Weekly Wire
Weekly Alibi Beer -- It's Not Just for Breakfast Anymore

By Bob Klein

DECEMBER 7, 1999:  Beer is not considered traditional breakfast fare. But, actually, beer does taste best in the morning, from 10 to noon, more or less. The palate is clean, taste and smell are just getting revved up, senses are at their most acute -- assuming you brush and floss your teeth before opening the day's first pale ale. That two-hour stretch is not a recommendation, just a scientific fact. When you choose to drink is one thing, but what to drink is another matter altogether.

The ongoing but recently decreasing fascination with microbrews has unleashed an avalanche of beer and brewing trivia equally confusing to both the diehard six-pack Bud-ite as well as the more adventurous soul willing to fork over five bucks or more for one bottle of yeast-heavy Belgian ale or a spiced Christmas beer from San Francisco. (In August, I had an eight-ounce glass of a rather ordinary local brew in Reykjavik, Iceland, and paid $5.71 for the pleasure, so don't whine.)

The word beer itself means different things to different people. In England, for example, beer refers to just about anything not an ale. But here in the colonies, it is used as an umbrella term for any alcoholic beverage fermented with cereal grain (usually barley) and flavored with hops. No one knows for sure when the first batch was brewed, but the generally accepted guess is some 8,000 years ago by the Babylonians. Beer was so important to the ancient Egyptians that the hieroglyphic symbol for food was a loaf of bread and a vessel of beer.

There are two major types of beer: lager and ale. Virtually all beer styles -- such as pale ale, stout, bock, pilsener, porter -- are either lager or ale or, in some instances, a combination of the two. In general, lagers are clear, crisp and distinctly carbonated. They tend to contain less alcohol than ales, and their flavor profile is less complex. Ideally, lagers should be stored for a minimum of four to six weeks before being put on your favorite retailer's shelves (lagern means "to store" in German). If you want something to quench your thirst, then lager is your best bet. To complicate things, there are many varieties of lager, but, as a basic guide, you can't go wrong if you have one or two with smoked meats (bock), salads, freshwater fish, fresh tart fruit (pilsener), New Mexican and other spicy foods (Vienna-style amber, pilsener), or well-seasoned pastas or chicken (Munchner dunkel). Or, no shame here, with no food at all on a hot summer's day (pilsener, English lager). Myself, I look for a refrigerated Carta Blanca under those dire circumstances. Caveat emptor, though: Cold beer is notorious for masking or hiding flavors, aroma and taste nuances.

If it's complexity and a more pronounced flavor you want, and the season is on the cooler side, then an ale, the world's oldest form of beer, is the better choice. And drink it at room temperature! I know Americans think of warm beer as akin to warm spit, but look at it this way: If you want value for the money you shell out, you may as well get the most for what you're buying or drinking. Ale's underlying character is relatively flowery, distinctively fruity, sweeter and more complex than lager. It is also texturally smooth, more aromatic and often darker than lager, although most bocks are exceptions to this color rule. Room temperature enhances the liquid's propensity for releasing the subtle, variegated aromas (volatile odorants to the snobs out there) and nuanced flavors that make ale drinking so enjoyable and compatible with a wide variety of dishes.

Though there are dozens of ale styles and sub-styles, many tend to go very well with fish (pale ale), sharp cheeses (pale ale, barley wine), strongly flavored meats (Scottish ale, brown ale), smoked meats and cheeses (India Pale Ale), shellfish (porter, pale ale, dry stout, a.k.a. Irish stout), nuts and fruits (strong ale). Some, like milk stout (a.k.a. English or sweet stout), also go well with -- surprise! -- desserts like chocolate cake and, my all-time favorite, red licorice twists.

For both ales and lagers, there are few hard and fast rules, just suggestions. Experiment and decide for yourself which beer/food pairings are to your liking. After all, it's your mouth, not mine. Like anything else, beer-drinking pleasures are subject to change. Mood, weather, company, season, appetite, context, price -- all of these, and more, can affect your preference of the moment. Even, as you now know, time of day.

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