I try not to get hung up on the semantics and trivialities of the beer industry, such as at what percentage ABV does a beer [dis]qualify as a session beer. These types of topics can be fun to banter about with other beer geeks at the bar or on Twitter; though it’s not something worth losing your temper over (I’m looking at you, Ding). That being said, when I see craft beer being discussed in the mainstream I like to give it a look to see how it’s being presented and how it’s received.
For example, I recently read an article called “12 Beers To Get Your Girlfriend Interested In Beer.” This particular post was clearly intended for the mainstream and seemed a bit fluffy to me, though I appreciated the fact it had an eclectic selection ranging from Samuel Adams Cherry Wheat to Chimay Red. However, what bugged me was that it included Leinenkugel’s Summer Shandy among the list. Not because this isn’t a female-friendly beverage, but because I don’t consider shandies and radlers to be beer in the first place.
I think we can all agree that beer is defined as an alcoholic beverage made from water, malted barley and sometimes wheat (with the occasional adjunct), spiced with hops and fermented with yeast. But that’s the technical definition, there’s also an unwritten definition of what truly constitutes beer. It’s subjective to be sure and varies from person to person; but it’s what makes for great discussion as I hope this blog post will do.
So what’s beer and what’s not? Here’s my list:
These alternatives to beer emerged on the heels of the wine cooler craze of the 1980s and 90s. They get their alcohol by fermenting malted barley, though there’s no hops used. In fact, the flavor isn’t derived from the barley, but rather through the (often heavy) addition of natural and artificial flavors just like a lot of mainstream consumer beverages. I like to refer to them as alcopops because they tend to taste just like alcoholic soda pops. In fact, I’ve found myself opting for a Mike’s Hard Lemonade or a Smirnoff Ice when I’m in a situation where the only true beer choices are any of the BMC light lagers (or worse, the “ice” lagers). I’d like to think the vast majority of people don’t consider these types of beverages to be beer.
This might be a controversial choice for this list as malt liquor is generally purchased for its economic value and consumed for its performance value. What we consider to be “malt liquor” is essentially the same as any of the macro adjunct lagers, just brewed much stronger and with even less hops. I’ve tried a few of these beers and some are tolerable, though many are borderline undrinkable. Still, I consider them to be beer because they’re made with the four primary ingredients and undergo the same basic brewing process as any other lager. It would be nice to find one that actually tastes good someday.
A lot of people consider Four Loko to be malt liquor, but I say this product, and others like it (like Joose), are better categorized as flavored malt beverages. Though they are consumed for their potency like malt liquor, their taste is derived entirely from the addition of artificial flavors (and up until a few years ago, energy drink-like stimulants). Even the beer app Untappd lists Four Loko as malt liquor, which I do not understand since the average Untappd user is probably a craft beer drinker of some caliber. There’s no hops in the brew and certainly no one’s drinking it for the base malt, so how could this be considered “beer”?
Whenever I talk beer with someone who’s not a beer appreciator, they often say they enjoy a wheat beer with fruit added because it’s light and flavorful. I agree, though I tend to find the average beer of this type to be a little too faux for my taste. Sure, there may be fruit puree added to the brew at some point, but there’s most likely a flavoring extract of some sort as well. Beers of this general style tend to be similar to hefeweizen at the core, so I consider them to be beer.
Lambics are often considered to be a special treat to the craft beer enthusiast. This style has been around for centuries and many breweries still use the process of “spontaneous fermentation” whereby the beer is fermented by the natural yeast in the air rather than any kind of harvested and cultured yeast. I sometimes think of lambics as the alcopops of the beer world since the fruit taste dominates the palate and many breweries add sugar and/or natural flavoring. Also, I don’t know anyone that drinks a lambic for the malty and hoppy qualities (or can really pick them out). Then again, the wild yeast also plays a major role in the taste which is a definite characteristic of beer.
These are the original “beer cocktails” of the mixology world. The story goes that bars used to mix lager and lemonade in order to conserver their beer supply as well as to refresh the bicyclists (or “radler” in German) that drank them after a ride. As FMBs grew in popularity over the last 20 years it makes complete sense that breweries would start selling a Shandy in a bottle and calling it “beer.” What I’d like to know is how much of the beverage is actual beer and how much is lemonade? 50/50? 95/5? Is there even any actual lemonade blended with beer, or is it simply an added flavor? Regardless, I’d say shandies are better lumped in with the alcopops because once you blend beer with a beverage other than beer, it’s a cocktail.
Blending beer off the tap is an artform that takes skill and finesse to get right. Probably the most popular blend is a Black & Tan whereby a dark beer is blended with a light one; the most popular example of this being Guinness and Harp (or Bass Ale). Some breweries blend two of their beers, like a porter and a lager, and sell them as a bottled Black & Tan (though they do not have the parfait-like appearance of those made by a skilled bartender).
Since you’re combining two beverages, these types of drinks could be considered cocktails, at least technically. However, I say as long as you’re blending beer with beer (and nothing else), it’s still beer. Think about it, some of the best barrel-aged brews in the world are actually blends of different beers from different barrels. Even a traditional gueuze is a blend of both young and old beer, but you’d never call Gueuze Tilquin a cocktail or an FMB would you?
When you hear the word “cocktail” you tend to think of an alcoholic beverage made with various liquors, liqueurs, non-alcoholic mixers such as juice or soda, and sometimes fruit or vegetables. Nothing about that type of beverage harkens to beer does it, even if you use beer as one of the ingredients? A lot of upscale bars and restaurants have been experimenting with beer cocktails lately, and while I’m sure they’re tasty drinks, I would not consider them to be beer.
On a related note, I would consider the following drinks to be beer cocktails when mixed at a bar, or an FMB if sold pre-packaged: Spider Bite (beer and cider); Chelada (beer and tomato juice); and most everything on Wikipedia’s list of popular beer cocktails.
Agree? Disagree? Let me know in the comments section.