Brewskies, suds, pints – no matter the slang, it’s undeniable that nothing quite hits the spot like a frothy cold one. Beer has been friend and foe to man for thousands of years – the bringer of joy, hangovers, liquid courage and, sometimes, bad decisions. It’s also perhaps the world’s oldest recorded recipe, with scrolls dating back to 5,000 BCE from ancient Egypt on brewing techniques. Malted barley in clay pots found at archaeological digs suggests that beer making may have began even earlier in ancient Mesopotamia, so it could be that the pharaohs weren’t actually the first to stir the pot.
Modern beer as we know it today made its debut around the Middle Ages when German monks discovered that wild hops counterbalanced the sweet maltiness of fermented barley and gave the brews a thirst-quenching bitterness, while at the same time acting as a natural preservative. It also made those long days of Bible study more enjoyable. In fact, almost every monastery had a brewery, making them sacred houses of God as well as places for good times.
With fancy microbreweries popping up like mushrooms, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by all the shop talk. There are only two categories of beer – ale and lager – divided based on the fermentation process used. Ales are brewed with yeast on top of the fermentation tank, while lagers have yeast working at the bottom. All other terms like pale ale, porter, stout and pilsner are subcategories within these two.
With hundreds of years of development, it’s no surprise that the world of beer is as complex and full of flavour as the drink itself. There are literally hundreds of varieties, but we’ve narrowed it down to the main categories in order to serve up a hefty dose of education along with that frosty pint.
Brewed with yeast fermentation at the bottom of the tank, lager has a lighter body and a very clean, crisp taste compared to ale. It ferments at a colder temperature and is best served very cold.
- Pale: a relatively new style of beer, this lager is light in colour and body, with a crisp finish and a mild, hoppy taste. It’s best served well carbonated.
- Dark: darker than pale lager yet not very heavy. A lightly hopped beer.
- Bock: brown to deep black in colour, this medium- to heavy-bodied beer has flavourful maltiness yet isn’t very hoppy.
- Pilsner: developed in the Czech Republic back when it was part of the German-speaking Austrian Empire, this style is perhaps the most commercially viable beer thanks to its crisp, smooth and clean taste, with a medium body and more hops than traditional lager.
Fermentation from the top gives ale more complex, fuller-bodied flavours that are also maltier with more aromas.
- Pale: a wide spread, ranging from light and refreshing to heavy, pale ale is characterised by its light colour and trademark bitterness. India pale ale (IPA) is a notable offshoot, with intense hoppiness and aromas, plus a higher alcohol content.
- Stout: drinking like a meal, stouts are dark and heavy, with pronounced roasted undertones. Coffee and chocolate notes are often associated with this style.
- Porter: originating in the UK, this style is well known for its dark colour and light, toasted flavour, with a hint of molasses-like sweetness.
- Brown: characterised by its dark colour and nutty flavour, this medium-bodied beer has plenty of maltiness yet not much hoppiness. It’s often described as caramel- or toffee-like.
- Belgian: getting its distinct flavour from Belgian yeast, this style of beer can either be dark or light, with rich and complex flavours.
- Sour: almost yoghurt-like in its tartness, this style uses various yeast strains that expose the beer to different souring elements.
- Wheat: this style can either be light- or medium-bodied and is very versatile to added flavourings and ingredients. The Hefeweizen style is a popular offshoot that features a cloudy beer with a prominent yeast flavour.
- Blonde: a mild malt flavour and medium hoppiness characterise this light, bitter beer.
Did you know?
- Beers were often the only safe drinking liquids back when public sanitation and clean water sources were a challenge.
- Herbs, spices and dried flowers were used to counter the sweetness of malted barley for centuries before the popular addition of hops.
- To keep up morale, the British Empire gave each soldier a ration of beer. Popular styles like India pale ale were developed with higher alcohol and extra hops to keep on long journeys to faraway posts.
- In 1516, the Reinheitsgebot purity laws in Bavaria made it illegal to use any ingredients other than water, barley and hops in the brewing of beer (they didn’t include yeast since its existence was yet to be discovered).
- Here’s a quirky idea – what happens when yeast and hops are added to milk? Well… it’s called bilk! This fruity, low-malt beer was created in Japan to use up the surplus milk produced at local dairies in Hokkaido.
- The fear of an empty glass is legitimate and is medically termed cenosillicaphobia. Whether the glass should be filled with beer is another question altogether…
- Beer was served in Belgian school canteens until the 1970s.
Beer in Asia
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British colonialism is credited for bringing modern beer brewing to Asia in the early 1800s, with Lion brand beer heralded as the first beer to be produced on the continent. The brewery offered British Tommies a taste of home and a welcome relief from the heat of India.
Following closely behind, the Russian, German and Dutch envoys established breweries in China, Japan, Indonesia, Singapore and the Philippines, while the French set up shop in Laos. Brands like Tsingtao, Tiger, Bintang, Angkor, Asahi, Sapporo, Kirin, Chang and San Miguel are just some of the hundreds of breweries in Asia that drew from the modern beer brewing techniques brought by these European colonists.
Today, Asia is the world’s largest beer-producing region, with China crowned as the biggest beer producer since 2001. The most populated nation is also quickly becoming the world’s largest craft beer market, with multifold profits seen as the growing middle class demands more curated beers from smaller breweries. Japan comes in second, tailed by Vietnam, Thailand, South Korea and India as major Asian beer producers.
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