October 18, 2011
Relatively speaking, beer is an easier beast to understand than, say, wine or liquor. Beer comes from one of two families – ale or lager – whereas wine’s pedigree depends upon a laundry list of factors. The combination of soil conditions, location, facing towards light, water drainage and even what used to grow in the location – collectively known as terroir – are just the first grapes growing on the bunch so to speak. Add to the equation trellising, pruning, harvest conditions, whether or not to use natural cork vs. synthetic or Stelvin screw cap, exposure to sunlight or high temperatures in transit or storage and display… Wine appears to be as dauntingly complicated as betting on horses at the track or figuring out string theory.
Once one is able to identify a beer by its subcategory within the two families, it simply becomes a matter of “does the beer successfully represent the style” or “if not, is that a good thing or bad?” Easy, right?
Beer speak, however, can confuse the average Joe Sixpack sitting next to you at the bar. While he’s there sipping upon nothing more exotic than a light beer, you’re going off about a beer’s original gravity, alpha oil content of hops, low diacetyl levels due to cold fermentation and the virtues of floor malting. Thankfully there aren’t many of us who sit around and do that lest we mark ourselves as beer nerds who are sucking the fun out of the “manly” art of beer swilling.
There are elements of beer style that can confuse the average drinker due to lack of understanding of a foreign language, too. The Germans have 22 distinct styles of beer among the two families, for example. There are four variants of weizen, or wheat, beer alone: hefe, dunkel, kristal and weizenbock. Bock bier calls for its own guidebook so beer travelers don’t become lost. There are two main seasonal bock biers that may or may not represent an additional three styles of bock; regular, dopple (double) and eisbock (ice-concentrated).
There’s an adjective that makes its way between the two families and refers to appearance. “Helles” is German for “light, illuminated, pale and bright.” Primarily used to describe beer in the lager family, it’s where we’ll find the Jahrhundert-Bier from Ayinger Brewery in Bavaria. Helles lagers are more akin to traditional Czech pilsners in that they’re highly representative of the floral European noble hops and are fermented to display bright gold colors.
Beeradvocate.com incorrectly, in my opinion, calls Jahrhundert a Dortmunder style. I find it to be full-on Munich Helles… especially as Ayinger is located 25 km from Munich and hosts as much spicy hop quality as it does its gorgeous honeyed malts. Liquid 14karat gold beer props up a big frothy head with nice hop oil retention in the lacing. Very grassy and herbal hops present on the nose, probably Hallertau and Hersbrucker given the geographic location, with biscuity grain and some yeast. Highly drinkable flavors of apple and lemon weave around notes of honey and hay. Crisp as a fall day and incredibly drinkable, Jahrhundert makes being lost in translation a lot easier to swallow.