DRAFT PICKS: Beer matures into an array of tastes

It’s interesting.

For years — lots of years — wine aficionados have had a certain “shine” about them, while in many, if not most circles, there is still a defined “tarnish” to drinking beer.

Wine drinking was, and to a degree, still is First Class.

Beer drinking was, and largely remains, Steerage.

Well, I admit it, I’d rather spend time with the folks below decks than with those up on the promenade.

Thank goodness, times are changing.

More and more people are understanding there is something more to beer drinking than just ... skunky beer.

This “revelation” has come about thanks to the explosion of craft beer brewers and microbreweries around the country.

They have not only been turning out some real quality product over the past decade (and then some), but they also have forced “corporate” to rethink their output.

The new brewmasters are artists and art teachers — they are teaching people that drinking beer involves more than just being some slob in a wife-beater T-shirt sitting on the stoop and knocking back cheap swill.

You actually can be civilized and enjoy a good brew.

A little while back, I visited the state of Montana to attend my son’s graduation in Missoula.

Montana has an incredible number of breweries turning out some stunning examples of lagers, ales and more.

Really, REALLY good stuff.

While in Missoula, we attended an outdoor “happening” in the middle of town — a kind of art fair. A huge crowd of very nice people gathered and enjoyed an evening of music and socializing alongside the Clark Fork River.

Very cool.

And ... the Big Sky Brewing Company had a tap wagon on site serving up draught versions of four or five different brews.

To be sure, there were some wine drinkers around, but there were many more beer drinkers standing in groups and comparing notes on the latest batch of Moose Drool and Trout Slayer (both of which can be purchased locally).

Nobody, but nobody, was drunk or stupid.

It was all legal, all civilized, and all very ... adult.

Folks in Missoula like their beer, and treat both the brew and the people around them with respect.

(Note to municipal fathers around the area: Beer doesn’t make people stupid. Stupid makes people stupid.)

If you ever get a chance to visit Montana, don’t miss the opportunity to taste an exceptional ale cooked up by the Kettle House Brewing Company — Cold Smoke. This inspiring brew will change everything you may think about darker ales but is only available in Montana (I asked).

But back to point ...

Beer is all about flavor.

With a subtle shift of just a few ingredients, there can be an amazing range of taste and aroma in beer and ales.

Those readers following this column will recall that last week we talked about hops.

This week, let’s review Malt 101 — just the brass tacks.

Malt is a basic ingredient in brewing, (and in making Whoppers!)

In very general terms, malt comes into being as the result of malting different cereal grains.

The grains are first germinated by soaking them in water. Then, just before the process is completed, these grains are force dried (today with blowers blasting them with hot air).

Malting grains changes the chemical structure of sugars and starches, and makes everything more accommodating to the yeasts used in a brewing process.

Malted grains are used in brewing beer — both lagers and ales. They are also used in distilling whiskey (hence the terms “single malt” or “double malt”).

Some malts are used in baking, but not too often and not in things usually marketed in grocery stores.

Barley is the cereal grain most often used in malting for fermented beverages like beer.

Malts give beer (usually the ales) very distinct tastes and aroma.

When we talk about beers being “malty” the sweet, grain-ish, sometimes even bread-like tastes are very much “in your face.”

When dark beer and ale lovers speak of beer having a caramel flavor (or chocolate, or coffee) this is not because some syrupy ingredient has been added, (usually), but rather is the result of special malts being specifically treated to bring out the sweet, often starchy hints.

Malts add color and substance to brews.

When experienced drinkers talk about the “body” of a beer, they are most often referring to the “muscle” that is added by malts.

Just as “hoppy” beers have their fans, so too do “malty” beers — especially among those who lean toward a sweeter lager or darker ale.

Good malts in judicious measure can give beer and ale a creamy quality.

A good example of this (very reasonably priced, on shelves everywhere) is the Leinenkugel Creamy Dark — a dark lager or dunkel.

Some people lean toward hops, other prefer the influence of malts.

Beer has both. It’s all a matter of degree.

Following are a couple of brews I hadn’t tasted previously.

Both were purchased at Shakers in Reed City. They also are on shelves and in coolers throughout the area.

Cabin Fever Brown Ale

New Holland Brewing Company


Pouring a glass of Cabin Fever, one is rewarded with a very, VERY deep red glass of ale, so dark it is almost black.

The head is creamy and fluffy, rich and long-lasting.

Cabin Fever has a dignified “nose,” rich in malt. It is easy to smell reminders of a roasting process. There is no yeasty background.

A deep whiff of Cabin Fever holds everything a serious ale should be putting out there. It is subtle yet sensual; quiet but strong.

The scent carries comfortably over to the palette. A good sip leaps into the mouth with a strong expression of malts holding a serious caramel kick.

The flavor is intense. It announces itself well with the first drink and settles in for a pleasant visit.

There are other tastes hiding in Cabin Fever. It keeps you guessing grainy, malty, definitely caramelly and maybe a hint of coffee.

The rich taste lingers … almost creamy.

Cabin Fever isn’t feverish or aggressive, but it sure offers a warm trip around the mouth.

Look, I’ve already used the word “creamy” a couple times.

Let me suggest this brown ale is velvety — a great drink to sip in front of the fireplace.

I’d suggest a crusty, heavily grained roll with thick sliced cured meats as a great accompaniment to this brew.

It was highly appreciated by a fan of the more subtle, musky ales ... me!

Crooked Tree IPA

Dark Horse Brewing Company


This was interesting.

Crooked Tree pours a thick, hazy amber. Like dull gold.

It offered a firm head that held well — off-white, bordering on a beige in color.

The IPA was dull, almost turbid, with a heavy and persistent bubbling.

There was little malt or yeast scent, but this IPA cried out with hoppiness. There also were hints of something else — a certain fruitiness with a traces of something similar to mango or maybe plum. There is ... something there. Not a bad something. Rather inviting.

This trace fruitiness introduces itself before the first burst of hops hits. And when the hops hit, they do so with vigor. Crooked Tree is quite sweet despite what some might think is a hoppy bite.

There is an intensity that sneaks up on you, and then leaves a pronounced scent and a lingering taste of hops typical to hearty IPAs.

The taste rolls around before becoming quickly assertive.

Crooked Tree is a little shy at the start, but then becomes openly bold before you’ve emptied your glass.

Crooked Tree was a surprise in many ways. It is certainly easily identifiable as an IPA, but it also is more demonstrative than many.

This is a comfortable glass of pale ale — even for those who may not be big fans of hoppier brews.

I’d suggest this might go well with a fish dinner (not fish and chips) or complement a plate of more pungent cheeses.