As the school year starts and classes begin to intensify, we bid a sad farewell to the freedom and intemperance of the first days after returning to school. Fear not, that which flowed so freely during those cherished days is still something that can be enjoyed, regardless of the number of problem sets or papers we may be assigned. Such enjoyment can come from gaining a deeper respect for beer, revering the means and not the end. Beer is a unique and magical food (yes, like wine it can be classified as food), and there are hundreds of breweries making hundreds of types of beer, yielding hundreds of opportunities for discovery of new tastes and preferences. We are especially lucky to live in what I consider to be one of the best brewery regions of the world. Maine alone hosts such gems as Geary's, Gritty's, Shipyard, Casco, Sea Dog's, and Allagash, among others, producing some of the most unique and tasty beers available.
With such variety there can be problems; I have often found myself standing in Hannaford, confused and troubled, trying to decide among the 10 different Maine summer ales available (I've tried them all, and Gritty's Vacationland is the best, but that's another column). The best bet for selecting a beer is to go with your instincts: If a certain flavor, style, name, or even label design catches your attention, go for it. Trying many different kinds is fun, and it's a great way to broaden your beer knowledge. Ignoring my own advice, I have chosen to review two beers that are readily available, and they likely represent the "cheap" and "good" beers to which most of us can relate. I have done so more to touch on the subject of beer tasting than to actually review new and interesting beers.
The essence of beer enjoyment springs from being able to understand its various aspects. While cans, Solo Cups, and the occasional funnel are our common vessels for consumption as college students, any beer lover will tell you that proper beer tasting is carried out in a clean pint glass or other such fancy glassware. The tasting itself should highlight every aspect of the beer: color, appearance, smell, taste, and aftertaste. Describing a beer does not require years of training, just the ability to put into words the joy derived from the beer. Follow along below, or even better yet, open up a can or bottle and drink along. If you're as big of a nerd as I am, you might want to check my work to see if you pick up on the same qualities.
Natural Light: ($12 for a 30-rack at Hannaford; $65 for a keg at Bootleggers)
As the sign hanging in my garage proudly proclaims, Natural Light (or more familiarly, Natty) offers "Great Beer at a Great Price." Convinced that the name "Natural" denotes organic, Scott Caras '08 has long championed Natty as the pinnacle of American brewing achievement. Although I tend to disagree with such a strong conviction, the price, drinkability, and general partyability of this legendary brew make it attractive to Bowdoin students.
Natural pours crystal clear, with a pale golden body and a bright white head that dissipates in a matter of seconds. The nose is slightly sour, lacks some of the heartiness of an all-grain beer, and exhibits a yeasty finish. Although an intense amount of carbonation masks some of the initial elements of taste, it soon evaporates to reveal a delicate, malty sweetness, characteristic of a beer brewed with adjunct grains such as rice. The drinker is momentarily greeted with a light, grainy sensation on the back parts of the tongue, revealing a gap where many more carefully brewed beers exhibit some of their unique and special characteristics. The aftertaste remains grainy, with a sour sensation that carries on past the ebb of the last sip. Overall, Natural Light remains near the top of the list for certain situations, representing an exceptional beer to be drunk ice-cold on a hot summer afternoon, as well as a partyable brew that provides proper rehydration throughout an intense dance party without the kick of a heavier beer.
Samuel Adams Boston Lager: ($7 for a six-pack and $15.99 for a 12-pack at Hannaford; $134 for a keg at Bootleggers)
In the tradition of progressing from lighter to darker, I follow the Natty with this Samuel Adams flagship brew. Samuel Adams, brewed by the Boston Beer Company, occupies an interesting niche in the brewing world as a large-scale brewery that produces craft-style beers at moderately affordable prices. By far the most well-known of all Sam styles, the Boston Lager, is as interesting as the company itself. Although brewed using lagering techniques, this beer is darker and more complex than many traditional lagers. It is characterized by a rich body and hoppy bitterness that is more frequently seen in ales.
Compared to the Natty, this beer pours exquisitely, exhibiting a deep reddish-amber color with a slight cloudiness. The head forms readily, dense and off-white, lasting throughout the first minute of tasting. The smell is complex: caramel-like and malty with hints of floral and piney hop aromas. The carbonation offsets, rather than masks, the initial caramelized sweetness. This sweet sensation dissipates to reveal dry, well-bittered flavor with complementary hop characteristics. The aftertaste carries some of the bitterness from the hops with positive grainy characteristics. Overall, a well-balanced beer that should appeal to the majority of drinkers.
So there it is, a brief introduction to some of the basic aspects of enjoying beer. Love beer?keep it classy.