Thursday, March 27, 2008

In defense of the radler and adulterated beers

On days like today, when the weather permits, my body agrees, and I know I'll pretty much have the place to myself to stink up the joint once I arrive here, I love to ride my bike to work. It's certainly something I was never extraordinarily enthusiastic about as a kid, but like the never-abating amplification of my fondness for beer and sausages, it must be a result of German aging genetics along the same lines as my receding hairline that I now get so much enjoyment out of it.

Of course, as an occasional radler myself, I also tend to enjoy the occasional radler as well, as the close connection between biking and beer is a storied one. But, as a beersnob of the highest order, I'm also acutely aware of a certain level of disgust that pervades the aficionado circles when anything other than beer is poured into a beer glass.

Some of this I can understand, certainly. There are times when I find myself staring at an unwanted slice of lemon floating in a hefeweizen, or joking about how even the addition of lime only barely makes Corona palatable, or dealing with the shame of sitting in front of a pink Berliner Weisse. Mostly, though, I think the "if the brewers had wanted X in there, they would have added X to it themselves" argument is missing out on the final link in the chain that begins as barley and ends up in my belly: Once that bottle is in my hand, it's in my hand to do what I want with it. The brewer, once that bottle is filled and capped and on the truck, must let it go forth into the world to live its own life. And if that life consists of being cut 50% with lemonade, so be it.

Folks who dabble in cocktails could teach beer drinkers how to be more comfortable with the idea of adulterating their drinks for alternative experiences, for one. There's a very protective air that surrounds the craft brewing scene that perhaps lingers from the days when we all thought that craft and microbrewed beer was in threat of having a temporary existence, one that could be snuffed out at a moments' notice by ImBev or A-B or some other giant corporate entity eager to force feed us sheeple more of the same pale, watery lager. This sacred attitude about our burgeoning craft beer scene's products may be the root of the disgust I gather from other beer geeks, and wonder if with time, the attitudes will relax once we all agree that copious amounts of amazingly crafted beer are all around us, and not going away any time soon - so let's have a little fun, while we're at it.

And while there is loads of anecdotal evidence about the history of adding flavorings to beer after it's "done", from table-side spice tinctures in Belgian bars, to wassail and mulled beers, to cocktails like the Picon bière, there's at least one completely practical reason to do it: sugar. The balance of fermentable and unfermentable sugars in a beer is what allows for the sensation of "sweetness" or maltiness, and fruit sugars are very easily fermentable. Why, then, are all those creepy fruity lambics that you see at the supermarket so very, very sweet, you ask? Well, because if they haven't pasteurized the beer, they're adding a sweetener like saccharine, which is not fermentable, to the beer. Yummy, no? Hard apple ciders around these parts are traditionally semi-sweet, so either they halt the fermentation process when the sugar readings are right, or they pasteurize the finished cider and blend it with unfermented apple juice. All this is well and good, but we craft beer nerds like our beer like we like our women: alive. So, if you wanted to add some sweetness to your fine, bottle conditioned beer (for whatever reason, no judgment here), you'd best be doing it right before you drink it, lest you want some wild and crazy super-dry and explosive beer/wine frankenbooze on your hands.

Lots of pontificating just to get a splash of lemonade in my pilsner, I know, but it's on the sidelines of the larger "ethical treatment of beer" (I myself a card-carrying member of PETOB) debate regarding additives, flavorings, and post-bottling adulterations we silly experimenters seem to fancy. Try it yourself and see if you can admit there's some joy to be had in doing things your own way. One thing's for sure: It's unquestionably easier to tackle the last stretch of your ride when you're doing it on radler power...

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Blogger quetzlcloth said...

PETOB rules.

I had my revelation moment halfway through the world cup, when it was pushing 100 degrees and there were three games a day, which meant a lot of half-liters of lager being consumed in the sun. Suddenly, the occasional sip of radler seemed entirely understandable, and wholly refreshing.

One of the most amusing things about German beer drinking, I find, is that even tattered street punks, which you'd figure would want to drink a Hard Man's Beer, wander around with Becks Green Lemon in their hands.

1:15 AM  

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