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Petaluma brewers in movement toward malt

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For over a decade, hoppy IPAs have monopolized the tap handles at bars and restaurants. However, a huge portion of the beer drinking population yearns for something more crisp and smooth.

We are already seeing a slow but steady move by microbrewers to balance out their offerings with more malty beers. For those that do not enjoy over-hopped IPAs, there finally appears to be some malty foam on the horizon.

Beer consists of four basic ingredients: water, malted grain, hops and yeast, each with its own effect on the flavor of the beer. Most styles achieve a balance between the malt, which is generally on the sweet side, and the hops, which adds the bitter flavor.

Hops developed and grown in the U.S. are generally a bit wilder and explosive than those used in the Europe.

Ales vs. lagers

Beer is basically split into two categories — Ales and Lagers. Ales are characterized as robust and hearty beers and include stout, porter, wheat, amber, pale ales, and IPA’s. The majority of beers found at microbreweries over the past couple decades have been ales, although there has been a recent shift towards the more malty beers, which usually fall into the Lager category.

Lagers are characterized as smooth, elegant, crisp and clean and include styles such as Märzen/Oktoberfest, Dopplebock, Kölsch, Helles and Czech Pilsners.

The IPA craze

Technically known as India Pale Ales, this style originated in Great Britain in the late 1700s when Pale Ales became a popular export to India. The European versions are markedly less bitter than our American version, especially those originating on the West Coast. They are so different that they are actually judged in a different category at official beer competitions.

While I will order a Lagunitas IPA from time to time, I usually find West Coast IPAs to be too harsh, leaving me feeling as if I just ate a pine cone. There is a whole world of beer styles out there that are well balanced and never leave your mouth feeling dank or skunky. In fact, the majority of officially recognized beer styles lean away from the bitterness offered by IPAs.

To assist drinkers assess the potential bitterness, beers are measured for their International Bitterness Unit, or IBU. But because IBUs are hard to measure, the number listed is simply a mathematical calculation, though it still stands as a good guideline. Not surprisingly, IPAs are at the bitter end of the IBU scale. And unfortunately, many brewers get so caught up in the actual number, catering to hopheads that simply want to drink a beer with the highest bitterness levels, that they often ignore the other flavors a brewer should be concerned with.

Interestingly, our taste buds have a hard time discerning additional bitterness over roughly 100 IBUs, so many of the over-hopped beers are simply wasting time. This means that a beer with a listed IBU of 200, which by the way is quite rare, will not taste twice as bitter as one with 100 IBUs. In fact, during a recent visit to the heavy hopped Revision Brewery in Sparks, Nevada, the latest generation of the highly hopped Knee Deep Brewery, we found that once the bitterness passed about 60-70 IBUs, we noticed little difference in bitterness. We were surprised that even their 133 IBU monster, dubbed Dr. Lupulin, was not all that different from the rest.

The bitterness of highly hopped beers can also be an impediment to food pairs, as those beers can easily overpower the more delicate flavors found in cuisine.

Education enhances the experience

A great start to your beer education is simply browsing the Beer Judging Certification Program’s Style Guideline. Along with a description of the aroma, appearance, mouth feel, and flavor, each beer style includes a history of the beer, its vital stats, and a list of commercially available beers that stand as the best example for that style.

Attending beer competitions is also a great way to learn about beer and eventually you may even want to help the BJCP as a beer steward, prior to possibly taking the test and getting qualified as a judge. This gives you the opportunity to sit with, and taste alongside judges, in order to develop a better understanding of beer.

Sonoma State University also offers a Craft Beer Appreciation Certificate program, which will start up again in Fall 2018. The program is split into two modules, each consisting five evening classes, spread over five weeks. Program Coordinator, beer judge, and host of KSRO’s “Brew Ha Ha” weekly beer show, Herlinda Heras brings in industry professionals to help walk students through all aspects of beer, from the brewing process to the business of beer, including state and local laws.

The first module covers the brewing process, the history of beer, and pairing food and cooking with beer. The second module covers the business of beer, “from ground to glass,” including brewery regulations, distribution and what judges are looking for when judging beers.

Visiting multi-taps, like TAPS, Brewsters, the Block — Petaluma, and Jamison’s Roaring Donkey, especially on specialty beer nights, will help with this education. Additionally, Crocodile Restaurant in Theater Square has a huge selection of unique beers in the bottle, and usually has hard to come by beers on tap, both from local and foreign breweries. And visiting breweries that push the envelope, like HenHouse, will help expand your knowledge.

Lastly, a great way to get hands-on experience is to hold or participate in informal beer tasting. The social aspect of sharing knowledge with other beer fans complements the experience. A new Facebook group, Petaluma Beer Club, offers a venue for Petaluma beer fans to share with one another.

Once I started to gain a better understanding of all the various beer styles, I found that I began to enjoy beer a lot more. This also greatly enhances my ability to pair food and beer, which I find to have a lot more diversity compared with pairing wines. Where as the choices used to be limited, now I strive to try as many styles as I can, and have an appreciation for what each brings to the table.