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Microbrews have redefined the beer industry. It is no longer the simple lawnmower mug of suds but something more complex and elegant to borderline edgy. The $6-billion industry’s rise has been remarkable with nearly 14 percent annual growth from 2012 to 2017. Experts expect it to continue at least for the next five years with its tremendous customer support. But exactly what is a microbrew, and why is it different?
What Goes Into Making Beer
To understand what a microbrew is, we need to begin with defining beer. The four principle ingredients that go into its production include:
Of course, that only scratches the surface. The recipe with these main things along with the addition of other ingredients gives a beer its distinctive taste. Let’s consider each one in detail and what it brings to the table.
Yeast does the heavy lifting of beer production. Fermentation involves the digestion of sugars which then yield the end-products of carbon dioxide, alcohol, and flavor. The type varies from lager to ale—and everything in between. Many microbreweries use live yeast for carbonation which will add nuances to the aromas and sediment in bottled beers.
Hops can bring a variety of flavors to a brew ranging from fruity to floral to bitter. The beer’s International Bitterness Units (IBU) quantifies the latter on a 0 to 100 scale. The higher the number, the more bitter is the drink. However, it is a somewhat subjective characteristic that varies with the individual’s own perception. You can use this figure as a guide based on your own tastes.
Other things can affect how bitter it may seem. They include factors such as the amount of carbonation or residual sugar that is still present. The gravity measure will tell you how much is present as it compares to water. This number has a narrow range between 1.0 and higher figures in the 1.06 spectrum. But remember even the temperature that it is served may influence its taste.
The manufacturer may use bran, rice, or any grain for the malt to supply the sugar for the yeast. They can also substitute glucose, straight sugar, or molasses too. The processing also plays a role. Even subtle chemical differences in the grain can add complexity and new flavors. Everything is mixed and allowed to ferment.
That’s where the two types deviate. Beer for the masses is often filtered and heated. Microbrews, on the other hand, continue to age in casks. It’s similar to the process of aging wine where the barrels contribute to the complexity of the final product. It allows the producer of the craft brew to experience with different recipes and proportions. On a smaller scale, they have this latitude.
Microbreweries can tweak their use of the ingredients in several ways. They can use different types of grains or hops, not unlike the concept of terroir in wine. They may use different fermentation processes and styles or add unusual ingredients to give their product a unique character. And because they’re taxed less than large-scale operations, their investment into these other ventures isn’t as risky.
However, it isn’t quite the Wild West of brewing. The federal government also regulates what can go into its production and how it contributes to the alcohol level. State and local regulations may also apply. The Alcohol By Volume (ABV) can also influence a beer’s taste. Higher levels can increase the perception of the body of the brew, making it seem fuller.
It can range anywhere between 3 and 20 percent, depending on local regulations. Scottish brewery, Brewmeister, produces the highest alcohol with its Armageddon at a staggering 65 ABV. American brewers don’t skim the surface of anything near that level with most under 10 ABV. The result of this entire process with its limitations brings us to the final product and the experience of tasting a beer.
Taste and Perception
The appearance of the beer provides some important clues. A longer aging period in casks will produce a darker beverage. The Standard Reference Method (SRM) grades beer on a 1 to 40 scale based on its color. Pale products score on the low end of the scale whereas porters go toward the opposite end.
Then, there are the aromas. That’s where the tweaking of the recipe and proportions will come into its own. The addition of non-traditional flavorings or ingredients come into play. All of these are excellent reasons for enjoying your beer in a glass rather than a bottle to fully experience their interplay. Temperature is also important. A lager served at under 40 degrees will taste refreshing whereas it will mask the subtleties of a microbrew.
The head on a glass of beer is another essential part of the experience. It traps the volatile compounds that contribute to the overall taste profile of the brew. That’s why it’s important to pour it correctly to optimize its effects.
When it comes to tasting, the mouthfeel will also contribute to the experience. Think of the difference between drinking skim milk versus cream. That’s what you’ll get when comparing the difference between a lager and a porter or stout. Now we come to the main definition of what is a microbrew.
What Is a Microbrewery?
The difference between a brewery like Budweiser or Miller and a microbrewery is size. Both produce beer, albeit, in different ways. The answer lies in the production as regulated by the federal government. By law, the latter must produce less than 15,000 barrels a year of which at least 75 percent are sold off-site. That opens up a lot of possibilities and different marketing strategies for microbreweries—as well as limitations.
To be clear, there are different divisions within this market. The Beverage Association, for example, defines a craft brewer as one which produces 6 million barrels of beer a year or less. The terms, microbrew and craft beer, are often used interchangeably with the emphasis on quality. A nanobrewery is a scaled-down version with even smaller production yields. These differences affect not only the output but the marketing too.
Mass-market breweries strive to produce a consistent product. The beer tastes the same no matter if you buy it in Florida or Washington. They also must have sufficient quantities, hence, the other methods that companies use. Microbreweries are limited by supply. That means they may stay local and not reach the national market. While it’s a barrier, it’s also an opportunity.
Microbreweries can sell their beers in tasting or tap rooms. Owners can interact directly with customers to create stronger relationships and a loyal following. They can get involved with the community in unique ways such as sponsoring events or festivals. That puts a microbrew on a different plain than a traditional beer. Once a company has built up a following, it sheds its microbrewery status and falls under the umbrella of a craft beer.
A microbrewery has a distinct advantage over mass production. Beer generally tastes best just before it leaves the facility to go to market and begins to deteriorate quickly, depending on the style. For a larger brewery, that means time and factors like temperature and transportation that can affect the stability of the final product.
A small business, on the other hand, doesn’t have these issues and can deliver the freshest possible beer without the same risks of spoilage and damage. It is this unmistakable characteristic that distinguishes a microbrew from others of its kind. It’s one way in which a limited supply isn’t a problem but rather a blessing in disguise. It allows for a quick turnover to maintain this level of quality and cement its place in the market.
Tips to Get the Most Out of Your Microbrew
In addition to temperature, other factors can affect the sensory experience of enjoying a beer. Clean glassware is essential to avoid introducing any unexpected odors or tastes. Before pouring, give the glass a sniff to make sure all is well. While the icy mug seems iconic, save it for the lagers. Cellar temperature is a better choice for those craft beers to maximize the aromas.
It’s important to store your microbrews properly too to avoid the problems with transporting beer that mass-produced beverages encounter. Keep your bottles away from sunlight that can lead to spoilage. And since it has a peak freshness period, be sure to drink up your stores by the batch’s best-by date, if present. Generally, 6 to 12 months is about the maximum unless a beer is brewed for aging.
Also, consider what you’re eating with your beer. Food pairing isn’t just for wine. Those flavors can affect the taste of your microbrew too. Match the weight of the beverage with what’s on your plate. A heavy meal will overwhelm a lager or pale ale.
The industry continues to evolve with new answers to the question of what is a microbrew. For now, the future looks bright with a marketplace eager to explore the range of possibilities and innovations for which craft brewing is known. With over 20 percent of the beer production, the microbrewery industry is poised to continue its reign as the consumer darling.