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At work, I am the “Beer Manager” in charge of picking the brew we have for our Friday Happy Hour (which usually has an international theme). As result of the fame that comes with that responsibility, people talk and I am often asked “Which international beers should I try first”?
This post tries to address that question. First, some background.
Beer and Beginning of Civilization
As any historian will tell you, civilization started shortly after humans domesticated food crops. We went from hunter-gatherers to overweight specialized people. What historians don’t tell you is that civilization has nothing to do with work specialization.
About 18 months after the first harvest of wheat, barley and maize crops by the evolved Homo Sapiens, there was excess production which had to be kept in storage warehouses without climate control. It unavoidably went bad and fermented. Several peoples around the globe were lucky to have the right type of yeasts in their environment, and it did not take long before someone tried to drink the resulting liquid runoff.
Beer was invented. People could sit around a block of granite, drink off their inhibitions and start talking to each other. Civilization started.
What is beer, really?
Typically, beer is a fermented mix of water, malt (grains that are dried after they germinate, but before they sprout, which keep their sugars in), yeast (of course) and hops (the flower of the hop vine – technically it is not the flower, but I don’t know the technical term).
There are two types of beers: Ales and Lager. What differentiates them is the type of yeast and the fermentation temperature. Generally but not necessarily, Ales have a higher alcohol content and a more complex flavor.
Beer should be drank from a glass (and most beers go with a particular type of glass), not from the bottle. There is no intrinsic reason twist-off caps would be associated with bad beer, but it is a universal convention. Non-twist off caps do not necessarily mean decent beer.
Beer is a victim of globalization. Belgian-Brazilian ImBev (which owns the American Budweiser), South African SABMiller, the Dutch Heineken and a few other conglomerates own most of the high volume beer you can find at the local supermarket.
There is plenty of information about beer around the Internet, so I will probably stop here and start talking about my recommendations for the international beer novice.
Ok, I want to try something other than Bud Light.
“Good” is always relative and subjective. So, if you want to try international beers, I would go for the ones people from the regions they originate drink.
Pilsen is the golden lager that comprises most of the volume beer sold around the planet. It is also a region in today’s Czech Republic. I would try the Czech Budweiser (when found in the US, it is labeled “Czechvar” because Anheuser Bush stole the name and registered its trademark in the West). You might also find Pilsner Urquell, which competes with it in the domestic Czech market.
Wheat Beers (Weizenbier or Weissbier/White Beer) came from the Bavarian region of today’s Germany and Belgium and are lagers made mostly from wheat (instead of barley). I hear they were brewed by Franciscan monks as “liquid bread” to be consumed during fasting (but I heard that at a bar, so there are no guarantees). From Germany, I would try Erdinger (from Erding, a town near Munich I’ve visited many times) or Franziskaner (the ones by Franciscan monks). I am not an expert on Belgium beers, but Hoegaarden is a wheat beer found in most supermarkets.
Ales originated in Britain and Belgium and have more complex flavor and usually darker color than lagers. There are several variations (bitter, pale, India pale, brown, old, etc). If you are drinking from a bottle in California, pick a domestic microbrewery (drink local, good for the environment), but I recommend you go to a pub and get whatever they have on tap. Fuller’s ESB is common British import.
Porter and Stouts are (maybe surprisingly) lagers with very dark color and a toasted flavor. Guinness, when properly and patiently extracted from the tap (which is rare in the US) and mixed with Nitrogen at the tap can be very good. Look at a glass of Guinness and you will notice that the bubbles are moving down. Guinness is very low in calories. Cans and bottles have a pressurized plastic disk inside (to simulate the tap Nitrogen mixing). It is, by far, the beer providing the best conversation subject if you run out of ideas.
Other International Beers. Most of the high-volume beers sold outside the traditional regions are forgettable Lagers. From the ones I have tried, here are some of my current favorites: Sapporo (from Japan, if you are not in the mood for sake), Windhoek (German-style, from Namibia, mentioned because it is cool to mention a beer from Africa that probably is difficult to get anywhere), Bohemia (from my native Brazil), Negra Modelo (found at the nearest taco joint), Mirror Pond Ale (from Deschutes Brewery in Oregon).