In a 2018 article, Alcohol.org wrote that craft beer breweries, defined as relatively small and independent beer-makers, have seen higher production in recent years than ever before. Craft beer has become explosively popular, especially among Millenials. As a result, so has the trope of the beanie-wearing, man-bun sporting, hipster beer-snob. You’ll know you’ve encountered one if they ask something like, “Is this beer double hopped or triple hopped?” or declare, “This is great, but last year’s batch had more mouthfeel” while enjoying an IPA at the trendiest new brewery in town. Hipsters aside, craft beer is a genuinely exciting, creative, and even artistic phenomenon that can be enjoyed by all, and learning about different breweries and what it takes for them to make the perfect beer can be a lot of fun.
Craft beer is an innovative and often very personal creation that takes experimentation and care to concoct. Unlike mass-produced beer, which usually consists of more cost-effective ingredients like rice and corn, “Craft beer is made with specific, hand selected ingredients, and it is only produced in smaller batches by master brewers who truly love beer,” says DrinkTanks.com. Enjoying craft beer allows us to support smaller businesses, as typically “less than 25% of [a craft brewery] is owned or controlled by a beverage alcohol industry member that is not itself a craft brewer,” according to CraftBeer.com. Craft beers offer a unique taste, “[focusing] on a specific flavor palate that varies with the batch,” explains DrinkTanks.com, while larger companies produce beer that is typically “monotone in flavor.”
Breaking down all of the different components of craft beer can be complicated, but for starters, the four main ingredients that go into any brew include grains, hops, water, and yeast. Most craft brewers prefer to use grains like malted barley, or malt, which is created by soaking barley in water until it germinates, then heating this mixture to halt the germination, and finally roasting the malt to varying degrees, which CraftSense.co states is a huge determinant of how the finished product will taste.
Hops are a type of plant—specifically, climbing vines—whose flowers are used to add bitterness to beer, as well as other notes such as tropical fruits or fresh grasses. The stage of the brewing process in which hops are added greatly influences the taste and aroma of the final product.
Yeast, another essential ingredient used to produce all beers, creates the fermentation process that converts sugar into alcohol. According to CraftSense, the role of yeast is so essential to the brewing process that many breweries refuse to reveal the type of yeast they use. The yeast used to make beer is divided into two major groups: ale yeast, which produces Pale Ales, Porters, Stouts, Wheat, and Brown Beer, and lager yeast, which is used to brew Pilsners, Bock, and Oktoberfest beer.
Finally, water greatly impacts the quality of a brew, as all beers are around 90-95% water. It seems like an insignificant determinant of the final product, but CraftSense states that water “causes beers of the same style but from different regions to taste completely different.”
Once we’ve identified the four major ingredients that go into every lager, ale, and IPA, we can break down the characteristics that differentiate each brew. The Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) highlights the most helpful elements to consider when you’re tasting different beers: aroma, appearance, flavor, and mouthfeel.
Aroma is simply “the combination of smells given off by the malt, hops, yeast and any additional components of the beer” (KegWorks.com). Although it seems fairly straightforward, detecting a beer’s aroma is a skill in its own right; BeerandBrewing.com recommends coating the surface of your glass with beer by swirling it, “in order for a thin film of beer to evaporate into the air, making the aromatic molecules available to your olfactory receptors.”
The appearance of a specific beer refers to its color and clarity (GoodFood.com). The color of beer is measured using the Standard Reference Method (SRM) scale and is calculated by “passing light of a specific wavelength through a specific “thickness” of beer (one centimeter) and measuring the amount of light absorbed by the beer” (CoffBrewing.com).
More than just a buzzword used by seasoned craft beer drinkers, “mouthfeel” is another characteristic of beer that is more complex than it may seem, and is important in differentiating between brews. According to BeerandBrewing.com, carbonation, fullness, and aftertaste are the primary attributes to note when distinguishing mouthfeel. Carbonation creates the “sting or tingle,” we experience as we drink, as well as the bubble size and foam volume produced by the specific amount of carbon dioxide in a beer. Fullness, on the other hand, is the “perceived weight and flow resistance of a beer while it is being consumed,” or the beer’s density and viscosity. Finally, “afterfeel” describes things like stickiness, astringency, dryness, bitterness, oiliness, or “mouth-coating characteristics” that linger after we take a sip.
As for the flavor of a beer, it can be difficult—especially for beginners—to articulate exactly what we are tasting, but GoodFood.com recommends to “work with general descriptors and associations,” while noting that paler brews often contain bready, biscuity flavors, darker brews produce more roasty, smoky, caramelized notes, and “hop-forward” beers tend to taste more like fruit, citrus, spice, and resin.
A few final elements to consider when looking over a beer menu are a beer’s “vital statistics.” These are values like ABV (Alcohol By Volume), IBUs (International Bitterness Units), and OG (Original Gravity). Most people are familiar with ABV— the percentage volume of alcohol per volume of beer. IBU measures the parts per million of Isohumulone--the acid in hops that gives beer its “bitter bite”--found in a beer (BeerConnoisseur.com). Original Gravity simply refers to a gravity reading (a measurement of the total amount of dissolved sugars in water) taken just before yeast is added, and it allows the brewer to estimate the potential alcohol percentage of the beer they are producing.
Navigating the intricacies of craft beer—from the processes used to produce it, to the ingredients and different characteristics of the final product—can be overwhelming, but all it takes to find and enjoy your favorite brew is curiosity and a willingness to be adventurous with your tastebuds. Some local spots to check out here on the Island are Beerfoot Brewery, Brews Brothers, Galveston Island Brewing Co., and Devil and the Deep Brewery.