By Scott Mechura Explore Big Sky Food Columnist
Beer is more complex than wine. That might sound like utter nonsense to some, but it’s true. We sip wine; we age wine; we smell wine; we swirl wine. We talk about wine endlessly … Using only three ingredients: grapes, yeast and water, the possibilities are, without question, vast.
Contributing to the diversity of grape varietals from around the world are terroir (the microclimate of a grape); the blending of multiple grapes; and temperamental weather, which affects the sugars in a grape. While nature does much of the work, it nevertheless takes great skill to grow and nurture those wine grapes.
Enter beer, also a fermented beverage using yeast to ferment sugars – in this case malted barley – and water. Once harvested, barley isn’t ready to go the way grapes are. It needs to be malted.
Malting begins with soaking the barley in water to germinate the endosperm, then heating and drying it to stop the germination. The final malting step involves the desired roasting time and temperature. Different temperatures and schedules for each variety of barley, the country of origin, and the time of year make for additional variances.
Then there’s a fourth ingredient: hops. The female flowers of the Humulus lupulus, hops are the spice and bittering agent in beer, and also work as nature’s preservative. Factor in the hundreds of hop varieties, and you begin to understand why adding that fourth ingredient, with its own variables, makes beer so complex.
Some things you may not know about this historic beverage:
-Hops are the predominant seasoning in beer today but historically many fruits, herbs and spices were used in its place. Some include: chamomile, wormwood, thyme, cherries, myrtle and spruce.
-Until the mid-1800s, when the process of malting barley was perfected, all beers were quite dark.
-Beer has a deeply rooted history with humans and, much like wine, is territorial and comes with regional pride. Today, beers are still made in Germany, Belgium, Poland and Czechoslovakia that possess up to 85 percent of their local market share (no U.S. city comes close), yet as little as 20 km away, neighboring communities may have never heard of that beer.
-Beer predates bread with regard to yeast being used to ferment grains. Archeologists have traced variations of beer as far back as 6000 B.C. to Egypt and what is now Iran. Ironically, alcohol is banned in Iran today.
-A now virtually extinct style, known as “stein beer” (German for stone), was made by heating large rocks, usually granite, to a white-hot temperature. The stones were then submerged into the unfermented beer, or wort, to bring the liquid to a boil.
-We’ve enjoyed two renaissances of craft beer here in the U.S., one in the early 1980s through the late 1990s, and one during a resurgence over the last five years. But we still have a fraction of the breweries we had before prohibition.
-Belgium is roughly the size of Iowa, yet has some 600-plus breweries. Imagine how fun Iowa would be with that many brewpubs!
The next time you enjoy a beer, whether it’s an obscure ale from the far reaches of the globe, a light beer made in America, or a quality craft beer brewed right here in Big Sky, think about the many technicians and artists that made it possible. Sláinte!
Scott Mechura has spent a life in the hospitality industry. He is a former certified beer judge and currently the Executive Chef at Buck’s T-4 Lodge in Big Sky.