Beer has been around for millennia, but only in the last decade or two have Americans come to appreciate its sophistication. Even domestic beer can be as varied, complex and engaging as wine. This dawning coincides with the emergence of the American craft-brewing movement. Like wine, craft beer pairs well with all kinds of food, even dessert. Some types, like certain stouts and barley wines, even benefit from aging, but most are best consumed within a week of purchase.
In New Jersey, craft beer is booming, winning new adherents with every pint.
“You are definitely getting people who are experimenting a little more,” says Michael DeSimone, a certified beer server and general manager of Morris Tap & Grill in Randolph. You don’t have to be a beer expert to get in on the fun. But to help you navigate craft beer’s expanding universe, we turned to some of the state’s top pros for advice.
HANDLING AND STORING
“Think of beer as a kind of perishable food, and that gets you started,” says Samuel Merritt, a certified Cicerone whose training and consulting company, Civilization of Beer, has helped educate staff at several top New Jersey’s tap rooms. Beer is not as susceptible to spoilage as milk or eggs, Merritt says, but it can go stale, acquiring unpleasant off-flavors reminiscent of paper or cardboard.
Some craft beer is not pasteurized and should be stored at cellar temperature—50 to 57 degrees is fine—although Merritt suggests chilling beer to about 38 degrees before serving. Even if beer is purchased chilled, it doesn’t need to be returned to the refrigerator when you bring it home. The key is not to expose it to extreme temperatures or rapid temperature swings. Store it in a cool, dark place. Daylight and artificial light can “skunk,” or spoil, beer in clear or green glass bottles, says Cicerone Graham Haverfield, beer director of the Wine Library in Springfield. Brown glass bottles are more resistant, he says, but cans are best: “It is the most complete seal.” The prejudice that good beer doesn’t come in cans may fade, Haverfield says, as more craft brewers start to can their products.
Also, store your bottles and cans upright, since the beer, especially craft beer, might have live yeast at the bottom. For pasteurized, filtered, mass-produced beer, it usually doesn’t matter.
For a party, Merritt says put bottles and cans in an empty tub or cooler, then fill with ice. The beer will cool faster and more evenly, and stay cold longer. To speed the cooling, pour cold, salted water over the ice.
SERVING AND POURING
One of the biggest mistakes people make is drinking beer directly from a bottle or can, says Merritt. “The glass, as they say in the wine business, is the messenger of the product.” But no glass is good unless it is “beer-clean.” If bubbles cling to the side as you pour, “it’s a real good sign of a dirty glass.” For best results, keep beer glasses out of dishwashers, where they might acquire soap or food residues. Hand wash them in very hot water with a brush and a drop of detergent. Rinse well and place upside down on a rack so air can circulate.
A proper pour—straight down the center of the glass—releases the carbon dioxide into the air rather than your stomach (preventing that bloated feeling). It also creates a thick head, which releases the beer’s aroma and taste. “It’s a good thing,” says Cicerone Dana Russo of Cloverleaf Tavern in Caldwell. “It’s part of the beer.” Stop pouring when the foam reaches the top, let it settle, then finish pouring. “The head will last longer because it will be a tighter head,” she says.
SNIFFING AND SAVORING
The pros talk about a beer’s flavor profile—a combination of its appearance, aroma, taste, mouthfeel and finish. Taste is largely derived from a beer’s ingredients. Barley, when malted, provides a toasty flavor. Hops, grown on climbing vines in various parts of the world, can add spicy and herbal notes, like the German variety, or citrusy and piney tones, like those grown in the United States—including New Jersey. There are hundreds of strains of yeast, but most are either bottom-fermenting types that produces lighter, crisper beers such as lagers and pilsners, or top-fermenting types that produce more robust, complex beers such as ales, porters, stouts and India pale ales (IPAs).
Russo recommends a white-wine glass for tasting, because the shape congregates the aromas. Pour in a little, observe the color, which gives the brain a preview of what is to come. Swirl to release aroma. Take short, quick sniffs. Sip, letting the beer sit in the middle of the tongue. Savor.
• The Tulip: Meant for more complex beers, the tulip, with a bowl-shaped bottom and small mouth, was designed to collect aromatics. Since flavor is the culmination of aroma and taste, the glass “is going to enhance the expression of the beer,” says Merritt. The outward flair at the top gives the glass “a little more finesse when it comes to the placement on the tongue”—which also alters the flavor just a bit.
• The Pilsner: With a simple design and thin glass, the pilsner was meant for lighter, more delicate brews like pilsner, a type of lager. The glass shows off a beer’s carbonation and transparency.
• The Pint: It is probably the most common beer glass in bars, but Merritt does not approve. “Those glasses were designed to shake cocktails, not to serve beer,” he says. How did it come to be a beer glass? Merritt thinks it’s because the glasses are inexpensive and stackable, but stacking, says Merritt, “is not a best practice when it comes to the cleanliness of the glassware.” Also, says Merritt, the pint’s thick glass actually conducts heat from the hand to the beer faster than thin glass.
• The Snifter: Usually the smallest beer glass at the bar, the snifter is designed for strong beers like stout and barley wine. Its accentuated narrowing at the top forces the drinker to really tilt the head back, says Merritt, which creates a unique delivery of the beer to the tongue, yet another factor in flavor.—AS
NJ Beer Resources Websites
• njbeer.org: Online home of the Garden State Craft Brewers Guild, this site offers brewery news, an events calendar and a downloadable brewery guide.
• newjerseycraftbeer.com: Constantly updated listings of local beer events and bar specials, plus discounts for club members at 245 participating businesses.
• njshore.thedrinknation.com: Part of the Philly-based Drink Nation family of sites, Drink NJ Shore puts local writers to work reviewing brews, previewing events and listing noteworthy happy hours. Includes a searchable bar database.
• alestreetnews.com: NJ-based publication covering all the latest craft beer news.
• beeradvocate.com: Respected source on all things brewed.
• beerstainedletter.blogspot.com: New Jersey beer news and personality profiles by freelance journalist Jeff Linkous.
• New Jersey Breweries, Lew Bryson and Mark Haynie (Breweries Series, 2008): A little out of date but a good place to start for history and brewery descriptions.
• Jersey Brew—The Story of Beer in New Jersey, Michael Pellegrino (Perfect Paperback, 2009): Not much more recent, but full of fun historical facts about gangsters and corrupt politicos.—TN