In Utah, and across the nation, there are more craft beers and brewers than at any other time in the last century. There also are a growing number of home brewers.
With more beer, though, comes more questions.
Maybe you’re wondering how the brewing process works, what distinguishes one beer style from the next, or where all the grumbling about “3.2” comes from.
With Oktoberfest in full swing, we’re answering five of the most basic beer questions.
How is beer made?
With four main ingredients: water, yeast, grains — that have been malted — and a type of flower called hops. Just as in making bread, the yeast in the brewing process does most of the work. It gobbles up the sugars in the grains and turn them into alcohol. Brewers create different beer styles by changing the grains and hops; as well as by adding the hops at different times in the process. Maltier versions taste more like cereal. Hops, on the other hand, control bitterness and aroma. Some beers also include other ingredients, such as pumpkin, peaches and spices.
What’s the difference between an ale and a lager?
Ales are some of the quickest beers to make, requiring warmer temperatures and taking only a few weeks to fully form. But lagers — the German word for stored — ferment at cooler temperatures and need from six weeks to six months before they’re ready. The type of yeast also helps determine the style of beer. And each style varies. For example, lagers range from blond to black in color and low to high in alcoholic strength.
India Pale Ales, or IPAs for short, are now among the most popular. They’re known for a hoppier, more complex taste and a slightly higher alcohol content than other ales. Their recent popularity “is a rebellion” against domestic brands of a few decades ago, said Uinta Brewing’s, Steve Kuftinec, vice president of sales.
What’s with seasonal beer?
Just like restaurant menus, the list of what’s on tap changes from one season to the next. Predictably, summer styles tend to be lighter and more refreshing. Fall and winter beers take on richer tones and darker notes. Plus, “craft beer does a great job of listening to trends,” Kuftinec said, including the current pumpkin craze. Each autumn, Uinta Brewing sells about twice as much of its pumpkin ale than it did the year before. Such festive styles draw people in who never really gave beer a chance before the seasonal one, Kuftinec said.
Stout and porters both look dark. What’s the difference?
The two styles are relatives. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, if you ordered a “stout” the bartender would hand you the strongest porter behind the bar, according to Beer Connoisseur. The recipes diverged later on.
Today, stouts are made with roasted barley, which gives them a coffee-like aroma and flavor. Porters form from other malts, producing a more chocolaty flavor.
And don’t be fooled by the dark color of these styles, either. It doesn’t necessarily mean a heavy taste or high alcohol content, said Dan Burick, director of brewing for Squatters and Wasatch beers.
What the heck is “3.2” beer?
The number refers to the percent of alcohol — by weight — contained in beer. Under state law, “three-two” beer is the only kind that Utah grocery stores can sell. The same goes for what’s on draft at bars and microbreweries. The number confuses people because producers outside of Utah — everywhere from California to New York and Belgium to Germany — use a different method to label the percent of alcohol in beer. They do it by volume, not weight.
When measured like the rest of the world, Utah’s beer has 4 percent alcohol by volume. It’s the lowest nationwide, but it’s not far behind the national average of mainstream beers — about 5 percent. And beer drinkers can still order stronger brews in bottles, or pick them up at the liquor store. At the store, the toughest part, Burick said, is deciding which ones to bring home.
“There’s so many beer styles out there,” he said. “And they just continue to evolve.”