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A Beer Hug, Anyone?

Summary: For thousands of years now, beer has been a source of cheer for drinkers as well as brewers. A look at the oldest, yet most misunderstood, liquor in history.

A barrel of malt, a bushel of hops,

you stir it around with a stick,

The kind of lubrication to make your engine tick,

40 pints of wallop a day will keep away the quacks,

It's only eight pence ha-penny and one and six in tax...

- Old Irish folk song

While the whole world loves its beer enough to have written songs about it, nobody seems to know where it first came from. Some say it originated from a land that now sits in the geographical coordinates of Iran, others say Noah took a keg or two with him into the Ark, and - if you ask one of those jolly ol' fellows at some cozy Dublin pub - they would say it was the brainchild of a blessed man called Charlie Mopps (his name meant to rhyme with barley and hops, the main ingredients of beer).

Few - however - would dare contest the fact that the chilled glass of frothy gold in your hand ranks among the oldest beverages in the world. It was the preferred drink among the pilgrims on the Mayflower, and lack of beer was what made them get off at Plymouth Rock in 1620. It was the beverage that gave the Vikings the courage to battle, and the drink that doubled up as holy water for Franciscan Monks in the Middle Ages. Why, then, would one consider it a lowly cousin of whisky and wine in an otherwise haughty liquor family?

Those dealing in the beer business say that even if that has been the idea till now, it is one that's fast changing - especially among the youth. "Beer is a trendy drink to be seen with, especially when you are going out with friends or colleagues. Today, young urban consumers are open to experimenting with international brands, trying their hand at beer pairing, and consuming draught beers by the mugful - and this is what's adding the much-needed zing for making the shift," says Rahul Singh, the founder and CEO of Beer Cafe.

How is the concept of beer actually changing, you may ask. "Well, if you look at it," says Singh, "A few years ago, we could just rattle off four-five beer brands from memory. But now, you get to experience over 54 different brands of the beverage from places across the world. The beer's finally turning 'cool'!"

But Pradeep Gidwani, coach and co-founder of The Pint Room, says that beer has been getting the stepmotherly treatment in India. "In the developed world, beer accounts for anything between 60-80% of all alcohol volumes. However, in India, beer accounts for just around a third of all alcohol volume consumed. This is due to the high level of taxation on beer compared to spirits," he says.

Rohan Jelkie, a liquor expert with beverage education and training institute Tulleeho, says beer is a drink that's usually taken for granted, and not many are aware of its actual history or genealogy.

Recalling his early college days, he reminisces about a time when he and his friends would play truant to buy themselves a bottle of 'strong' beer. "Back then," he says, "I thought there were just two kinds of beer - 'light beer' (which has an alcohol content of around 4-5 per cent) and the ultra-Indian 'strong beer' (the alcohol of content of which could rise up to 8.5 per cent)."

Unfortunately, a beverage so ancient deserves more respect and, therefore, a better yardstick for classification. "The simplest way is to classify beers on the basis of how they are fermented - top and bottom," says Jelkie, "Beer that is made with a top-fermenting yeast, the kind that rises to the top of the brew during fermentation, is called ale. Lager, on the other hand, is made with a cold-fermenting yeast that sinks to the bottom of the brew during the fermentation process."

Though both contain the same ingredients, ale and lager can be as different as night from day. Ales are fruity, aromatic, robust-tasting, and quite capable of being complex on the taste buds. Lagers - on the other hand - are lighter, crisp, smooth and tend to have a more subtle taste. Also, while ales are supposed to be enjoyed warmer - between 7-12 degrees Celsius, lagers are ideally meant to be served at anywhere between 3-7 degrees Celsius. And then there's warm beer (usually found and served in England), served typically between 10-14 degrees Celsius and said to be particularly beneficial on cold London nights. But wait, didn't somebody say that beer was more of a summer drink, something you have to cool off on a hot July afternoon? "Not true," says Jelkie, "While light pilsner-styled lagers are meant for warmer conditions, there are specialty beers like Rochefort that are brewed for cold months. Full-bodied and flavoursome ales are appreciated in the winter too."

Although beer is said to be the third-most consumed drink in the world, after water and tea, there are many facts about the beverage that are still largely unknown. For example, few know that beer can be paired with different kinds of food, much like wine. Says the beer expert from Tulleeho, "While pairing, try following the 3 C's rule for eating - cut, complement and contrast. For greasy foods like a margherita pizza, you would need the crispness of a chilled lager to cut through the food. A good full-bodied ale, on the other hand, should do well for a flavour-rich BBQ meat dish. At times, a contrast-pairing might work wonders - say, by putting a sweet-and-aromatic Belgian wheat beer on the same table as some spicy Thai chicken satay!"

According to experts, you can use beer to add flavour - just like you would oregano or thyme. While bitter IPAs and sweet barley wines can be vital to any recipe, seasonal ingredients can be matched with seasonal beers. For example, dark and rich beers work perfectly with stews and braised meats. Also, it's preferable to start a meal with lighter beers and then move up to stronger, more complex beers. You may not have the stomach for a lot more if you kick off dinner with an imperial stout.

However, when it comes to comparisons with whiskies and wines, a drawback that beer does face is limitations on the investment front. While the former ripen with age, thereby making them more valuable as time goes by, beers - with rare exceptions such as the Chimay Grand Reserve - come with an expiry date. Investing in beer bottles or kegs, therefore, makes little sense for collectors.

It's a drawback Jelkie admits to, but that's not enough to make him lose all faith in his favourite drink. "Beer's still a good investment," he says, "Open a beer cafe and watch the people walk in!"

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Publication:Business Today More (New Delhi, India)
Date:Dec 15, 2013
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