5 Beer Things to Be Thankful For
Beer built human civilization—let’s celebrate it!
Raise a glass to beer this Thanksgiving.
Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays, mostly because it’s the perfect vehicle for blending the virtuous (giving thanks) with the gluttonous (enjoying a bounty of food and drink). In preparation for this week’s festivities, I’m often inspired to consider things I’m grateful for—not just the obvious things, like wonderful family and friends—but also the things that make life better in the smaller ways. One of those things is, of course, beer.
There are lots of things about beer to be thankful for—both large and small—so I wanted to take a little inventory of some of the aspects of beer that I find most compelling. Here is my list of the Top 5 Beer Things to be grateful for:
1. The Natufians (Gotta Love the Natufians)
This awesome civilization, which thrived in the Eastern Mediterranean about 10,000 years ago, probably invented brewing. Until relatively recently, most anthropologists believed that humans first domesticated grain in order to make bread. The Natufians, however, seemed to have cultivated grain for beer first, before it was ever used for bread. Evidently, these Epipaleolithic brewers made beer for feasting and celebrating at large community events. It is also widely believed that the alcohol in beer helped to relax the previously rigid social structure of the herd or tribe and promoted what would eventually be understood as freer, more collaborative, more creative thinking. Man, don’t ever let anyone tell you that beer is just a lowbrow beverage to be chugged at baseball games and bowling alleys! Beer built human civilization!
2. Three Yips for Yeast
You may have noticed that lots of beer folks spend a lot of time talking about hops; varieties of hops, flavor profiles, hopping techniques, alpha acids and hop bitterness levels… the list goes on. There’s a good deal of consideration given to malts as well; roasted versus not, two-row versus six-row, crystal versus chocolate. But I don’t often hear a lot of folks waxing ecstatic about yeast. This is surprising, given the fact that it’s yeast that actually gives beer its real magic. There are, of course, a zillion kinds of yeast, and each strain actually produces its own unique results in any given batch of wort. In addition to all that, just think about what yeast is and what it does! These little critters are living organisms that swim around in the warm sugary wort, eating up all the sugar they can find. As they metabolize the sugar, they actually change it into two other awesome things: carbon dioxide gas (bubbles!) and ethyl alcohol. If you ask me, that makes these little guys the true stars in the beer-making process. And, on top of all that, different yeast strains impart different aromas and flavor characteristics to beer. That unique, bready, spicy, floral character you detect in your Belgian Blonde? That’s mostly from the yeast. The banana, clove, and black pepper you smell in your Hefeweizen? You can mostly thank the yeast for that as well. So, thanks, yeast.
3. Beer Is Fast (Relatively)
Yes, good things are worth waiting for, but if you can get certain good things sooner than others, isn’t that even better? Compared to many other serious beverages—wine, cognac, añejo tequila, scotch—beer scores high on the immediate-gratification scale. In about 3-4 weeks, you can have a finished batch of fresh, delicious beer—which brings me to a related point: Beer is great fresh (more immediate gratification!). For the most part, no one drinks “fresh” wine (except for Beaujolais Nouveau at Thanksgiving—oops, bad example). A nice, hoppy pale ale or IPA, on the other hand, is at its best fresh from the tanks in which in was made. The relative speed with which brewers can finish batches means there’s usually a great variety of styles and flavors to choose from in a tasting room, and it means that the tap list is constantly changing from month to month, which keeps things interesting. Three cheers for that.
4. All Hail Greg Hall
Did I just get done saying that beer is great because you don’t have to wait for it? Well, it’s also great when you do have to wait for it—specifically while it ages in barrels. About 2,000 years ago, the Romans were the first to make wooden barrels that replaced clay pots for holding and storing liquids (thanks, Romans!). Since that time, humans have used wooden barrels to store and mellow hundreds of incredible beverages, including wine, whiskey, bourbon, tequila, sherry, and beer. Without the Romans, guys like Evan Williams, the first whiskey-maker in Kentucky, wouldn’t have discovered that aging whiskey in barrels turned it into an even more amazing elixir, which he called bourbon. And that brings me to the real point of this paragraph: I’m truly grateful to Greg Hall from Goose Island Beer Co. He’s evidently the first guy to figure out that beer could (and should) be aged in bourbon barrels. Since Hall launched his experiment in 1992, brewers all over the world have run with the idea that beer can be aged in all kinds of spirits barrels for different effects—and the results have been nothing short of astounding. If you’ve never had a good San Diego bourbon-barrel-aged brown, porter, or stout, make it your resolution for the New Year to try one. It will change your life.
5. The Magnificent Six
When the encyclopedia of San Diego brewing is written years from now, it will be clear that a group of six breweries formed the essential foundation of the San Diego brewing scene. Those Founders (in no particular order) are Karl Strauss, Stone, Ballast Point, AleSmith, Coronado, and Pizza Port. These are our local brewing heroes—pioneers in a very real sense—that dedicated their lives (and livelihoods) to the idea that beer could be better. Before these folks, most people only knew thin, tasteless industrial beer from the mass-producers. The Magnificent Six, however, showed us all that making unique, full-flavored craft beer was a worthy undertaking. These breweries are also important for the course they charted and the standards they set. All the breweries that have opened since (more than 124!) owe something very real to these companies. It was, after all, these six breweries that set the standard for what San Diego beer could and should be—and they also set the expectations high for all newcomers. At the same time, these companies went out of their way to support other brewers, to create genuine comradery among all, and they never failed to take an opportunity to stand on a soapbox and promote the craft beer cause. I say, let’s raise a glass to them. Without them, there may have been nothing worth having in your glass in the first place. Happy Thanksgiving.