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Beat the boring beer blues

Craft brews add emphasis on style and taste

Craft brews add emphasis on style and taste

October 11, 2006|by TIFFANY ARNOLD

If there's one thing Tony Calabria absolutely detests, it's mass-produced American beer.

"After drinking beer in Germany for 13 years and coming back here, I couldn't palate a Budweiser," says Calabria, 47, who was in Germany while in the U.S. Army.

So how does a self-proclaimed beer lover manage, now that he's been living in Harpers Ferry, W.Va.?

"Craft beers," Calabria said. "In general, they're going to have better body, better flavor to them."

Craft brew, by local beer makers' descriptions, differs little from the term for microbrews, beers produced by micro and pub breweries on a smaller scale than Budweiser or Miller Lite. But what makes craft beers stand out, local brewers say, is the added emphasis on style and taste.

Luckily for Calabria and beer lovers like him, there are four craft breweries within arm's reach of Washington County, according to state liquor boards: Wild Goose Brewery, Brewer's Alley Restaurant & Brewery, and Barley and Hops Grill & Microbrewery in Frederick; and the soon-to-be West Virginia-based Mountaineer Brewing Co., which is currently operating out of Barley and Hops Grill (they're owned by the same company). Mountaineer is scheduled to open in Martinsburg, W.Va., at the end of the month, owners said.

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And the better news? The local craft brews are served in bars, pubs and restaurants throughout the Tri-State. Calabria, co-owner of The Armory Pub and The Quartermaster Tavern in historic Harpers Ferry, serves several local craft brews at the businesses. "The only other beers on tap are imports," he said. There are also several restaurants and pubs in Washington and Frederick counties in Maryland that serve craft beers.

The appeal of drinking local brew, beer fans and local brewers say, is the flavor. It's the reason they're willing to pay a little bit more for beer brewed at a local pub, said Tom Flores, brewmaster at Brewer's Alley. "What craft brewers offer at a little bit higher cost per ounce is flavor, something you can't get at major chains," Flores said.

Because craft brewers are smaller in size, Flores said, they can more easily tinker with flavors and ingredients, and can tweak recipes to perfection. Flavor quality is the reason Calabria said he serves mostly craft brews at his businesses.

On matters of taste

Casual beer drinkers, Calabria said, who are just getting into craft brews (and those who don't discriminate when it comes to beer brands) should know a thing or two when it comes to taste.

For starters, there's technically no such thing as the "bitter beer face."

"In beerspeak, we don't really use the term bitter," said Gary Brooks, of Mountaineer Brewing Company. "We refer to a beer's hoppiness, instead."

Hops are a bitter spice added to beer for both flavor and aroma. It's used to balance out the sweetness - or in beerspeak, "maltiness" - from the malted barley grains, explained Flores, the brewmaster from Frederick.

The complex process, Flores said, is what allows craft brewers to make beers of varying tastes. Wild Goose Brewery, for example, has three different product lines, said Tim Deutsch, the company's head brewer.

In addition to seven Wild Goose beers, the company also manufactures a line of Blue Ridge beers and has recently started brewing for the Denver-based Flying Dog Brewery. This doesn't include yearly and seasonal specials, Deutsch said.

How it's made

Flores, who has been brewing beer since 1986, graduated in 1994 from the University of California, Davis, with a master's degree in food science with an emphasis in brewing. He was able to break down the process in very basic terms.

The process, Flores said, involves four key ingredients: hops, barley, water and yeast.

Barley grains are barely allowed to sprout before they are dried or toasted. The process, called malting, contributes to the beer's color and taste. Beers with highly malted grains will have a darker color and are generally less hoppy. Stouts such as Guinness, for example, are made from highly malted grains. Beers such as Budweiser and Michelob fall on the lighter side.

After malting, comes the wort, the super-sweet liquid that results from combining crushed malted grains with hot water. Beer makers separate the wort from the grains and dump the liquid into a hot kettle, where hops are added. Hops sterilize the wort and add aroma, Flores said.

Then the fermentation process begins. The wort is strained of hops and proteins, and is cooled. During the cooling period, yeast is added to the wort. The mixture then makes its way into the fermenter, where alcohol is produced. After that, the beer is filtered and placed in serving tanks, one of the last steps before it ends up in your glass.

What's in a taste

Two major ingredients, hops and malted barley, can affect a beer's taste. There are other factors that contribute to a beer's overall intensity. Ales, for example, are processed in two to three weeks and have a fruity robust flavor. Lagers, on the other hand, are processed for six to 10 weeks and have a subdued taste with a crisp, clean finish.

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