The most surprising thing in the The Comic Book Story of Beer (written by Jonathan Hennessy and Mike Smith, and illustrated by Aaron McConnell, out now) may be that it’s so wildly informative. Despite being a graphic novel with a slightly precious backstory (a guy goes into buy a six pack but doesn’t know what to get), the depth of the information and breadth of history packed into these 170 pages is astounding. From Saint Brigit to Fritz Maytag, from the dawn of agriculture until this decade’s craft revolution, the book covers it all. But perhaps the most interesting — and useful — parts of the book are the “Meet the Beer” sections, which break down the advent and evolution of the many styles of beer that we know and love today. The lowly porter, the revered Trappist Dubbel, and the ubiquitous American lager are all there in one-page infographics that are the best cheat sheet to beer styles we have ever come across. Here, excerpted from the book, are six of those styles that you can now school your local bartender on as he pours you another.
Although the monks may engage the help of lay brewers (secular persons not ordained into religious service), trappist ales are always produced within the walls of a monastery. The trappists began to make these beers commercially available at the turn of the 20th Century — boosted by a 1919 law limiting the sale of liquor in Belgian bars. The goal of selling the beers was to financially support the monasteries and fund their charitable works.
Monasteries brew as many as four styles. Most brew a dubbel ale, which is traditionally a moderately strong malty amber ale. Trappist ales are almost always made with a sizable addition of highly fermentable candi sugar in the kettle. The candi sugar allows these beers of impressive strength to maintain a delicate lightness of body.
While its roots reach to earlier times, American lager is a product of the American 20th Century. It evolved to suit the typical tastes of the postwar American consumer. It is, therefore, a product of American Industrialization, corporate consolidation, and economics. Many beer geeks tend to dismiss American lager. They often speak of it as a commodity — one devoid of the rich malt and bitter hop character that previously defined the flavors of beer.
In fact, it was a reaction to American lager’s ubiquity that sparked the modern craft-beer movement. American lagers may not be to everyone’s taste. But one thing about them is undeniable: They are brewed to exacting standards. The brewers who make American lager are some of the most technically sophisticated anywhere.
The wit (“white”) beers of Hoegaarden were noted for their hazy, very pale appearance, characteristics that resulted from the use of unmalted wheat and sometimes oats. The last wit brewery in Hoegaarden shut its doors in 1957. It had been a victim of pilsner lager’s popularity. But in 1966, lamenting the loss of the town’s signature beer style… Pierre Celis opened Brouwerij Celis. After a move and expansion, he later renamed this concern De Kluis (The Cloister).
In 1985, a fire ravaged the De Kluis Brewery. To fund repairs, the underinsured Celis was forced to sell a stake to the Belgian brewing giant Interbrew. So Celis sold his remaining shares in the brewery, pulled up stakes, and moved all the way to Texas. In 1992, Celis opened a new brewery to make his wit beer. It became a hit. Unfortunately, success led to overexpansion. In 2000, the brewery was bought out and shuttered.
Bock hails from the city of Einbeck, which joined the Hanseatic League in the year 1368. The brews of Einbeck (now part of modern Germany) became famous throughout Northern Europe as some of the finest (as well as some of the strongest) available. The accent of Southern Germany corrupted the word “Einbeck” to “Bock,” resulting in this beer style’s enduring name. Bock also means “goat.” This accounts for the fact that images of goats tend to be prominently featured on the labels of bock beers.
The development of bock beer continued in Munich (most notably with the use of lager yeast). Others copied the style and established a convention of using the suffix -ator for this “liquid bread.” Back in Einbeck, individual brewing rights were merged and the city created an urban brewery in 1794. This facility makes Bock to this day, and its facade proudly proclaims: “Without Einbeck, there would be no bock beer.”
India Pale Ale (IPA) seems to have evolved from aged, or stock, ales brewed on country estates that were popular with the 18th-Century English gentry. Brewed to a high strength from lightly kilned pale malt and aggressively hopped, these beers were well suited for export. They matured in the cask on the long voyage to India. There they were enthusiastically enjoyed — chilled — by upper class merchants and civil servants.
Modern American craft brewers, intrigued by the romance of IPA, resurrected the style. The brash, resiny hops available in the U.S. complemented the hop-forward style. After a century in obscurity, IPA became the most popular craft brew. The adventurous, American spirit continues. The trend is to ever ratchet up hopping levels, creating new interpretations such as Double, or Imperial, IPA. Now brewers around the globe are making “American-style” IPAs.
The formula for porter changed as time went on. Malting techniques grew more varied and sophisticated. Increasing tax rates on malt coerced brewers to take action. So porter producers began to make the beer predominantly with lighter pale malt. They used a portion of roast “patent” malt to darken the resulting brew.
This more efficient (and profitable) use of raw materials remains how most modern porters are brewed today. With the ascendance of pale ales and then pilsner, the popularity of porter waned. But stout survived as one of the more popular styles of beer in the world — and a mainstay of contemporary craft brewers.
Reprinted with permission from The Comic Book Story of Beer, by Jonathan Hennessey and Mike Smith, copyright 2015, published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.
Illustrations copyright © 2015 by Aaron McConnell