Sometimes I feel like Frodo Baggins. Frodo was on a mission of good versus evil, light versus dark. The battle of light versus dark is also my great conquest. The wee hobbit was on a treacherous journey through the depths of Moria and over the Frosted Flake Mountains. I am on a desperately tiresome journey myself that has led me to underground bars with confederate flags and all-you-can-eat rib buffets to skyscraping clubs wall to wall with Paris Hilton and Vin Diesel impersonators trying to fight and sex each other. Frodo was taking the one Ring of Power to hurl it into the depths of Mount Doom, thus ending the reign of the evil Lord Sauron. I am trying to take the beer culture of our country and flip it like a lead pancake on a magnetic stovetop with a KFC spork. However, as focused as Frodo is on his quest, the lure of the ring’s power often throws him off on some faux British-accented, self-loving rant. And just like the ring’s power makes Frodo want to forget it all, when I hear someone say “Is that beer light or dark?” it makes me want to live in a box on the street in New Orleans and drink Peppermint Schnapps the rest of my days. Sometimes I feel just like Frodo Baggins … except I don’t have hairy feet or a strange uberfriend bond with anybody named Samwise. But you get the point, right?! OK, the Middle Earthish stuff ends here!
If you read the last article (it provides a framework for this one), you know that there is an end goal here. But that question “Is that beer light or dark?” I hear all the time … like, all the time. And I used to ask it myself. Well, babies fall on their faces before they walk. And beer drinkers must start somewhere, too. So here’s where we are starting today: When you ask that light or dark question, What do you think you mean? Do you want to know if it tastes light or dark? As if! Do you want to know if the color is light or dark? Do you want to know if there are a lot of calories? Do you believe yourself to be referring to ales and lagers? The frustration on this comes from the injustice of the question. Color and flavor and calories don’t mean the same thing at all. So let’s break it down like Marvin Gaye — can I get a witness?!
Let’s say you’re in a band, a garage rock band to be exact. Your influences are The Oblivians and early records by The Kinks. You tell a man that claims to “love” music that you are in a band and he asks you “Is it heavy metal or folk?” Laughing at what you are sure was a sarcastic question, you tell him you are in a garage rock band. He looks at you confusedly and says “Is it more heavy metal … or more folk?” “The Modern Lovers, The Kingsmen, The Black Keys, The White Stripes, Nirvana? Have you heard of them?” The bands ring a bell, but he’s never really given them a try because all he really knows and likes is folk music. Everything else is heavy metal.
Of course music can be heavy metal or folk, but those two extremes don’t come close to encompassing all that music can be. Music can be electronic and dancy, full of soul and blues, there’s acid rock and psychedelic, blues and soul and country and on and on. To simplify your descriptions of music to heavy metal and folk would discount the greats that lie in between — like the Beatles and the Velvet Underground, David Bowie and Otis Redding, Right Said Fred and countless others. Sure James Taylor is good, but there’s more to life, people!
This music analogy works well for our first category: flavor. As innocent bystanders lost in beer propaganda, the majority of we United Statesians have been misinformed about what a “real beer” is. Beer was made for thousands of years, full of flavor generally based on that region’s materials and its water. This vibrant culture and history, along with good-tasting beer, was lost in post-prohibition America because of macrobreweries, mass production and the economies of scale available in macrobreweries to pair homogenized palates and enormous profit. The end result is generations of people believing beer should taste like nothing.
Just as the misguided music lover is missing out on the universally confirmed greats of music, so have many “beer lovers” missed out. Common folk probably associate the taste of “light beer” with watered down, hopless American lagers. Their sole example of “dark beer” is probably a certain mass-produced stout that only casually hints at what great flavors those styles can have. The absence of discovery from many consumers excludes so much! Lambics are vinous, carbonated and tart. Thirst-quenching wheat beers are generally unfiltered and often have a clove spiciness and bananalike taste from yeast. Citric fruitiness and a blast of floral aromas accompany most pale ales and IPAs. Roasted malts highlight stouts and porters, more than enough to satisfy coffee lovers. And folks, we’re just getting started! Beer can be chocolatey, malty, sweet, fruity … and on and on. If Emeril Lagasse was writing this article, he would tell you “Wham! Kick it up a notch! Put some flavor in your beer life!”
Some of you South Beach dieters and cage fighters are probably referring to calories when you ask if a beer is light or dark. Beer is a natural product. In fact, the chemicals used when growing the ingredients are usually the only thing keeping it from being organic. Now if you drink a lot of beer a lot of the time, you will of course look like Homer Simpson. But if you practice a healthy enjoyment of beer, eating a bacon and counterfeit egg sandwich placed between syrup-injected pancakes for breakfast is a bigger problem. Seriously, we are 13th on the list of per-capita beer drinking countries, and are easily the most obese nation in the world. Germans and Irish routinely pound “dark” and “heavy” beers like Joe College does Schwag Lite, yet they remain in better shape because they walk places and don’t eat pre-hibernation portions at every meal. When it comes to calories, as long as you are not a drunk, I suggest your eating habits and exercise are a greater concern than what kind of beer you are drinking.
The color of beer is almost solely based on the malts used in brewing and is not a direct link to calories. Many beers that are dark in color are actually low in calories and are an easy, non-filling drink. I think people believe dark beers are more filling because of the advertising messages we have received about “less filling” beers. From commercial breaks back to the time of Sesame Street, we have subconsciously drunk the Kool Aid of the big boys, and believe we are fuller from a beer that is darker. The color of a beer does reveal clues to flavor and body, but calories are more dependent on the percentage of raw materials used in brewing each batch.
The great beer journalist Michael Jackson once joked you wouldn’t sit down at a restaurant and just order “a plate of food, please.” And people do not ask simply for “a glass of wine.” But “these same discerning folk often ask for ‘a beer,’ or brand, without thinking about its suitability for the mood or moment.” The minimalist advice from my beer-brewing brother when I was starting this journey was “If you haven’t had it before … try it.” You’ll come across some good and bad. You’ll go on kicks and form opinions so strong you would punch a nun in the face over it. You’ll think you really like a beer and then discover it was made by one of our country’s macrobreweries trying to cut in on craft beer and then denounce knowing it like Peter did Jesus. But if you do take that advice and step forward with courage — away from the 3 or 4 beers you’ve been sticking to since the night of junior prom — at least you’ll be able to have your own opinion. And maybe you can be my Samwise Gamgee … JUST DON’T ASK ME IF A BEER IS LIGHT OR DARK!
Kellan Bartosch is an optimist in pessimist clothes in beer sales in Las Vegas, Nev.