Beer Up, Pinkies Out
We gettin’ fancy all up in here. While Cybernetic Organism has been kind enough to us humans to give us the rundown on a couple different beer bars of note, let us take a few minutes to dive in and explore what the world of beer has to offer, along with some appropriate beer-metal pairings.
Like the world of metal, the world of beer (actually a place/10, would drink beer at again) is an endless vortex of variety and choices. Some are good, some are great, some are please, please make it stop. Breaking into unknown territory can be daunting, especially when you’ve got an impatient or unhelpful bartender and you’re nervous about asking how to pronounce saison, or what the WTF is a saison. So let’s break down some of the larger beer categories. Then we’ll whittle those down a little more, talk specific beers to check out, and some metal bands that somehow taste like that.
As a brief primer to better understanding beer, it can be helpful to know the main ingredients: grain, hops, yeast, and water. The most commonly used grain is barley, and “adjunct” grains are often added tandem such as wheat, corn, rice, or rye. Hops are a type of flower that are used in brewing to add flavor and aroma, and they most commonly impart a bitter taste (more on that later). Yeast steers these two ingredients, aiding in the fermentation to produce certain flavors, aromas, and most importantly(ish), alchohol. If I need to explain the last ingredient, we’ll have a different conversation later.
If you’re a bro, you know a bro, or at one point have been affected by a bro, I want you to know that it’s not your fault, and there is help. This is the beer of choice for frat parties and sports, and the “lite” variety has become synonymous with the large-scale American beer industry. This particular beer uses a higher percentage of adjuncts in the brewing, the big corporations (Anheuser Busch, Coors, etc.) favoring a majority of corn over barley in the brewing. The flavor you get is light, crisp, thirst-quenching, and easy. There is little to no malt heaviness or hop bitterness, which makes it easy to see why it appeals to a very wide consumer base. The more traditional lagers will feature a slightly more prominent malt base, meaning the brewing used more barley than corn/rice/other adjunct, but the goal here is still to make a light, easy drinking beer. Pilsner beers are a variety on this style that originated in the town of Pilsen, Czech Republic, and will lean toward a quality, traditional lager. Overall, expect a lower percentage of alcohol by volume, or ABV (3.2-6%, rarely 6%).
Specifics: We can ditch the cheap stuff without getting too fancy here. Pilsner Urquell is the original pilsner beer, straight out of the namesake town. It’s available in most states and countries, and is a great choice in the lager realm. A little more centrally located, Boulevard Brewing out of Kansas City, MO puts out an imperial (read: beefed up and better) pilsner called Reverb. Get it. Avoid anything with the word “lite” and raise a glass to quality.
Metal Pairing: Easy to consume, sometimes-good-sometimes-bad, and appeals to a wide consumer base. This one is easy, but let’s at least match the traditional lager style with some traditional Metallica. This classic album goes down easy, but still makes for a good time. Lift up a quality lager, gentlemen, and ride the lightning.
Well, this is a tough one to tackle. The categories that follow are technically all within the “ale” realm, so it’s hard to pinpoint exactly where an ale ends and another distinction begins. To make things a little easier, let’s just zero in on a general range of American amber ales to English brown ales. These are solid, dependable, middle-of-the-road barley meets middle-of-the-road hops meets let’s-do-this yeast which gives you beer that isn’t too much of anything. That’s not a statement of poor quality; what I mean is that you’ll have a solid malt base without too much heaviness (meaning strong flavor without having to chew), some well-balanced hop bitterness without too much bite, and a manageable ABV (4.5 – 6.2%). This is a good, solid type of beer with notes of caramel or light fruit that won’t throw you for a loop, but will give you a good starting place into more complex flavors. Some common variations here are ESB (extra special bitter – not more bitter per se, but a fuller flavor with a little more hop complexity), Scotch ale (Scottish variety, thicker mouth feel and higher ABV), and strong/dark ale (similar to Scotch ale).
Specifics: Anderson Valley Boont Amber Ale, Fuller’s ESB, Fuller’s 1845, Big Sky Moose Drool, or North Coast Red Seal Ale. The Moose Drool and ESB will be heavier and more complex, but full of flavor and delicious.
Metal Pairing: Solid body of flavor, not too extreme, some complex tendencies. My first thought here is Hessian (A.D.), who surely share the word “Hessian” with about 1,000 other bands and are not confusing at all. However, their 2012 album Manegarmr offers a beefy mix of metal and hardcore without being metalcore, and a dash of punk without straying too far from their territory. This isn’t a wacky new vocal style you need to get used to, or a weird riff system that doesn’t make sense. You’ll dive right in and feel at home as you ruin your neck to this rip-roaring good album, which is “name your price” on Bandcamp (give them a few bucks ya cheapskate, cuz you’d pay for a brown ale!). Raise an ale and headbang!
We started with adjuncts, moved toward malt/hop balance, and now we’re tipping the scales toward hops. Maybe you’ve had a beer that started off all right at first taste, but then moved to a full-on bitterness attack as the flavor developed in your mouth. That, my friend, is the work of hops. All beers have them, but the way they are used is a delicate art. Throughout the 18th and 19th century, English brewers were shipping ales to India that contained various levels of hops. At some point, a heavily-hopped variety caught on in that market, and the India Pale Ale, or IPA, was born. Of course, I’m skimming over plenty of specific history, and it has grown and developed considerably over the years, but you can always depend on an IPA to deliver a rich, spicy, up-front bitterness that will either please or disgust you. Pale ales are a more mellow variety of ale that deliver a tempered, yet distinct, hop punch. I used to cringe at these beers, but nowadays I can’t get enough. They have a solid and respectable ABV (5-7.5%), with pale ales coming in closer to the lower end of the range. English IPAs will offer a more malty take, with toffee, biscuit, and bready-like flavors surfacing with slightly less hop bite, while American IPAs will feature bright, citrusy hops with a little more of a subdued malt body. A friend once told me to think of a grapefruit while drinking an IPA; there’s plenty of bitterness, of course, but there’s also a world of great flavors to be discovered if you can wade through the bite.
Specifics: You will not go wrong with the Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. It helped in my transition to IPAs, but my ultimate gateway here was the Caldera IPA. Bright and citrusy in flavor, this one provides a great hop balance that won’t make you wince. For the classic English style, I’d suggest Samuel Smith’s English IPA or the Brooklyn East IPA. For an imperial (again, beefed up and better with a higher ABV) IPA, hit up the Boulevard Double Wide IPA or the ever-coveted Russian River Pliny the Elder, if you can find it.
Metal Pairing: Prominent bitterness, a wide array of complexity, and a like-it-or-you-don’t quality. This is a tough one, as there is a really wide range of pale ale/IPA flavors to be had. I’m going to go with the earthy complexity of Cormorant to represent the malt-bodied English style, and the abrasive, sludgy harshness of Secret Cutter to represent the bitter, hop-front American style. Raise a glass to the bitter bite of these 2014 releases!
Porters and Stouts:
Here we come to the pinnacle of malt body, the thick, heavy madness that captivates the taste buds of the extremists, and the appetites of the fanatics. Sure, we have the entry-level stuff, but let’s move past that into the heavy-hitting business. Originally, a chocolatey, roasty style of dark English ale (4-6% ABV) appealed heavily to porters, the manual laborers and dockworkers of England. These types of beers would eventually be known by that name, and would give way to several variations on the style such as robust porter, coffee porter, etc. Eventually the stout was born, the grand daddy of all beers in my opinion. Lower, dark hop profiles, massive malt body, higher ABV, and varying levels of artful flavors (caramel, dark chocolate, coffee, toffee) make up the identity of this beer. You’ve heard me recommend imperial versions of beers before, and in the realm of stouts, that can push the ABV up to 12% and turn a beer into thick, black, liquid void. This is no sports bar stout, this taste is crafted with care, carefully aged, and then slammed into your face with all the fury of the ages.
Specifics: If you can get it, pick up Tallgrass Zombie Monkey Porter. This one is full of flavor without being overbearing, and doesn’t have the thin finish that some porters fall victim to. If not, the Fuller’s Porter from England is always a winner. For a regular old stout, you have several options. Or you can man up and go for an imperial stout like North Coast Old Rasputin, Boulevard Imperial Stout, or the awesomely appropriate Black Metal Imperial Stout from Jester King Brewery. Some of my all-time (but harder to find ) favorites include BrewDog Tokyo from Scotland (coming in at 18% ABV), Avery Mephistopheles from Colorado (16%), and Prairie Bomb out of Oklahoma (14%) [W.: These are the only beers on the list. The other beverages are lifeloving water.]. Those higher ABV beers aren’t simply grabs for higher alcohol content; the highly skilled brewing process that produced those numbers also yields incredibly complex, fantastically deep beers.
Metal Pairing: Incredibly complex, fantastically deep, and thick and heavy as tar? With porters on the lighter end of that dark spectrum, I’d say that Mephistopheles (man, I wish they fit the imperial stout description more) nails that on the head with their fascinatingly eccentric edge and rich complexity without forcing excessive heaviness into their sound. Their 2013 album is a brilliant mix of flavor, nuance, and dark energy. Venturing into the imperial stout world, however, there are only a few bands that fit this bill. The 2012 release from Dodecahedron should have been on everyone’s mind, and I have no qualms about playing into expectations here. These guys do nothing less than shake the earth with their crushing, furious, limit-shattering brand of black metal that incorporates a laundry list of outside influences. This self-titled release will surely leave any listener full and maybe a little woozy after consumption, and avoiding the operation of heavy machinery is probably wise.
If you’re still with me, then let’s have a beer. Raise a glass to better beer, better metal, and +20 snob points. Keep in mind that this is just an introduction; I never even mentioned barrel-aged beers, lambic/fruit beers, sour ales, or the massive world of Belgian beers. I hope you guys enjoyed this and learned a little, let me know in the comments if I was way off on my pairings, what other bands or beers should be up there (beer distribution varies greatly by region), and some of your favorite brews. In closing, let us all remember these immortal words: beer is good, beer is good, beer is good, and stuff.