BeerScattergories: Light vs. Dark


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Light Dark Beer
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!” 

11/30/2010 1:32:44 PM

Hops are certainly important in adding bitterness, flavor & aroma to beer but that is not the subject at hand for this article. Different varieties and quantities of hops (a cone like flower cluster) impart different floral, tangy and spicy notes as compliments or contrasts to malt characteristics depending on the style and the brewers desired outcome. Maybe the subject of a future entry for me, but it was not a focal point of this article. My articles have been more of an address to American beer culture and less about the science of brewing. There are plenty other resources and articles on hops if a reader wishes to know more. Also, Ben Franklin preferred wine to beer and that quote is commonly attributed to him improperly:

Charles J_3
11/22/2010 2:24:46 AM

Please please please! I am shocked, well calmly amazed that an article on beer barely mentions the much overlooked and underrated hop. Yes Hops my friends, hops are what gives beer that which you can not find in wine nor the harder alcoholic beverage. Hops give you that mellow, that tingle, that buzz in your legs that you don't feel in the yellow mass produced muck. I won't tell you how because I once promoted a certain tea which when demand skyrocketed so did the price. (Don't you dare do the same to hops.) So I will leave it up to you to research what makes hops so wonderful. It is so important the quality and just the right quantity of the hops that are added to the beer. This ancient antiseptic, that prevented beer all over the world from going bad. This ingredient that helps makes beer more than the ordinary beverage that drove Ben Franklin to exclaim, "Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy!"

11/18/2010 6:23:12 PM

I applaud you, The selection of beer based on "light or dark" is utter nonsense. Back in my young single days my room mates and I would each pick up a six-pack each week of mixed beer (in our area you could mix n match at certain places) then we would roll dice to determine the beer you got. This led to many great beverages and almost as many unpleasent ones. It took us quite some time to go through all the brands available throughout the world that we could get our hands on. We kept all the empties and shelved them till we ran out of wall space. It was really an eye opener to the great variety of this wonderful libation. Now in my 40's I have started making beer from almost anything that ferments, this seems to be more popular in Europe but I hope someday it catches on here. It would be interesting to go into a bar and order a dandilion and burdock beer or even a citrus mead.

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