Comic-book nerds could learn a lot from beer nerds: To be either requires the same involvement and passion, yet while there's a stigma attached to being able to name every member of the Avengers (don't even get me started on the New Avengers split that occurred during the Marvel Universe Civil War), being able to spout off knowledgeably on IBUs (International Bittering Units) and wild-yeast fermentation has become sort of hip. But being a nerd about anything still requires possessing a certain body of facts. People define and articulate their enthusiasm for a thing through their breadth of knowledge about it. And as the number of beer nerds has exploded recently, so too has the amount of knowledge needed to become one.
So as we celebrate our national beer drinking holiday (also called July 4th) this weekend, it seems like a good time to put some good old beer nerd facts to the test — just in time to annoy (sorry, sorry, I mean impress) your friends by the barbecue. I put together a list of eight beer myths I'd heard most over the years, and dug around for the actual answers, often conducting my own field tests, by which I mean I bought a bunch of beer and drank it.
Myth 1: The darker the beer, the heavier it is.
Where I heard it: This seems like something you are just born knowing, sort of like a fear of heights or an awareness of the Beatles. It's a priori.
The truth: NOT TRUE. Dark-hued beer can be "light" and light hued beer can be "heavy." Anyone who has had any Dogfish Head beer knows this to be true — a few sips of some rich, syrupy craft-brewed IPA and you will swear off eating for a while. I myself confirmed this by comparing Guinness (dark) with a beer from Stone Brewery called IPA Cali-Belgique (not totally light in color, but much lighter than the Guinness). Wine Allergic Girlfriend and I both agreed: The Stone beer was like drinking a slow-motion film; the Guinness felt like water. The can of Guinness I drank clocked in at 125 calories, ten grams of carbohydrates and 4.2 percent alcohol. The Stone Cali-Belgique? 6.2 percent, 25 grams of carbs and a sort of incredible 276 calories.
Jesus. I am going to have to start running again.
Myth 2: Bottles are better than cans when it comes to storing beer.
Where I heard it: Just look around: Natural Ice comes in cans; Duvel comes in bottles. Done.
The truth: NOT TRUE. Cans are just as good as bottles — and in some cases even better. Sunlight affects beer, similar to how it affects everything else on this planet except for pure evil. Left too long in light, beer can become "skunked," something I don’t remember ever tasting, but I probably have experienced it and was just too afraid to admit it. Skunked beer is the result of a molecule in hops — isohumulones — that breaks down in light, and the broken-down version of isohumulones resembles the stink molecule release by skunks. Glass bottles let in light; cans do not.
As for a fear that cans might impart a metallic flavor — also NOT TRUE for most modern cans. There is a coating apparently that keeps the beer from touching the inner aluminum. (Although that does seem like saying: “To keep this itchy wool off my skin, I have coated my skin in bug spray!”) To test this, I did a blind taste test of two Brooklyn Brewery lagers, one from the can, one from the bottle. W.A.G. poured each into a glass while I wasn’t looking. I tried the beer from each glass and couldn’t tell the difference really.
Myth 3: Guinness has some mysterious health-granting properties.
Where I heard it: You have seen the poster in 50 percent of the bars you have frequented: GUINNESS IS GOOD FOR YOU. But beyond that, drinking Guinness is said to aid and encourage a nursing mother’s milk production. I read about that on the Huffington Post when Mariah Carey was investigated for drinking Guinness while breast-feeding.
The truth: SORT OF TRUE. At least the first part is; the breast-feeding thing is disputed. According to the BBC, “A pint of the black stuff a day may work as well as a low dose aspirin to prevent heart clots that raise the risk of heart attacks.” But while “[p]regnant women and nursing mothers were at one stage advised to drink Guinness, the present advice is against this. If you do some irresponsible Google research, you will find lots of varying opinions, of course — something about how much iron is in Guinness. I say: Mariah Carey did it. You’re probably cool.
Myth 4: Trappist beers are made by monks.
Where I heard it: I still remember my first Chimay. Chimay is a gateway beer for beer nerds: mainstream enough to be found in your local liquor store, but with enough nerdy trivia to make you feel like someone with specialized knowledge. Nerdy trivia fact No. 1? Chimay is made by Trappist monks at the good ol' Chimay Abbey.
The truth: MOSTLY TRUE. Trappist monks are for real, and they do indeed make beer (and have been since the seventeenth century). All Trappist beers fit within the Belgian style — the kind of beer with enough alcohol to make you think that weird monk haircut is a good idea. To be clear, however, just because you buy a Trappist beer doesn't mean you are buying something with a long history. There are currently seven Trappist monasteries authorized to use the Trappist name. The oldest, Westmalle, was founded in 1836; the newest, Achel, was founded in 1998. And until recently, anyone with a shady marketing degree could slap the term "Trappist" on their beer (in a move taken from all those California winemakers who labeled their wine "Burgundy"). The monks sued in 1962 and now retain exclusive rights to the name.
But, and sorry to ruin the image, the monks themselves don’t necessarily make the beer. Orval — another one of the seven — has 32 secular workers. Trappist implies that the beer was made "under control" of the monks, but it doesn’t mean guys who look like Friar Tuck are tending some ancient brewing equipment.
Myth 5: Beer is vegetarian.
Where I heard it: PETA had this strange marketing campaign where they encouraged people to drink beer instead of milk, the idea being that it's because beer is vegetarian.
The truth: NOT ALWAYS TRUE. Next time you are with some friends drinking some beers, say: “So, do you guys know what isinglass is?” When they say no, you follow up: “Oh, well, it’s just a substance obtained from the dried swim bladders of fish used to filter beer!” And then CHUG your beer and belch and say: “Does that smell like fish?” So, if you follow a strict vegetarian or vegan diet (is there a non-strict vegan diet?), you’ll want to investigate whether your favorite brewery uses isinglass or some other weird animal product in their purification process. Barnivore.com has an exhaustive and well-documented list.
Myth 6: Ales are superior to lagers in terms of flavor and quality.
Where I heard it: Around that time I had my first Chimay (“Made by monks, you say?”), I also learned the difference between lagers and ales. And I learned that all the beer I drank in high school was lager.
The truth: NOT TRUE. The same people who taught me the difference between lagers and ales were also the first ones to praise the great German lagers and introduce the concept of a session beer (basically a fancy name for “the beer you drank in high school”). As with most things, you can make shitty versions and you can make great versions.
To test this at home with W.A.G., I bought the fanciest lager I could find, a dark one from Rogue Brewery called Chatoe, and the cheesiest-looking ale I could find, Wachusett Country Ale. You may remember how I feel about labels. Well, the Wachuett Country Ale fits into the “nostalgic small town America” label. Seriously, it looks like ranch dressing.
“Which one do you like better?” I asked W.A.G.
“This one,” she said, pointing at Wachusett.
“But that’s the ale,” I said. “That screws up my argument.”
“Okay, well now try this Brooklyn Lager. Which one do you like better now?”
“This one still. The one that looks like a Newman’s Own bottle.”
“You’re not helping.”
So it can go both ways, I guess is the takeaway here.
Myth 7: A glass's shape can affect the flavor of beer.
Where I first heard it: Plenty of fancy breweries, especially those Belgians, have a specific glass from which to drink their beer. Duvel leads the way on this — it is actually kind of difficult to buy Duvel without also getting a new glass. I went years actually serving my guests exclusively from Duvel glassware.
The truth: SADLY TRUE. Glassware is one of those things you just want to use to throw drinks back in snobs faces. But dammit if they aren’t right. The foam created by pouring a beer acts can trap science-y stuff from the beer that helps bring out its flavor, and that would otherwise evaporate. And so a glass that promotes a healthy foam head may enhance the retention of this science-y stuff.
Myth 8: The darker the beer, the warmer it should be served.
Where I first heard it: It seems like it'd make sense, right? And all those light beers have "cold-activated" labels for a reason: They are supposed to be served cold, because you won't taste as much and will be less likely to know you're drinking crap. Also, English people drink their beer warm.
The truth: BASICALLY TRUE. But it's not a clear spectrum. Famous beer writer (and a poor guy who must have endured a hundred jokes a day about his name) Michael Jackson laid out a basic system where the darker you go, the warmer you serve the beer. The problem is that there are far more styles of beer than there are on the list.
I tried to test this, but found that it’s basically impossible to chill something to a perfect 55 degrees in Western Massachusetts in late June. I used W.A.G.’s candy thermometers (not a euphemism — she has actual candy thermometers) and stuck a glass of Southampton Brewery Abbot 12 (a Belgian quadruple style) in the fridge until it was around 60. Once I pulled it out of the fridge, it rose in temperature immediately, so I shoved it in the freezer for a bit. Then I forgot about it and only remembered it the next day when I was rooting around in my freezer for frozen bananas (also not a euphemism). It was not frozen, but I would like to add a new designation to Mr, Jackson’s chart: SUPER-CHILLED, which it turns out is a perfect temperature for Belgian Quadruples and Imperial Stouts.
Now, as with all nerdy enthusiasms, remember to balance out your serious trivia love with an actual real enjoyment of the thing. In the same way I take the Avengers roster maybe a little too seriously, beer nerds can take beer a little too seriously. But beer is basically good, always, which is something all beer nerds — especially the ones I've seen drink warm Miller High Life — know most of all.
Matthew Latkiewicz works for the Internet; he writes and podcasts about drinking and other subjects at You Will Not Believe. His work has appeared in McSweeney's, Wired, Time.com, Boing Boing, and Gastronomica. Tragically, his wifelike girlfriend is allergic to wine.