A Beer Awakening...            

It is quite gratifying to see someone truly experience a finely brewed product and to realize that there is a whole world beyond the more popular and mainstream American pilsners. Styles of beer are at least as diverse, if not more so, than wine or any other fermented beverage.

In an informal study conducted over many years, I find that many of my non-beer drinking friends, who inevitably taste the diverse beers I am sampling, come across the occasional product that gives them pause. The most popular awakening beer is the ever popular pub standard Guinness. This "gateway beer" is a great product for the initial awakening, but it operates more as a rite of passage than a pathway to lifelong beer exploration. Beyond this rite of passage, there is a whole market to be had by intriguing the palates of non-beer drinkers in an attempt to coax them over to our side.

Beer is too often viewed in the tastes of non-beer drinkers as having an offensive flavor - rejected as harsh to taste, bitter in flavor. This can indeed be true of certain styles of beer. It is easy to see how some with genteel sensibilities might have adverse reactions to some of the more hoppy and bitter offerings, such as the India and American Pale Ales and bitters. The range of flavors in beer, however, does not begin and end with macro-brews or IPA's; beer has an explosive, and yet unmined, range of flavors to offer new consumers.

Beer is a neglected and often maligned distant cousin of wine in the family of fermented beverages. There is, of course, in this country and elsewhere, a sizable micro-brewing market, which seeks to right what famed beer writer Michael Jackson has referred to as an "injustice". One of the main tenets of this market is to educate the beer drinking public on the diverse styles of beer offered by a variety of different breweries.

Many people fail to try new beers, in part because they don't realize the products have flavors that may parallel those the drinkers otherwise enjoy. But this need not be the case. This category of drinkers can be captured in the beer market by matching their tastes with flavors that are found in different beer styles. "It is a discovery thing with our beers," notes Joe Lipa, the Head of East Coast Operations for importer Merchant Du Vin Corporation. "We serve a lot of it at beer and trade shows. It's either people who have never tried our products, or those who have tried it once and want to sample another," Lipa notes with some pride. "Eventually we have to shut people off or they will empty our kegs."

ON the SWEET SIDE In matching up various tastes, let's start with the market of drinkers who often enjoy sweeter products, such as hard ciders and lemonades. These products often include sweet, saccharine, sour, or tart flavor combinations. Similarly, these products often revolve around strong fruit flavors, including pear, apple, cranberry and raspberry. These flavors are found in a variety of beers, but can most reliably be matched up with the funky flavors of Belgian beers. Beers classified as Belgian in style are truly unique among fermented beverages. In many ways, Belgian beers defy definition. They are often referred to as a third branch in the traditional beer dichotomy of ales and lagers. More often than not, the Belgian beers are classified as ales, excepting lambics, which have a unique wild fermentation style. The Association of Brewers (AOB)beer style guidelines, which has been published as a reference guide for brewers since 1979, separates Belgian ales into two categories: Belgian-style ales and Belgian-style specialty ales.

Under the more general former style, the AOB includes Dubbels, a strong bodied, dark, and malty sweet flavored beer, and Tripel style ales, a sweet flavored beer with pale coloration and hints of fruit, including banana and cloves. The Belgian-style specialty ales include Wits (or White beers), Lambics, Gueuze, and Fruit Lambics. Belgian white ales are brewed with unmalted wheat and are often spiced with hints of coriander and citrus spice. Lambics have the unique distinction of being naturally fermented by wild yeast and other organisms and are brewed with unmalted wheat. The often cloudy beers are dry and light, giving off low levels of bitter hop flavor, and are often both tart and refreshing. Fruit lambics have most often been compared to hard ciders, sherry and Chardonnay wine. Though considered a sub-style of Belgian ales, lambics themselves have many sub-styles to offer a discerning public. The nearly extinct Faro lambics are sweetened with candy sugar. Gueuze lambics are a naturally fizzy blend of old and young lambic ales that creates a secondary fermentation period. With other types, fruits may be added to the base of young lambic ales, including cherries (Krieks), raspberries (Framboises) and peaches (Peche). The lambic fruit beers employ the method of directly adding fruit to the oak casks containing the well-aged lambic ale that forms the base of the beer. The yeast in the lambic ale reacts by attacking the sugars present in the fruit, creating a colorful and fruit flavored final product.

Outside of Brussels, Belgium, the Lindemans family brewery produces several popular lambics beers. According to Merchant Du Vin, Lindemans' American importer, Lindemans' offerings are this country's best selling and most widely honored lambic beers. In the beginning, these were considered "chick beers", notes Merchant Du Vin's Lipa. "They were sort of a woman's drink on the market." But not anymore. "They are seeping into all levels of drinkers, both men and women." To make the Lindemans Kriek, the brewers add fresh cherries to the oak casks, which balance the sourness of the beer. The low-alcohol (2.5% abv) Lindemans Framboise has a rosy-red color and a bouquet of fresh raspberries, mixed with other fruity flavors. Lindemans also produces a peach lambic, which has a dark-hued orange color and a fine balance of lambic tartness and citrus flavoring. "The success of this line has been phenomenal in the last three years," reports Lipa. He estimates annual growth at 35% over the last two years and expects similar results for the coming year.

Fruit flavored beers that use lambic ale as their bases are recommended to sweet-toothed drinkers. "When people tell us they don't like beer, we say "have we got a product for you," laughs Lipa, referring to his company's fruit flavored lambics. He notes that while a healthy portion of the lambic market is made up of "beer geeks", he also believes that a lot of cider drinkers are trying the product because of the parallel flavors. Lipa recalls a recent experience with a doctor in New York who, after tasting a Lindemans' lambic beer with his daughter, decided to offer it as an alternative to champagne at her wedding.

Lipa believes the Lindemans line is essentially an undiscovered product, but that word on the street is growing. The fruit-flavored lambics are beers that may be more palatable to novice beer drinkers. "It takes ten seconds to appreciate the taste of Lindemans," Lipa notes. "Some other trappist beers can take ten years to appreciate. Lindemans doesn't have that complex flavor profile that has to grow on you for a long time," Lipa continues. "People either like it or they don't."

There are several other producers of lambic styles that many non-beer drinkers may appreciate. Belle-Vue is one of the world's largest producers of lambic-style beers, and its Kriek, a cherry enhanced lambic, is less sweet than the beer's sweet amber color and foam might suggest. But make no mistake, the beer is still very sweet and tart, with a long-lingering flavor. Similarly, the Boon Kriek, offered by Vanberg and DeWulf, has a sweet cherry flavor, which is balanced by the sourness of the base lambic ale's acidity, while the Boon Framboise has a sharp raspberry flavor, which complements the lambic's tart quality. Boon also produces the tart and slightly sour Mariage Parfait, a brew that uses a blend of older and more mature lambics.

NON-LAMBIC FRUIT BEERS It is important to note that a beverage fermented from fruit is considered to be wine, while those fermented from grain with fruit adjuncts are beers. In recent years, a wide range of fruit beers have come and gone through the marketplace. These fruit beers include some hardy Belgian offerings, along with many well-made local products. Similarly, many fruit beers are made with fruit essence or fruit extracts, including blueberry, apricot, strawberry, pumpkin and honey. Not all fruit beers are lambics, though many lambics may be fruit flavored beers. The old Belgian Liefmans brewery uses a tart brown ale instead of lambic ale as the base for its popular fruit beers. The Liefmans Kriek has a sweet cherry bouquet, is maltier than one might expect from a kriek, and has a dry finish. The Liefmans Frambozen has an almost burgundy-brown color, with a pleasing combination of hop and raspberry flavors.

The impression should not be had that fruit beers are found exclusively in Belgium. American breweries have also produced an impressive and wide-ranging selection of fruit beers. One of the brightest examples of American fruit beers has to be the New Glarus Wisconsin Belgian Red, brewed by the New Glarus Brewing Company's husband and wife team of Deb and Dan Carey. This product, "the marriage of wine and beer", as the label puts it, has been ranked the top beer in America by the Beverage Tasting Institute (99 rating out of 100), and the brewery was named by the institute as one of the top 10 breweries in the world, and has received numerous other awards and accolades. Each 750ml bottle of the Cherry Red is brewed with over a pound of Montmorency cherries from nearby Door County, Wisconsin, aged for one year in the brewery, and is then aged again in oak casks. The nose is sweet and tart, with a sharp and highly carbonated cherry essence, which fills your tastebuds with flavor. New Glarus also produces Raspberry Tart, with its dark red color, spicy tart flavors and strongly carbonated raspberry flavor.

Many local producers have also joined the fruit beer movement. The Sea Dog Brewing Company's Blue Paw Wild Blueberry Wheat Ale is a pale beer whose signature characteristic is the flavor and essence of ripe Maine blueberries. To craft the beer, the brewers depart from the use of a traditional flavoring and aromatic hop agent in order to increase the blueberry flavor intensity. Sea Dog's head brewer, James Taylor, describes the Blue Paw as "a blueberry beverage in the shape of a beer." Taylor cites the importance of regional influence in the creation of many fruit beers. In crafting the Blue Paw product, the brewers use plenty of fresh Maine blueberries. The beer has a reduced sense of body, a neutral base and is a crisp representation of the wheat style.

Taylor notes the product is one of many the brewery uses to "wean" people into other micro-brews. The Blue Paw doesn't really compete against the other beers in Sea Dog's lineup, Taylor informs me. There is great fanfare before its release and people are always inquiring about it, Taylor says. "Anyone will drink one or two, but otherwise it's for people who are not really into the craft beer movement - people who wouldn't ordinarily try microbrewed beer." After a brief and considered pause, Taylor admits that the Blue Paw "is a bit of a 'chick beer', though he shudders at the un-PC statement. "It is a good beer for all people," he continues. "Especially for those who want a lighter summer beer."

The Blue Paw, not unlike many fruit beers, serves to both attract and repel some drinkers. Among the latter group is Sea Dog's brewer himself. "Some people find it too sweet," Taylor concedes. The brewer himself admits he can only drink a pint and a half before he calls it quits. The beer is a "terrible, sweet thing...that is fine for what it is," Taylor says.

FROM LIGHT to DARK On the other end of the taste spectrum, many non-beer drinkers may take interest in beers whose flavor is akin to those of coffee and chocolate. For most darker beers, chocolate or dark malt is kilned at higher temperatures than for pale beers. One of the most familiar dark beers is the Dry or Irish Stout. These beers have a dry, roasty and almost coffeelike malt character, in combination with caramel or sweet malt flavors. The Sweet or Cream Stout has an assertive malt sweetness, which parallels caramel flavors. These beers are often low in alcohol content, and their malt sweetness is dominated by the addition of lactose or milk sugar. The powerful and historically significant Imperial or Russian Stouts are almost opaque in coloration, and are packed with a strong malty flavor. The beer is full-bodied, to say the least, with an explosion of malt flavor that is rounded out with roasted, coffeelike hints. Imperial Stouts are so named as beers similar to this style were once exported to the royal court of Russia, and were enjoyed by the likes of Catherine the Great. Similar to the coffeelike flavors found in some stouts, the AOB has also noted the "hybrid or mixed category" style for chocolate or cocoa flavored beers. In addition to regular flavoring agents, these beers include chocolate essence. Brewers often underhop them to allow the chocolate flavor to contribute to the flavor profile without becoming excessively bitter.

A classic coffee and chocolate flavored beer, which is sure to grab the attention of even the most resolute anti-beer crusader, is the Brooklyn Brewery's Black Chocolate Stout. This incredibly strong and sweet beer is what the brewery calls its "most notorious beer". The Brooklyn Brewery, a classic craft brewery, has created a beer that "marries the best qualities of the Imperial and Foreign Style Stouts". Foreign Style Stouts have an initial malt sweetness and caramel flavor, with a distinctive dry-roasted bitterness in the finish.

One local brewing company has been very successful in tempting this roasted-flavor loving demographic. The Cambridge-based John Harvard's Brew House took home a gold medal from the annual Great American Beer Festival this year for its Cambridge Espresso Stout, along with its impressive award as Brewpub of the Year. The Espresso Stout, which is featured periodically throughout the year, is a sweet stout with a twist, according the John Harvard's head brewer Geoff DeBisshop. "I tinkered with lots of coffee stouts before settling on this one," he notes. "The sweetness balances with the acidity and intensity of the higher alcohol content. It gives the flavor of a chocolate covered espresso bean." The beer has coffee and chocolate tones, but is balanced by an unexpected sweetness, DeBisshop counsels. During the brewing process, the brewers blend in espresso to give the well-received product its final flavor. "This stout sells really well, better than our typical stouts," DeBisshop says. "It has an appeal to people who wouldn't otherwise drink a stout."

DeBisshop believes there is a small market of people who would try a coffee stout, but who otherwise wouldn't be interested in micro-brewed beer. "This is really a niche of a niche, so it is not a huge market," he offers. "But with a business like ours, we don't need to get a huge section of the population to be successful." The beers offered by John Harvard's do not have to be all things to all people," argues DeBisshop. "We can make beers that appeal to special segments of the drinking population." DeBisshop offers some insight on how to wean non-beer drinkers into trying his products. "We have to try and tune their brains to anticipate and enjoy new flavors and tastes," he says. "We can do this for coffee and bittersweet flavors for coffee drinkers - to get their minds off of the fact they are drinking beer." The stouts are very popular at John Harvard's, DeBisshop reports. "People who like intense chocolate flavors will like these beers."

In trying to promote its varying line of beers, John Harvard's staff is encouraged to offer samples of some of the more interesting products to customers who might not otherwise try some of the beers. With respect to the Espresso Stout, "we get a lot of interesting reactions," says DeBisshop. "People find it has a somewhat unexpected taste, not like a beer." At the recent Great American Beer Festival, DeBisshop suggested that samplers "use the -Espresso Stout- as a substitute for breakfast."

There are other local breweries that produce a range of coffee and chocolate infused stouts. One impressive product is Red Hook's Double Black Stout. This beer, found in oversized bottles, is a dark, rich ale flavored with Starbucks coffee. The aftertaste is slightly bitter, noticeably infused with an deep espresso flavor. In central Massachusetts, the Z Street Brewing Company distributes the Z Street Mocha Java Stout. The brewer at Z Street, a man intriguingly known as Joe Z, created the Mocha Java Stout from an oatmeal stout recipe. During the brewing process, the brewer adds several gallons of regular coffee to the mix. To round out the taste with a little sweetness, Joe adds a few dashes of cocoa. This leaves the beer with a present, but not overwhelming, coffee flavor. Joe Z describes the beer as having a distinct roastiness, with the coffee flavor evident up front. The beer is full-bodied, as both wheat and oatmeal are used in the brewing process. The beer has a thick, mocha colored head, and finishes with a distinct cocoa flavor. "Micro drinkers like it as do people who are looking for something different," says Joe Z. Noting that there is a glut of microbrews available, he adds that in this industry, "it's important to be a little different."

Joe Z has been distributing the beers to several local liquor stores for tastings. The most effective approach to enticing non-beer drinkers to try his product is the direct one. "When I describe the beer to people who don't like beer, they often want to try it," says Joe Z. For Valentines Day, Joe Z and Austin Liquors, in Shrewsbury, teamed up for a chocolate and beer tasting, which featured the Mocha Java Stout.

Non-beer drinkers need to be told that not all beer is bitter or sharp flavored. In enticing the non-beer drinker into trying a possibly appealing style of beer, brewers and marketers alike can attempt to match the non-beer drinkers preferred flavors with those found in interesting beers. John Harvard's DeBisshop notes that people enjoy beers they find to be inoffensive to their palates. Along these lines, pubs such as John Harvard's have found some success in trying to match the flavors people enjoy, such as coffee and chocolate, with the flavors found in their beers.

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Article appeared in the April 2001 issue of Beverage Magazine. For information on reprinting any of the above articles, please contact Andy Crouch.

All materials, content, and articles remain under copyright held by Andy Crouch.  2002-2006 © Andy Crouch.