is sheer nonsense. While most lagers do tend to be clear, the actual determinant of cloudiness in a beer has more to do with a given yeast strain’s rate of flocculation–i.e. tendency to sink to the bottom as sediment. Many wheat beers, for example, use strains that are deliberately non-flocculent hence their cloudiness. One can certainly disagree about tastes and decry the overhoppiness of many American microbrews but it’s difficult to take this article seriously given the faulty and frankly incorrect generalizations being made about the brewing processes he describes.

  5. What an absurd rant. The first glass of beer I ever drank was a Czech beer, Krusovice, which seemed OK at the time, but which I now realize was fantastic.

    By Rick Ball’s standard, of course, any stout is by definition terrible, since it will have complex flavors and fail the “gulpability” test. Double cream stout? Milk stout? Well, it’s not a golden pilsener, so… Lagers can be wonderful beverages if brewed with some craft, but I wouldn’t want to only drink cherry Kool-aid either.

    Pilsener was not “generally recognized” as the best beer in the world, but a style among many in the world, and one invented when people were finally able to routinely manufacture pale malt without overcooking it.

    Hops have some wonderful flavors, but they can be something of an acquired taste. Especially the American varieties of hops, which have wonderful citrusy aromas in comparison to many of the European hops varieties.

    It is sad, however, that craft brewers in America don’t spend more time making crafty lagers. There’s no need to go on about how everything you don’t care for is by definition terrible.

  6. If you are going to write an anti-hop screed, citing Czech pilsners as an example against hoppyness is pretty much a sure sign that you have no idea what you are talking about. Czech pilsners tend to be rather bitter (IBU 35-45) and have the distinct flavor of noble Saaz hops. While american pilsners generally are not very bitter (IBU 5-15) and have no distinctive hop flavor.

    If you can’t distinguish between Coors and Budvar, you should not be writing about beer.

    Guinness by the way, is a not a lager. It is a stout, which is classified as an ale by brewing method.

  7. The author sure has gone to a lot of trouble to explain to me why he likes Coors (not that I care, or was even asking). In the process, he’s also shown himself to be an insufferable twit, although this has nothing to do with what kind of beer he likes.

  8. It’s funny that a professor who lives in academia and should be very familiar with the importance of research and documentation would write an article with so little of either. People above me have listed several of the factual errors contained in the piece and I won’t bother going through the others. I have no issue with well crafted lagers (btw many micro-breweries do make these), but to dismiss all ales as cloudy hop water that people brew because they are easy is just lazy. Next time avoid getting your facts from the Coors marketing department.

  9. The only substantive thing demonstrated in this article is gross ignorance and wrong headed assumptions about what beer should be and how it should be drank. Such rigid assumptions only favor the bland, not-really-beer of Bud-Miller-Coors that have been assaulting the American palate for too many decades.

  10. Just in case this hasn’t been mentioned yet in the previous breakdowns of the lack of actual knowledge about beer in this article, bittering hops are used in the vast majority of beers, inluding Pilsner Urquell. They are brewed with the beer for the duration of the boil. Hops for aroma and flavor are added towards the end, but typically none of the hops are removed until after the boil is complete.

  11. No wonder why the University of Denver is not very highly regarded… if their professors are unable to do adequate research, how are the students supposed to?

  12. See: Victory Prima Pils – an awesome craft lager

    This article is (to quote my late grandfather) “a bunch of malarkey”. Check your facts before you make bogus claims.

  13. You have to be kidding me with this PR statement from Coors. Most microbrews are bad? Said easily enough from someone with personal interest in one of the largest macobrews in the world. This is the coolest story I’ve ever heard.

  14. I feel dumber for having read this. This is one of the most poorly researched, inaccurate articles I have ever read. If I were in any of this gentleman’s mathematics courses, I would withdraw.

  15. Holy shit. You seriously know nothing of brewing and the craft beer culture in general. I don’t think you realize how stupid you just made yourself look by publishing this horrible piece of writing.

    Stick to something you do know. I’ve got an idea, how about you write about your love for shitty Coors Light. Asshole.

  16. I can’t add much to the factual errors which are numerous. What jumps out at me are the comments about politics – being a donor to Ronald Reagan makes Coors a liberal pariah whose image still needs to be “patched”? Here’s yet another professor who can’t avoid injecting politics into a non-political discussion. This is as much an indictment of his narrow minded thinking as anything else. I suppose my libertarian leanings mean I should avoid Heinz catchup because of its link to John Kerry?

  17. At the bottom of the page it reads: Readers like you make Guernica possible. Please show your support.

    Guernica, for publishing this tripe, you owe me fifty bucks.

  18. Wow… What a tremendous waste of time this article was. So many errors and misconceptions, it is hard to believe that the author is a college professor. Extremely lazy research, and only a half hearted attempt to mask this piece for what it really is; free marketing for Coors.

    The argument over ales vs. lagers aside, the craft brewing world has produced more true to style and amazing beers than the Bud-Miller-Coors of the world.

    I am truly unimpressed

  19. >>You can make a mediocre ale and no one will notice…

    Well then it wasn’t that bad, now was it?

    >>That’s what I have against a lot of microbrews. You can’t gulp them down all at once.

    God help you if you ever encounter this stuff called “whiskey” or “tequila.”

  20. This guy is a professor?? His lack of research is incredible – can a PhD be revoked?? This is the most ridiculous article I’ve read about beer in a long time!

    His description of the brewing process is completely inaccurate, as well as his description of ales as being “generally cloudy”. The sugars are released during the mash, not during the boil and bittering hops are often added at the beginning of the boil, which may last an hour or longer. Most ales are not cloudy, they are clear.

    The microbrew movement did not arise as a backlash to commercialism, so much as a backlash against the fact that the macro brewers were only brewing one style of beer – American Adjunct Lager. Many people wanted more variety.

    Not worth reading.

  21. Oh lawds. The professor is a first-class troll of the beer community. Please never write anything again and stick to mathematics.

  22. Opinions are like assholes, everyone’s got one, and they all stink. … I too was recently in the Czech Republic. I am a beer geek and make no apologies for it. I respect the Czech beer tradition. But a guy can only have so many nearly identical pilsners before being bored to death of them. They beat the crap out of Coors Light, but that ain’t saying much.

    It sounds like you like the pilsner style, and that’s great. But it is just one of very many styles, and one that I find bland and boring. I respect it, can enjoy one (or more if I am in Czech), but ultimately it is one of the least interesting and complex styles of them all.

  23. Alex,

    Is that really all you took away from these comments? If so, you seem to lack the level of reading comprehension that one would expect from the editor of a magazine. I hope that you realize that your job as an editor is more than just acting as a glorified spell checker.

    Subjectivity aside, there are gross factual inaccuracies and oversimplifications regarding both technical aspects of brewing and beer history, in this piece. Many of these errors have been explained in the comments. Furthermore, there’s just no compelling message beyond a professor extolling the joys of chugging beer. Believe it or not, but there have been many well-received articles celebrating pilsners.

    You seem to want to blame all of the complaints on taste. That’s just silly. If you don’t trust your readers, I suggest that you send this article to an accomplished beer writer or someone with other expertise in the subject. From the masthead, it sounds like you live in Brooklyn, so you could even just walk down to Brooklyn Brewery and discuss with their brewmaster, Garret Oliver, a respected authority on the subject.

    Finally, it’s disappointing to see an editor (and apparently one with some weighty stories under his belt) respond to legitimate complaints with a few sarcastic sentences. I’m not sure if you were going for a laugh at your readers’ expense or just expressing some frustration, but it’s inappropriate and, based on your qualifications, you should know better.

  24. I can understand the overall goal of this article however you seem to completely lose any traction you might have had when you said beer is for chugging. Not sipping and enjoying.

    There are a lot of microbrewered beer that are overly hoppy, however there is just as many if not more that are delicately balanced and provide a completly unique flavor profile.

    Not ever beer will be for every person however to condemn and entire industry because you want to drink it all in one sip is not something I would expect from a professor.

    Beer is not math, there is no right or wrong answer there is only personal preference.

  25. Dear Mr Professor,

    Reiterating the comments above- you have no idea of what you’re talking about. Just because your family worked at Coors does not mean that you understand beer.

    How much did Bud and Coors pay you for this posting?

    Life would be quite boring if everything was one uniform taste. Let’s only eat white bread and unsalted butter, too.

    I’m sure that most of those “uniformly terrific” brews you had in Prague were microbrews- you should do more research before you speak.

    Although, really, you are a prime example of the decline in our nation’s educational system.

    I love my malty and hoppy brews. You can have your macros, but you have no right to drink those microbrews you are so ready to smack down, so please, stick to Pilsner Urquell when traveling (which, by the way, is predominately a microbrew, seeing as that’s how all beer brands pretty much start out).

  26. Velky Al,

    Please re-read what I said:”You can have your macros, but you have no right to drink those microbrews you are so ready to smack down, so please, stick to Pilsner Urquell when traveling (which, by the way, is predominately a microbrew, seeing as that’s how all beer brands pretty much start out).”

    …” you have NO right to drink microbrews”

    …”so please stick to Pilsner Urquell”

    PU started out as a microbrew, which was my meaning by that it was “predominantly a microbrew”. Perhaps predominantly was not exactly the right word there, but it certainly holds the most of it’s previous self in it’s macro form than many others who have been taken over by macros. I was relating to his Prague story, since it would be the closest macro relative to what he would find there in pilsners.

    Why do people not take the time to properly read things and understand facts before speaking?

  27. Stevie,

    I would argue that Pilsner Urquell did not start out as a microbrew, as the very idea of microbrew in 1842 would be pointless.

    As for it keeping most of its original character in it’s current form, again I would beg to differ. My first PU in 1999 was magnificent – I had been in Prague for all of 10 minutes and the pubs around the Florenc bus station were open at 8 in the morning. By the time I left Prague, some 10 years later, I wouldn’t touch PU unless it was served unpasteurised from a “tankove” system rather than the pasteurised keg. Over here in the US, I won’t touch it at all, despite the very many nostalgic feelings it generates.

    The closest thing to a Bud/Miller/Coors product that you would find on the Czech market would be a Gambrinus desitka – another SABMiller beer which has been destroyed by mass production (that and the fact they water it down after fermentation to get the required alcohol levels). Oh and let’s not discuss the ruining of Velkopopovicky Kozel or Radegast by SABMiller.

  28. Ok, so you prefer lager to ale. But what I think you’re glossing over is that when you really enjoyed Coors, when it only exported to the neighboring states, Coors was (in fact) a microbrew. You note yourself that today’s Coors is nothing like what was brewed decades ago. And what in the Czech Republic, most of those lagers you like are also craft beers.

    Besides, there are also other regions of Belgium, England, and Germany too where the time-aged tradition has always been ales. I’m thinking especially of tripels, bocks, unfiltered German wheat beers, even lambics.

    To hold up one style of beer, from one part of the world, as the standard and declare the rest inferior would be like saying, “No one should drink red wine anymore. We have champagne and it’s delicious.”

    I do identify with that dehydrated moment where you enjoyed your first lager moment, and at certain times, I enjoy a good lager too. But on a cold winter night, with the fireplace crackling and the window howling outside, there’s a special place in my heart for Hybernation (Great Divide) — while not especially hoppy, it is one of the most complex ales I’ve had. And when I’m having something spicy, there’s nothing that balances it out like an IPA.

    What I’m saying is, there’s more to beer than the simple, unoffensive lager.

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