Tasting Notes with Jim Beauregard: There are ales, lagers, and now, Sam '76March 13. 2018 11:55PM
There are ales and there are lagers. A lot of that has to do with where the yeast does its work — on the top or the bottom.
Ales were originally made in England, and initially referred to just a few different types of beers. Our word ale comes from the old English word ealu, which I’m sure was much harder to say, but not as hard as the Danish and Saxon word for it, öl. It’s a much broader profile nowadays.
Technically, an ale is defined by the use of a top-fermenting yeast. It means that most of the fermentation work of the yeast, that of turning sugar to alcohol and bubbles, takes place at the top of the fermenting vessel.
In contrast to these top-fermenting ales, lagers use “bottom-fermenting” yeasts, which do their fermentation work — you guessed it — at the bottom of the fermenting vessel, typically a bit more slowly and at lower temperatures, say 45 to 55 degrees Fahrenheit.
Nowadays, however, it’s not such a neat and clean split between top and bottom. And then, there is the possibility of blending them together.
The word lager comes from the German lagern, a verb that means to store something. Lagers were typically not released immediately after fermentation, but matured for a while, anywhere from weeks to months.
If this doesn’t complicate things enough for you, the next thing to consider is the fact that hops were a relative latecomer to the world of beer — at least in England. While hops were around in England for centuries, it wasn’t until the 1500s that they began to be added to ales, much later than in other countries. In fact, the term “beer” came into use to describe the beer that included hops, rather than the traditional ale blend of water, malt and yeast. Efforts are made to suppress the use of hops use through fines, but, you know how that tends to turn out. England even had an occupation known as the “ale-conner,” whose job was to assess the quality of ales served in their particular region — 14th-century quality control, as it were.
Today’s history lesson leads us to a new brew from Boston Beer Co., makers of Samuel Adams. Sam ’76 is a new beer that unites these two beer making styles, lager and ale.
To create the beer, they first created a lager and an ale with their respective strains of yeast. The bears were combined when fermentation was nearing completion, and dry hopped to create flavor elements from both styles. The hops, if you want to know, are American Cascade, Citra, Mosaic and Simcoe. Sam ’76 weighs in at 4.7% alcohol by volume and is a lemon gold in the glass with a pure white head, frothy in nature. The nose is rich in hops with some strong herbal notes as well. The flavor profile is intense; hops dominate the flavors of citrus, orange peel, some hints of lime and grapefruit and herbal notes. For a light bodied beer, it is a remarkably long and intense finish.
The second release I want to introduce you to is Samuel Adams New England IPA, 6.8% alcohol by volume, 35 International Bitterness Units. This is also golden beer with a white head, definitely hoppy. This one is also a light-bodied beer, and in this case, it is grapefruit and pine and apple that come through on the palate, with a bit of lemon in the background as well as some pine. Long, sharp and pleasing finish, very bright. This one is currently available only on draft, but will be released in cans next month.
One last word about those quality-control ale-conners. For a moment I thought it might’ve been a great 14th-century job to wander from brewery to brewery tasting ales and giving them a thumbs-up or thumbs down.
However, my “Oxford Companion to Beer” disconcertingly informs me of the (possibly legendary) fact that ale-conners made the rounds in specially made leather pants. When assessing the quality of an ale, they would not only drink it, but pour some out on a wooden bench at the brewery and sit in it for about half an hour. When they arose, if the beer adhered to the bench and to the britches it was a sign of poor quality.
I think I’ll just stick to my current tasting practices.
Contact wine and beer writer Jim Beauregard at firstname.lastname@example.org