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June 9, 2023
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What Is Craft Beer? A Complete Guide

This isn't your average, run-of-the-mill beer we're talking about. So, what is craft beer? It's beer that's about quality, flavor, and dedication to the art of brewing. It's not churned out by the big corporations, but lovingly crafted with attention to detail.

We explore the ins and outs of craft beer, its history, the process, and its impact on society. We've also got some insights from Matt Simpson, founder of The Beer Sommelier, who's a true craft beer expert. Grab a pint and let's get started!

flight of craft beers

A Quick Intro To Craft Beer

Craft beer represents more than just a type of alcohol; it embodies a philosophy and a commitment to quality. It's a beer made by a brewer that is small, independent, and traditional.

Brewers in this field aren't constrained by mainstream preferences; they boldly choose to produce beers that stand out for their uniqueness, rich flavors, and superior quality.

Craft beer is a throwback to traditional brewing methods, where the integrity of the ingredients and the process were paramount. The craft brewing movement kicked off in the late 20th century in the United States and has since spread its wings globally. This was driven by a shift in consumer preference towards quality, flavor, and a variety of beer styles.

The Building Blocks of Craft Beer

Beer is crafted from four main ingredients: water, malt, hops, and yeast. Each ingredient contributes to the beer's unique characteristics. Malt adds sweetness and color, hops provide bitterness and aroma, yeast ferments the sugars into alcohol and carbon dioxide, and water makes up the majority of the beer.

Meet Matt Simpson: The Beer Sommelier

Matt Simpson, owner and creator of "The Beer Sommelier", is a recognized expert in the craft beer industry. With decades of experience, Matt established himself as a full-service craft beer consultant. 

Matt's journey into the world of craft beer began with a fascination for its complexity and variety. His interest was first piqued by traditional beers, but it was the Belgian styles that truly captured his attention. He fondly recalls his first encounter with a traditional Belgian beer, the Chimay Blue Premier Dark Strong Ale. The fruity, rich, balanced, strong, and aromatic nature of this beer left a lasting impression on him, marking the beginning of his love affair with craft beer.

Today, Matt's dedicated to sharing his passion and knowledge of craft beer. Whether you're a craft beer novice or a seasoned aficionado, Matt Simpson's insights and expertise are sure to enrich your craft beer journey.

The Craft Brewing Process

The brewing process is like a symphony, and you're the conductor. Each step plays a crucial role in the creation of your craft beer. It all starts with malting, where you soak, germinate, and then dry barley in a kiln. This develops the enzymes needed for converting the grain's starches into sugars during the next step, mashing.

During mashing, mix the malted barley with hot water to activate the enzymes and convert the remaining starches into sugars. This sweet liquid, known as wort, is then drained off and brought to a boil. Next, add hops for their unique bitterness, flavor, and aroma.

After boiling, cool the wort and transfer it to a fermentation vessel, where you add yeast. The yeast gets to work, consuming the sugars in the wort, producing alcohol, carbon dioxide, and heat. This process, fermentation, lasts anywhere from a few days to a couple of weeks.

Once fermentation is complete, allow the beer to condition. During conditioning, any remaining yeast and sediment settle out, and the flavors of the beer mature and develop. Lastly, filter the beer to remove any remaining solids, carbonate it by adding carbon dioxide, and then package it into bottles, cans, or kegs. And there you have it, your very own craft beer!

The Complexity Of Craft Beer

Simpson explained to us that the brewing process varies significantly between different styles of craft beer, leading to a wide array of flavors and experiences. For instance, the choice of yeast can dramatically alter the beer's character. Ale yeasts tend to ferment at higher temperatures and produce a beer with a fruity, full-bodied flavor profile, while lager yeasts ferment at lower temperatures, resulting in a crisp, clean-tasting beer.

Even a slight change in temperature during mashing can have a significant impact on the beer's final flavor. A higher mash temperature results in a beer with more residual sweetness, as the enzymes break down the complex sugars that yeast can't fully ferment. On the other hand, a lower mash temperature produces a drier beer, since the enzymes create simpler sugars that the yeast can fully ferment.

The choice of malt and hops also plays a huge role in the beer's flavor. Different malts impart flavors ranging from sweet and caramel-like to roasty and bitter, while the myriad varieties of hops can contribute notes of citrus, pine, spice, and more.

Craft Brewing vs Commercial Brewing

Craft brewing and industrial brewing stand at opposite ends of the beer spectrum. Craft brewers, like gourmet chefs, meticulously select top-tier, often locally sourced ingredients. They brew in small, carefully managed batches. Their focus is on creating a unique, flavorful experience to delight your palate.

Industrial brewing prioritizes scale and uniformity. Basically, they produce large quantities of consistent beer. If you value quality, creativity, and the craftsmanship that goes into every bottle, craft beer is your calling. It's not just about the beer; it's about the journey and the passion infused in every sip.

Craft Brewing vs Microbrewing

Microbrewery and craft brewery are often used interchangeably, but there are a few key differences. A microbrewery is defined by its production size, while a craft brewery is defined by its size, independence, and traditional brewing methods. Both focus on quality, flavor, and brewing technique.

Craft Beer Types

Craft breweries produce a variety of beer styles, including Ale, Lager, Stout, Porter, Pilsner, and IPA (India Pale Ale). Each offers unique characteristics, contributing to the 160 to 190 styles of craft beer that Matt Simpson mentions. Here are the most common and popular types of craft beer.

  1. Ale: This beer is brewed using a warm fermentation method, resulting in a sweet, full-bodied and fruity taste. Ales cover a vast array of styles, including pale ales, amber ales, and brown ales.
  2. Lager: Known for their crisp and refreshing taste, lagers are brewed using a method of cool fermentation, followed by maturation in cold storage. Popular styles include Pilsner, Märzen, and Bock.
  3. Stout: Stouts are dark, rich and creamy beers with flavors ranging from coffee to chocolate. The most well-known stout is the Irish Guinness.
  4. Porter: Similar to stouts, porters are dark in color and feature flavors of chocolate, caramel, and nuts. They are less creamy than stouts and often have a more pronounced hop flavor.
  5. Pilsner: A type of lager, Pilsners are golden in color and feature a crisp, refreshing taste with a hint of bitterness. The style originated in the Czech city of Pilsen in the 19th century.
  6. India Pale Ale (IPA): Known for their strong hop flavor and higher alcohol content, IPAs have become incredibly popular in the craft beer world. There are several styles of IPAs, including English, American, and Double or Imperial IPAs.
  7. Saison: Originating from Belgium, saisons are highly carbonated and fruity, often with a hint of spice. They were traditionally brewed in farmhouses during the cooler months to be consumed in the summer.
  8. Wheat Beer: As the name suggests, wheat beers use a large proportion of wheat in the brewing process, resulting in a light, refreshing beer perfect for summer. Styles include the German Hefeweizen and the Belgian Witbier.
  9. Sour Beer: These beers are intentionally made to taste acidic or tart, with styles ranging from the subtly sour Berliner Weisse to the bracingly tart Lambic.
  10. Barley Wine: Despite the name, barley wine is very much a beer. It's a strong ale, with a high alcohol content and rich, complex flavors.

Pairing Craft Beer With Foods

Pairing beer with food can elevate your dining experience. It's all about balancing flavors and finding combinations that complement each other. 

The Beer Expert's Favorite Pairings

Matt Simpson suggests pairing cheese with saisons (farmhouse ales) and imperial stouts with anything chocolate. But the possibilities don't stop there.

IPAs and Spicy Foods

Consider the delightful combination of spicy foods with hoppy IPAs. The bitterness of the IPA can help balance out the heat of the dish, while the beer's carbonation can cleanse the palate. For a classic pairing, try a hoppy IPA with spicy buffalo wings for a match made in heaven.

Dry Stouts and Seafood

Seafood dishes, particularly shellfish like oysters and clams, pair beautifully with dry stouts. The roasty flavors of the stout complement the briny, sweet flavors of the seafood. This pairing is a testament to the versatility of craft beer.

Porters and BBQ

For barbecue lovers, try pairing your smoked meats with a robust porter or a smoky rauchbier. The dark, malty flavors of these beers can stand up to the intense flavors of barbecued meats, while their carbonation helps cut through the richness of the food.

Vegetarian Beer Pairings

Vegetarian dishes also benefit from craft beer pairings. For instance, the earthy flavors of mushrooms pair well with brown ales, whose malty sweetness and slight bitterness can complement the umami-rich flavors of the mushrooms.

Dessert Beer Pairings

Aside from the suggested pairing of imperial stouts with chocolate, fruit beers and lambics are a perfect match for fruity desserts. The tart, fruity flavors of these beers provide a refreshing contrast to the sweetness of the dessert.

The Impact Of Craft Brewing

Craft brewing has a significant impact on society. It contributes to job creation, tax revenue, boosts local economies, implements sustainable practices, and fosters community by hosting events and supporting local causes.

Craft Beer and Taproom Culture

Craft beer has birthed a vibrant taproom culture. Taprooms serve beers directly to consumers, offering a unique environment for beer exploration, learning about the brewing process, and engaging with the community.

More Than Just a Drink

Drinking craft beer is an experience. You engage with the beer as you pour it into a glass, observe its color, smell its aroma, taste its flavors, and savor its finish. The craft beer community is a diverse group of beer enthusiasts who gather at beer festivals, participate in tasting events, and engage in discussions about their favorite brews.

The Future Of Craft Brewing

Despite challenges like increasing competition and changing consumer preferences, the spirit of innovation and community that defines craft brewing will continue to drive its success.

Craft beer is more than just a beverage; it's a reflection of the skill, creativity, and passion of its makers. At Clawhammer Supply, we share this passion. We provide brewers with high-quality brewing equipment and resources to help create your best possible brews. Whether you're an experienced brewer or a craft beer enthusiast looking to start home brewing, we're here to support your journey. 

Frequently Asked Questions

What is Craft Brewing?

Craft brewing is the process of making beer in a traditional, non-mechanized way. It emphasizes quality, flavor, and brewing technique over mass production.

What are the Main Ingredients in Craft Beer?

The main ingredients in craft beer are water, malt (typically barley), hops, and yeast. Each ingredient plays a crucial role in the beer's flavor, aroma, color, and other characteristics.

How Does Craft Brewing Differ from Commercial Brewing?

Craft brewing differs from commercial brewing in terms of ingredient quality, brewing techniques, flavor, creativity, and production size and distribution. Craft brewers often use high-quality, locally sourced ingredients and traditional methods, focusing on flavor and creativity.

What are Some Popular Types of Craft Beer?

Craft breweries produce a variety of beer styles, including Ale, Lager, Stout, Porter, Pilsner, and IPA (India Pale Ale). Each offers unique characteristics and flavors.

What is the Best Temperature to Serve Craft Beer?

The temperature at which beer is served can greatly affect its taste. Different styles of beer are best served at different temperatures. For example, lagers are usually served colder than ales to bring out their crisp, refreshing flavors.

How Can I Start My Own Craft Brewery?

Starting a craft brewery involves acquiring brewing equipment, understanding legal considerations, creating a solid business plan, securing funding, and effectively marketing your craft beer. Remember to focus on sanitization and don't worry about every detail.

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