Craft beer has become a vibrant, thriving community, but as a movement one could say it’s still in its infancy. The “average” craft drinker these days might best be imagined as someone who recently began discovering the joys of a well-made pale ale. They’re excited to learn more about the history of beer and the beer industry, but slightly intimidated by the breadth of their task in absorbing hundreds of years of history, style guidelines and general knowledge. Looking for knowledge, they turn to their friends. And that’s how myths get passed on.
For whatever reason, beer is conducive to myth and misinformation. Perhaps it’s because certain stories are more romantic to tell than the historical reality, or some adages are so oft-repeated that they just become accepted as fact. For whatever reason, if you’re in a beer bar, you’ll almost invariably hear one or two of these myths perpetuated. But we might as well take one more shot at sharing some of the truth, both to educate the new beer drinkers and disabuse the veterans of just a tiny bit of snobbery.
The IPA origin story is the granddaddy of all beer myths, the kind of thing that EVERYONE has heard (or in some cases, read on a brewpub placemat). However, the historical record suggests quite a bit to the contrary. Just ask beer historian Martyn Cornell, who has done the research because—get this—the guy’s an actual, professional historian. With primary sources and old brewing ledgers and everything! For more than a decade, Cornell has been sharing IPA truths and shooting down many aspects (although not all) of the “ships to India” story, all while being largely ignored. You should read what he has to say, but the main gist is this: Beer in the “India pale ale” style was being made in the U.K. long before it was ever sent to India, and simply happened to become associated with the country later on, acquiring the name we know today. But that doesn’t sound quite as compelling on a beer label.
Also known as the “meal in a glass” myth, which posits that stouts are somehow more filling or calorie-rich than other beer styles, likely because of their roasty flavor profiles. But in reality, most are no more “filling” than any others. Guinness is of course the classic example: At 4.2% ABV and 125 calories per 12 oz serving, the classic Guinness Draught is both lower in alcohol and calories than a 5% ABV Budweiser, which clocks in at 145 calories per bottle. Bud Light, meanwhile, has the same 4.2% ABV and only 15 fewer calories, at 110 per 12 oz. So in reality, a Bud Heavy would be more accurately described as the “meal in a glass” than your standard Guinness, and this holds true for most other stouts as well. When in doubt, look at the alcohol content. The higher it is, the more caloric that beer is likely to be.
This misconception is the result of seeing 30-packs of Busch Light, Keystone or Natural Light retailing for the same price as your favorite six-packs of craft beer. With such cheap options on the shelf, drinkers develop a perception of lagers as “cheap beer,” but in reality it costs significantly more for a brewery to produce a lager than a comparable ale. The reason all boils down to time—lager yeast ferments cold and slow, adding weeks if not months to the total time it takes to make each batch. This ties up fermenters for longer periods of time, which means the brewery can produce and sell less total beer. For huge brewing corporations such as Anheuser Busch, this is less important because of economies of scale, but to a craft brewer working on small margins, it’s incredibly significant. And that’s why you see fewer craft lagers than ales—the brewers don’t want to either take a loss on them or increase prices to levels where they would break even.
Craft beer has a tendency to have a good idea, and then drag that idea, kicking and screaming, past the point of practicality. Case in point: The shaker pint, which you’ll recognize as the iconic “pint glass” seen in just about every American bar. As so many articles have pointed out, the shaker pint was never actually meant for drinking but for shaking cocktails before it became attached to the burgeoning beer movement. It’s not an ideal vessel for aromatic beers—but honestly? “Not ideal” does not mean it’s a disaster being served an IPA in a shaker pint, as vehemently as the guy with the waxed mustachio sitting next to you at the bar may disagree. Let’s face it—most of us are not supernaturally sensitive in terms of our olfactory or tasting prowess, and having the “wrong” glassware from time to time is ultimately much less important than what’s in the glass in the first place. Can we agree on that? Use whatever glassware you’ve got—anything is better than drinking straight from the bottle.
Well, yes … and no, not necessarily. Although the bitterness of beer is largely determined by the alpha acid content of hops that are used in the boil, the sheer quantity of hops used in a recipe doesn’t necessarily tell you how bitter something is, and nor does its IBU (international bittering unit) number. Bitterness as a sensation (it’s commonly mistaken as a “flavor”) is all relative, and the amount of residual sweetness in a beer makes a huge difference in how bitter we perceive it to be. 30 IBU in a light lager may very well seem “as bitter” as 60 IBU in an IPA. Likewise, many breweries now employ a method known as “hop bursting” to derive much of a beer’s bittering through massive additions of hops at the very end of the boil, which results in beers with very strong hop flavor/aroma characteristics but much less bitterness than if those same quantities of hops were added earlier.
One can understand why this would make sense: Before the pioneering work of Louis Pasteur in culturing pure yeast strains (perfected by Christian Hansen in 1883), wouldn’t beer have been dependent upon impure, bacteria-ridden and wild yeasts? This excellent historical/chemical analysis suggests otherwise: That there were certainly some tart brews out there, but non-sour beer wasn’t hard to find. Brewers of the period did understand that there were measures they could take (with factors such as temperature control and sanitation) that would promote the efficiency of brewer’s yeast and retard the growth of souring bacteria. It’s useful information to know, if you ever happen to time-travel back to 15th century Europe and want to stop by the local alehouse.
The origins of some of these myths are buried in history, but this one is practically brand new. It came about when Jim Koch, the founder of Boston Beer Company (Sam Adams) mentioned in an interview that his strategy for not getting drunk was to consume active dry yeast, mixed with yogurt, before drinking. The trick, which he said he learned more than 10 years ago from biochemist Joseph Owades, supposedly works by breaking down alcohol in the stomach before it has a chance to be absorbed into the bloodstream. Actual testing, however, suggets that Koch’s trick doesn’t have any measurable effect beyond the mental component. In fact, the tests showed that a far more effective method is one we’ve known all along—drinking plenty of water along with your beer to stay ahead of dehydration.
Some styles, such as those that are hop-forward, are really meant to be consumed fresh, but once again this is an adage in craft beer that often gets taken a bit too far. Although volatile aroma compounds will indeed degrade over time in hoppy beers, it’s not as if they flip from tasting great to terrible overnight. If you happen to find a year-old IPA in the back of your fridge, there’s no reason not to drink that thing. Will it be at the peak of freshness? Certainly not. But it’s not going to be undrinkable either, I promise. Some beer geeks will even purposely age some of the burlier, malt-heavy DIPAs specifically to allow fresher hop flavors to drop away and malt flavors to emphasized. This isn’t to say that freshness isn’t important—it certainly is, and there’s tons of old beer on the shelves—but it’s by no means the only important factor, even in hoppy beer.
You’d think so, given the name, but most commercial pumpkin beers contain no real pumpkin, squash or other vegetable. The reason is fairly simple—actual pumpkin just doesn’t taste like much, and using it imparts very little definable “pumpkin” quality to the beer in most cases. The tastes that most Americans define as “pumpkin” are the plethora of spices found in most pumpkin-flavored things, from cinnamon and nutmeg to clove and allspice. Most “pumpkin ales” are essentially malty, American amber ales that are liberally dosed with one of those pumpkin pie-style spice blends. Even some of the breweries that DO use real pumpkin use a very small amount of it (say, a single can in a 30-barrel batch), making the pumpkin more of a gimmick than an active ingredient. But really—were you surprised? Pumpkins and gimmickry go together like imitation whip cream and pumpkin-flavored pie.
The older and more revered the beer, the more myths it has likely accrued, and Guinness is the stuff of beer mythology. The most famous myth is of course the idea that a two-part pour is necessary to pour a “proper” pint of Guinness, filling the glass up ¾ of the way in the initial pour before allowing the nitrogenated bubbles to cascade and settle before topping it off. Unfortunately, the tradition (which is fully endorsed by Guinness) ultimately has nothing to do with how the product tastes. It has been suggested that once upon a time, the two-part pour did have a function, when nitrogenated Guinness was just starting to be introduced and was used to top off pints of cask-conditioned stout. Today however, it’s simply a bit of dramatic flair—harmless but ultimately unnecessary.