Carla Jean Lauter

The Beer Babe


Yeasty Does It

Every fall, I bake apple pies for family gatherings. As long as I follow my recipe card and use the same types of apples, the pies taste pretty much the same. So why is it so difficult for brewers to make consistent beer if they’re simply following a recipe?

The answer is that beer is alive.

Though it’s crucial to the brewing process, yeast can be an overlooked ingredient in beer, even among craft beer fans. Different strains of yeast have a profound effect on a beer’s characteristics. And, in fact, yeast is the only thing that can transform a slush of grain-based sugar water into the beverage we love to drink. But as a single-celled microscopic organism, it often gets less respect than it deserves.

Take, for example, a hefeweizen. The cloudy, aromatic beers brewed in this style get most of their flavorful esters from the use of a particular variety of yeast, one that produces banana, fruity and clove-like flavors as part of its natural environment. I used to think “hefe” meant “half,” because typical hefeweizens are made with a fairly even ratio of regular grains and wheat (weizen). Turns out I was wrong. “Hefe” refers to the yeast, so it’s more properly called a “yeast wheat” beer.

Brewing a hefeweizen — or any beer, for that matter — can be more akin to ranching than baking. Brewers have to wrangle and tame these living organisms. The brewing process seems simple: create a mix of fermentable sugars and water, put in a little yeast that likes to eat those sugars, and the little guys will magically produce beer. However, getting yeast to consume the sugars you’ve provided them, at the rate you’d like, while reproducing and creating CO2 and alcohol as waste products, is harder than it seems.

To create a flavorful beer, brewers have to pamper yeast by giving it exactly the right range of temperatures (sometimes only a few degrees apart) and adjusting acidity (pH) or other water chemistry. They may also have to provide extra food or oxygen to coax them into doing their thing. Batches of yeast can be different from one another even if they’re the same species — yeast can get lazy, can starve or eat too quickly, can die off too quickly or grow too fast, sometimes leaving behind undesired off-flavors.

Brewers need to actively control the lives of these organisms and then prevent them from dying before their time. In high-alcohol beers, the alcohol that the yeast produces as waste will ultimately kill them off. Yeast strains that can tolerate higher levels of alcohol in their environment have been specifically bred for the task, but most of the time brewers are just pushing the boundaries of what the yeast can tolerate each time they create a high ABV beer.

In most cases, brewers carefully select yeast that will impart certain characteristics: the estery notes of the hefewizen, the dry finish of a lager, or the peppery notes in saisons. But if you want even more of a challenge, try letting just the local yeast show up and see who applies for the fermentation job.

Allagash Brewing has a vessel known as a “Coolship” that’s essentially a shallow stainless-steel pan sitting in the center of a little shed. They pour wort that’s been boiled into the pan to cool, and then leave the windows of the shed slightly ajar, so the night air can come in. The natural yeast in the area (and yes, there’s yeast everywhere!) slowly settles onto the cooling liquid and begins munching away on the sugars. The result (which is sometimes aged in barrels long after this process) is a funky and complex mix of flavors derived from the unique terroir of the area where the beer is produced.

Other breweries have learned to use natural selection to their advantage. Barreled Souls, for example, uses a “Burton Union” brewing system that’s specifically designed to get the heartiest yeast possible to ferment each batch of beer. In that system, fermentation vessels (barrels) are connected with pipes in such an arrangement that the yeast travels up into a catchment tank, where it’s later separated from the beer and reused in subsequent batches. This captured yeast essentially self-selects for the most effective and hearty cells.

The next time you raise a pint, give some thought, and some thanks, to the little beasts that brought the flavors into your glass — and to the brewers who made them behave.


Smashing Pumpkins

Originally published in the September issue of The Bollard

You’ve done it, beer fans! You’ve survived “peak pumpkin spice.” Last year may be remembered as the apex of an obsession that manifested itself in everything from pumpkin spice lattes to gourd-flavored Oreos and M&Ms. More pumpkin beers crowded our shelves in 2015 than in any previous year. For some, this undoubtedly was a delight, but many wished the trend, which often involved artificial flavors and coloring agents, would simply go away.

Fads, by definition, inevitably decline, but I suspect the collective backlash against seasonal creep — being bombarded by spiced concoctions in early August or even July — also had something to do with it. The numbers are already in for 2016, and the pumpkin trend is on its way out. Retailers are slowing their orders, pumpkin beers are sitting on shelves a bit too long, and the quantities being produced are declining.

What will replace them? The cynics among us say it will be other artificial flavors (witness the rise of alcoholic sodas), but I hold a more optimistic view. I think the abandonment of pumpkin beer as an autumnal staple may be evidence that lagers can carve out a legitimate and lasting space in the American craft beer landscape.

Search-engine tools like Google Trends allow you to investigate the relative amounts of interest in different search terms. Type in a lager style like Märzen, Helles or Dunkel and you’ll see a huge swing upward in 2015 and 2016, while the line for searches about pumpkin beer drops off.

What encourages me is that these styles are more traditional and showcase the beer for what it is — grains, hops, yeast — rather than what can be added to it.

Let’s look more closely at Märzen for a moment. This malt-forward beer is typically brewed with either Munich or Vienna malt, and its caramel and toasty flavors are perfect for a fall afternoon.

In Germany, the term Oktoberfest only applies to the beers made and poured at the annual festivals in Munich, but in the U.S. we colloquially label beers “Oktoberfest” if they’re a fall seasonal of the Märzen or Vienna lager style. These medium-to-deep amber beers are especially popular in September (when Oktoberfests are held). The now classic Samuel Adams OktoberFest was the first seasonal beer I ever tried, and though I suspect its recipe has changed some since my first sip, it’s a beer that still defines the onset of autumn for me.

I’d argue that lagers have staying power well beyond the fall. Their clean flavor profiles allow the malt character of the beer to shine through. Some styles finish so cleanly that you need another swig just to be sure you’ve had any. The lack of a lingering aftertaste also makes lagers excellent choices to pair with food.

So why aren’t more breweries jumping on the lager train? The simple answers are space and time. Lagers take much longer to ferment than ales do, and that can create bottlenecks at the brewery. With ales, a weekly rhythm of brewing and kegging can be established. Lagers, however, need to sit, filling up fermentation tanks and making it impossible for brewers to start something else until the first lager has matured. With proper planning such obstacles can be overcome, but the point is that lagers are not a style brewers get into on a whim, or in an effort to follow a fad.

In Maine we’re lucky to have several breweries that regularly make classic lager styles, including Gneiss, Banded Horn, and, most recently, Dirigo Brewing Company, which opened in Biddeford last month. Von Trapp Brewing, in Vermont (owned by the Sound of Music von Trapps), is also distributing classic German lagers to the New England beer market.

Raise a lager this month to toast the demise of pumpkin beer! And don’t forget about the style just because seasons change.


Frozen Glassware – Let It Go

Originally published in the August 2016 issue of The Bollard

On a recent business trip, I ordered a locally brewed double IPA from the short but well-rounded list of bottles available at a fine-dining restaurant. Then I saw the waitress approach our table carrying an oversized tray with the IPA and — to my horror — an empty, frozen glass.

Across a busy table of work colleagues I tried, in vain, to gesture for the server to stop — to prevent the exquisite and complex taste and aroma of the beer from entering into an unholy communion with the frosted vessel. While I helplessly watched, she poured the beer directly into the glass, which was so cold that the edges of the beer’s head turned to spiky ice crystals. I grimaced.

I’m accused, occasionally, of taking beer too seriously. I generally strive to be inclusive, understanding and welcoming when evangelizing on behalf of my favorite beverage. But there are few things that bother me more than when a bar or restaurant takes something that left the brewery in its best form possible and irrevocably changes it for the worse. My top complaint is when an establishment neglects to keep its tap lines clean, resulting in a contaminated, “dirty” beer. Frozen glassware is a sin of a different nature, one born not of neglect but, rather, a fundamental misunderstanding of craft beer.

In a way, this misconception is rooted in beer’s history. Post-Prohibition there was (and still is) a strong market for light-bodied lagers or pilsners made even thinner by the use of corn or rice as adjunct ingredients. Budweiser, Coors, and the products made by their corporate competitors became our definition of what “beer” tastes like. This type of beer (the American Adjunct Lager) still makes up over 70 percent of all the beer sold in the U.S. — a reminder that for all the craft-beer industry’s growth, the diversity in styles still has a long way to go.

toocoldGiven the public’s acclimation to mild, low-flavored lagers, beer companies had to do something to differentiate their products in the marketplace, but most didn’t do that by promoting their beers’ unique taste or quality ingredients. Instead, they launched the Coldness Wars. The standard became: the colder the beer, the better. Enter gimmicks like labels that change color according to temperature and tap handles with digital thermometers displaying readings down to 31 degrees.

Our taste buds are influenced as much by flavors as by the temperature of the beer delivering them. And with each degree that temperature falls, the less flavor we are able to detect. Most beers are one of two types, ale or lager, determined by their yeast. The yeast strains all behave a bit differently, and their byproducts and processes contribute to the complex spectrum of beer flavors.

Lager yeasts ferment at slightly lower temperatures than ales’ do, and tend to produce beers that taste very “clean” — that is, they allow other ingredients to shine through, rather than dominating the flavor on their own. Serving lagers at cold temperatures can complement their crispness, because the cold strips some of the “lager” flavor away and, in some cases, can even hide the beer’s flaws — a win/win for marketers of inferior products. But lagers are intended to be served at about 40 degrees. Beyond that, all you’re doing is erasing taste. At 31 degrees — the serving temperature bragged about by some big beer companies — you’re basically drinking malt-flavored ice water.

Ale yeasts, which are fermented at warmer temperatures, can produce flavors beyond what the other ingredients can offer. The natural compounds produced as ale yeast gobbles up sugars to produce alcohol are responsible for the wide spectrum of aromas and flavors expressed in styles that are popular in the craft-beer market: IPAs, Belgian-style ales, etc. Ales cast off a wonderful bouquet of esters as byproducts of fermentation, and these esters only escape the glass and reach your nose when the beer is slightly warmer, around 47 degrees. Trap them in with cold and you have only the palest of expression of what the beer truly could be.

Brewers craft their creations and send them off into the world hoping they’ll be treated with the same love and care they put into making them. So let’s respect beer by letting its flavors out, which means serving it at a temperature above the freezing point.

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