Beer is one of the oldest beverages in existence and one that has accompanied human beings for centuries. Always mutable and adaptable, this fermented beverage has been expressed in different ways throughout the variety of cultures that have adopted it. In the most current sense, when we say beer we are talking about a beverage that is prepared from four very basic elements – water, grains, hops, and yeast (remember, we said basic, as there are many more possible elements).
With just these few ingredients, brewers throughout history have made a wide range of styles. The easiest way to classify them is by the yeasts with which they were prepared. Thus, we should mention the three main categories of ale, lager, and spontaneous fermentation. There are some exceptions, but for the purpose of this article, let’s keep things simple.
Also known as top-fermented beers, these are brewed with ale yeasts (Saccharomyces cerevisiae), which act at the top of the fermentation vessel. This process usually occurs at so-called “high” temperatures, between 14° and 22° Celsius (57° – 71° F). In general, this yeast produces beers with fruity aromas. Within this family there are innumerable styles, although the most popular in Mexico are pale ale, India pale ale (IPA), porter and stout, all of English origin. Ales are strongly associated with the artisanal movement, which has appropriated them in order to differentiate itself from industrial beer production, which generally produces low-fermentation beers.
Lagers are probably the most well-known beers. They are fresh, light, and clean. Unlike ales, they are bottom-fermented with the yeast (Saccharomyces uvarum) fermentation taking place in the lower part of the vessel at colder temperatures, usually below 10° Celsius (50° F). The most famous representative of this group of beers is the pilsner, of Czech origin. The term lager comes from German and means “storage” as these beers must be stored cold for several months to complete their fermentation process in order to give them optimal flavor. Some of the most popular styles in Mexico are Vienna, Munich helles, pale lager, Märzen, bock and hoppy lager. All lagers, yet occupying a wide range of tastes, bitterness, and alcohol content.
The origin of these ancient wild yeasts dates back to Belgium, where they were naturally occuring and allowed fermentation to take place without it being a controlled process. Now, with modern techniques, they can be cultivated and have become popular worldwide in the making of sours, that is, sour beers reminiscent of cider or even fine sparkling wine. In Mexico, sours of different types are available, many of them with the addition of various fruits such as guava, berries, or apples. Historically, though, the real star of this spontaneous fermentation process is the lambic, which has been produced in Belgium since the late 18th century and has maintained its traditional production processes using local yeasts.
There are so many more topics to delve into when it comes to beer, from craft to industrial, down to the sub-styles and even the colors, but that’s a whole different kettle of malt.