Beer Choices for Wine Drinkers

Donald Dibbern

As we reach midsummer and temperatures climb to the nineties, there are times that even true wine lovers think to reach for a beer with their meal instead. Nowhere may that be more true than here in Portland, Oregon, referred to locally as "Beervana." With some of the planet's best barley, hops, and water for brewing, we perennially contend with Cologne, Germany for the title of the city with the most breweries in the world.

Just as with wine, the diversity among various styles of beer is immense. Although I am far from being a beer expert, I find that parallels can be drawn between particular types of wine and certain types of beer. You may find it instructive, perhaps no less than downright enjoyable, to sample a variety of new beers based on your own personal wine palate. Hopefully the following few thoughts and ideas may prove useful, or at least entertaining, guideposts for your journey.

The great divide, as it applies to beer, is between lagers and ales. This primarily has to do with the yeast and the fermentation process.

Lagers are brewed at cool temperatures and their yeast falls to the bottom of the tank.

Ales, by contrast, are top-fermented with a different strain of yeast and this takes place at warmer temperatures. Whether the fermentation process involves grape or grain, cooler temperatures usually result in cleaner, "fresher" flavors, while warmer temperatures can add complexity and nuance. Most of the hundreds of different styles of beer can be ultimately classified as either lagers or ales, though there are a few unusual types like the Belgian lambic fruit beers that are wild yeast ferments and fall outside of this general scheme.

So, without excessive simplification, how do we divide the universe of wine-drinkers' preferences to try to suggest particular beers for those who like certain wines? OK, let's just go ahead and oversimplify things.

There are red wine drinkers and white wine drinkers, right? Well, I propose that those whose palates tend towards reds would enjoy the richness, earthiness, and often higher alcohol levels found in most ales, while those with a taste for whites may well prefer a clean, crisp, and oh-so-refreshing lager. Note well that the color of a beer has little to do with whether it is lager or ale. There are very light-colored lagers, like pilsner, as well as those that are extremely dark, like schwarzbier.

Ales, too, can run the color spectrum from pale hefeweizen and Kolsch, to golden altbier, to inky porter. To my taste, however, I find the ester-y complexity and depth of the ales more reminiscent of many red wines, whatever the color of the beer. Conversely, even quite dark lagers maintain a thirst-quenching ability analogous to most dry white wines, of at least reasonable levels of acidity. The heavier body of ale is also more like a red wine, while the mouthfeel of lagers and white wines share more in common. These general features may perhaps help guide a sommelier faced with an inveterate beer drinker among a party ordering wines to match their meal (or the wine aficionado who finds himself trapped at a beer festival!).

Just for fun, let's toss out a couple of examples. Starting with the pale lagers, these beers are so light and refreshing, that I would suggest them as an alternative to when the wine drinker might be thinking Portuguese vinho verde or, say, an albarino from Rias Baixas. One of my favorite lagers is a Bohemian pilsner from the Czech Republic called Czechvar here in the U. S., but known most everywhere else as Budvar. For localvore Oregonians, my pick would be Full Sail's Session Premium Lager instead.

Dunkel lagers' darker color comes from the use of Munich malts, and they are characterized by their crisp and malty flavor profile. What wine might they stand in for? Well, pinot gris, at least in its Alsatian and Oregonian forms, is a fuller-bodied white wine with an acidity profile that keeps it clean and crisp, yet I often find a smokiness somewhat reminiscent of the maltiness found in these beers. All right, it's a stretch, but indulge me. Examples of these might include Beck's Dark, or St. Pauli Girl Special Dark.

Finishing up the lager category, we come to those dark and strong beers known as bocks, including weizenbock, doppelbock, and eisbock. This group has to be paired up with chardonnay, and not just by process of elimination. Chardonnay is one of the richest and heaviest of the dry white wines, particularly in its usual well-oaked configuration, which fits neatly with these most substantial of lagers. One of my favorite brews is Ayinger's Celebrator Doppelbock and it can match as beautifully with a meal as a top-flight California chard or splendid white Burgundy might. Weizenbock is a strong lager made from wheat (weizen, in German) and an excellent example is Schneider Aventinus. The same brewery also makes a specialty variation, Weizen-Eisbock, by freezing the beer and removing the ice crystals, thus boosting the alcohol level and concentrating flavor. The relatively high alcohol and distinctive floral-fruity nose might also hint at gewurztraminer here, in wine terms.

Switching now to the ales, and again generally moving from light to dark, we begin with the wheat beers, such as hefeweizen. These are unfiltered, thus remaining cloudy with yeast (hefe, in German). These characteristically have a distinctive aroma that, to me, evokes the banana bubble gum character of certain gamay wines, most notably Beaujolais Nouveau made with carbonic maceration. There is also sometimes a "rubbery" scent to be found akin to that in South African pinotage. My beer choice here would be the venerable Paulaner Hefeweissbier. The substantial head and powerful yeasty notes of these beers also obviously bring to mind Champagne, as another possible wine analogy.

Next we come to the venerable pale ale category, probably best known for English bitter beers and India pale ales. Despite the name, they are often medium gold or darker in color. They are certainly paler than the dark ales though, such as porter and stout. The bitterness of this category of brews derives from the ultimate beer flavoring agent, hops, which are a type of flower. There is an enthusiastic subset of beer lovers who crave extremely bitter beers and a system has been developed to measure (and advertise!) hop levels in particular beers. I like the Dogfish Head 60 Minute IPA, at 60 International Bitterness Units (IBU), but they also make a 90 Minute Imperial IPA (90 IBU) and even a 120 Minute IPA (shockingly, 120 IBU). So any wine that we might want to link to this category should have notable bitterness. Bitterness in wine primarily results from tannin, so I would think of the uber-tannic varieties, such as petite sirah, sagrantino, and tannat.

The darker ales get their color from the use of dark malts, just as do the dark lagers. Brown ales, such as Samuel Smith's Nut Brown Ale, have an earthiness and silky texture that reminds me of pinot noir. Although technically an abbey dubbel, Corsendonk Abbey Brown Ale is another fine beer with a delicate fruitiness evocative of pinot. Going yet darker in color and heavier in body, we find the porters and stouts. To put this in terms of an SAT question: if brown ale equals pinot, then, porter and stout must equal merlot and cab, right? Without getting into the tangled history of the two latter beers, their malts are roasted to bring out toasty coffee and chocolate flavors similar to the effects of oak on wine. And when you think of new toasted oak barrels and wine, you cannot help but think of cabernet sauvignon and its famous blends, as seen in Bordeaux. Fans of cabernet may well like Samuel Smith's Imperial Stout or North Coast Old Rasputin Russian Imperial Stout. The plushness of ripe merlot is also quite like a rich and chewy Yuengling Dark Brewed Porter from Pennsylvania, or of course Oregon's own Deschutes Black Butte Porter.

Finally, let's discuss barleywine, or as it is required to be labeled in the U. S., "barley wine-style ale." That makes it so much more clear: Is it wine? Is it ale? Is it even made from barley? First of all, it is indeed beer, not wine. It is a very strong ale, and yes, made from malted barley. As one of the strongest of beers, however, it is brewed up to or beyond 13% alcohol, and nearer to wine in strength than to most other styles of beer. It is also more akin to wine than other beers in the sense that it benefits from cellaring. One of the most renown of these is Thomas Hardy's Ale. Especially as barleywines age, they develop a nutty oxidized character that mirrors an oloroso sherry, or perhaps a tawny port or colheita.

I'm sure there are as many different ways to match up beer alternatives as there are wine lovers, but I hope this has encouraged a few of you to spend some time exploring the surprisingly wide range of beer styles available. There's a saying common among winemakers that "it takes a lot of beer to make good wine." So, in these dog days of summer, let's raise a mug or stein to them and to their brewery brethren. Cheers!

© copyright 2008 by Donald A. Dibbern, Jr., all rights reserved

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