Exploring Beer: History and How to Use It in Your Cooking
Once Upon a Time
There was a field of grain.
The grain was reaped, ground, and mixed with water to form cakes, the progenitor of what we know as bread. There have been many iterations and innovations between those first rough cakes and what ultimately became the staff of life, but none more important than natural leavening. The discovery of yeast, that miracle microscopic bit of airborne life, was captured and put to use centuries before it could be seen or understood—a milestone in the history of bread.
There is another product, built also of grain and yeast, that has been consumed and refined for probably as long at bread—beer.
Grain and bread and yeast and fermented beverages are by nature and history intertwined, but no food historian can establish with even a smidgeon of precision when this marriage of ingredients began. However, fermentation takes time, and so the dawn of leavened bread and yeasty brews probably did not occur until nomadic people became an organized, agrarian society.
Why beer is better than wine: "....human feet are conspicuously absent from beer making.— Steve Mirsky, Scientific American (May, 2007)
Was Mesopotamia the First Brew Pub?
The fertile plains of Assyria and Babylonia are bisected by the Zagros Mountains. The landscape here is harsh and brutal; swift-moving rivers scour the earth creating deep canyons and exposing the sedimentary layers that mark the passage of eons. The Great Khorasan Road permits passage through the Zagros, one of several routes known as the Silk Route. An important stop along the way was Godin Tepe, a Sumerian village and fortress.
In 1961, archeologists from the Museum of the University of Pennsylvania conducted large-scale excavations of the area, exposing courtyards, a gatehouse, storage rooms, and fortification walls. The work exposed relics from the period 3500 to 3100 B.C. and revealed writing tablets, pottery, bevel-rimmed bowls, and clay jars where barley had been fermented; perhaps this was the advent of beer making.
By the third millennium BC, Mesopotamia was already well versed in beer-brewing and old Sumerian texts mention eight barley beers, eight emmer beers, and three mixed beers. Aromatic plants were added to the beer to improve the flavor and to assist in its preservation, and extra honey, cereals, and malt gave varying added strengths. “Food in Antiquity” (p. 166-167).
Some of the oldest known writings speak of the production of beer. The Hymn to Ninkasi (the Sumerian goddess of beer) was written around 1800 B.C. and serves not only as a song of praise but also as a recipe so that future generations will not forget the important steps in brewing. Here are excerpts from the Hymn:
The Components of Beer
In 7,000+ years, the basic beer recipe has not changed. Just four ingredients are needed to make it—grain, water, a flavoring/preservative, and yeast.
- Malt: Grain is a seed. Barley is most common in beer production today, but corn, rice, and other cereals have been used as well. The grain is soaked in hot water to release the carbohydrates (natural sugars). It is those sugars that will ultimately feed the yeast and make alcohol, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves. The soaked grain is separated from the sugar-laden liquid. That liquid is the malt; the technical name is wort (pronounced “wert”). The wort is boiled to sterilize it.
- Water: Beer is about 90 percent water, pure water. But as you know, not all waters taste the same. Naturally occurring minerals alter the flavor of local brews.
- Hops: Hops are the flavoring/preservative in modern beer. They provide the bitter, citric tang that contrasts with the sweet flavor of the grain-malt. Hops can be added at the start of the boiling, near the end, or any time in between. The brewmaster knows that the timing (when the hops are added) will affect the ultimate taste of the beer.
- Yeast: Yeast is a microorganism, a naturally occurring airborne cell which, when added to the wort, converts the sugar into alcohol.
Types of Beer
There are two types of beer—lagers and ales. Lagers use yeast that settles at the bottom; their fermentation process is slower, longer, and takes place under cool temperatures. They typically have a light, malty taste and are the “gateway” beer for newcomers. Ales are the beers of antiquity and are created with yeasts that ferment at warm temperatures; they settle at the top.
Within those two classifications, there are endless varieties.
Types of Beer (Not a Comprehensive List)
- Belgian Styles: Belgian beers have such a wide spectrum of flavors it is difficult/near impossible to identify them in 25 words or less. They can be pale and light, mid-range fruity, sour, or dark. In general, they have a high alcohol content and low bitterness.
- Brown Ales: The brown ales we enjoy today are nothing like those created in England in the 19th century. Olde time English browns are sturdy and dark like a porter or stout. The 21st century Americanized brown ale is mild and malty and slightly hoppy.
- Doppelbock: Doppel means double and this brew is definitely double. Originally made by Munich monks, it is rich and extra strong with a malty sweetness and a hint of hops for balance. Alcohol levels are high.
- India Pale Ales: IPA’s have a pronounced hops flavor; many are grapefruit-like while others are more bitter. In general, New England IPA’s are fruity, British IPA’s are malty and bitter, and those from the West Coast fall somewhere in the middle.
- Lambic: The lambic is a Belgian beer fermented with wild yeasts.
- Oatmeal Stout: If your tastes lean toward creamy, rich, dark beers, the oatmeal stout might be for you. This is a full-bodied beer, dark brown to almost black in color, chocolate-like, and smooth.
- Pale Ales: This type of beer has a mild to medium hops flavor but tends to be lower in alcohol content.
- Pilsners and Pale Lagers: These central-European beers are pale with a crisp flavor. Pilsners are fuller, more aromatic, and spoil easier than some other types of beers.
- Porters: These originated in the United Kingdom; they are dark like stouts and similar in taste to an American porter.
- Russian Imperial Stout: Despite the name, most RIS’s are brewed in the United States. Russian stout is dark and hoppy with flavors of dark chocolate, coffee, fruit, and a decidedly rich mouthfeel. The alcohol level is high—7 to 12 percent.
- Stouts: Dark and syrupy, English and Irish stouts are sweet (Guinness for example) with coffee undertones. American-brewed stouts tend to have a more bitter flavor and can be reminiscent of dark chocolate.
- Wheat and Hefeweizen Beers: As the name implies, wheat beers rely on wheat, not barley, for their malt. They are light in color and alcohol.
- Wild/Sour Beers: These are puckery with fruit undertones such as peach, cherry, or raspberry.
Guinness Beef Stew with Cheddar Herb Dumplings
Morgan, food creator/photographer of Host the Toast, the Kitchen Kaper Blog lives in the mid-Atlantic states where winters can be brutal. In 2014, her little corner of the world experienced what has been coined a snowpocalypse—a snow event of apocalyptic proportions. That storm was the inspiration for Morgan's almost world-famous Guinness Beef Stew.
The meat is incredibly tender, the vegetables deeply flavored, and the gravy rich and savory. Herby cheddar dumplings simmer atop the finished stew to make a satisfying one-bowl meal.
Pan-Fried Beer and Onion Bratwurst
Many of my friends are from the state of Wisconsin, the bratwurst capital of the world. I could not provide beer-based recipes without including a nod to brats simmered in beer (which is, I believe, is the unofficial No. 1 beverage of Wisconsin).
This dish isn't a hasty, cook-at-the-last-minute process. An initial sear in butter (put away the vegetable oil) creates an umami-rich exterior that snaps with the first bite. After that sear, cover the pan so that valuable moisture isn't lost. When the sausages are cooked through, the real fun begins. Sliced onions add sweetness and beer (a dark malty Belgium please) allows them to reduce and caramelize.
Classic Welsh Rarebit
Cheese and toast is a simple, warm, and comforting peasant food. It's a humble meal when the weather outside is frightful. Only one thing can make it better—add beer to that melted cheese to create a rich gooey sauce flavored with malt, mustard, and hops. And don't worry, it's classic Welsh rarebit, not rabbit. No bunnies were harmed in the making of this food.
Spicy White Cheddar Beer Cheese Soup
When Sara lived in Chicago, she worked at a restaurant. As you know, one of the perks of working in the food industry is that you get a free meal—that's the good news. The bad news is that after a few days or weeks, the menu becomes a bit monotonous. However, where Sara worked the chef created a "soup of the day," and she knew it would always be something original, flavorful, and innovative.
This spicy beer cheese soup was her favorite and, after much pleading and cajoling, he gave the recipe to her.
Fudgy Beer Brownies
At first glance beer and chocolate might seem an odd-couple pairing, but I'm not proposing the use of a hoppy IPA or Belgium ale. Instead, let's focus on the attributes of a porter or stout—dark and rich, with caramel-like, smokey black coffee espresso flavors. Aren't those the same qualities in bold, cacao-rich chocolate?
Megan uses a traditional fudgy brownie recipe and replaces the butter with a flavorful bourbon-barrel-aged beer.
© 2020 Linda Lum