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How to Pick a Brew

Aced Funnel 101, Keg Tapping, and Intro to Beer Pong in college? Time to take your suds knowledge to the next level.

Photo: Antonis Achilleos / The Nest

Okay, so I know that beer doesn’t just go from grain to bottle -- but how is it actually made?

Check out the four-step process to see how breweries make that magic liquid:

Mashing: A generic grain (often malted barley) is added to hot water in a steel vat or oak barrel. Brewers use instruments to mash the barley (think: mashing a potato), which takes one to two hours. The point is to convert the carbs (aka barley) into sugar.

Boiling: The mixture is now called “sweet wort,” which is put into a copper vat and boiled for an hour. Boiling it causes excess water to evaporate and the liquid ends up with a syrupy, concentrated sweetness.

Hopping: Hops (a flower cone from the hop plant that looks like a green pinecone) are added to balance the liquid’s sweetness and bitterness and to bring out the aroma. Some breweries add another step to the process: They move this “hop wort” to an airtight vat filled with fresh hops called a “hopback.” This enhances flavor and aroma and doesn’t let it escape, helping make the beer taste even more complex.

Fermenting: Once the hop wort has cooled, yeast is added, which creates bubbles and turns it into alcohol (aka beer). Fermenting can be done a couple of times and takes anywhere from weeks to months.

What are the most popular beers?

Beers are generally categorized in two types based on how they’re fermented:

Ale goes through the fermentation process at higher temperatures (65 to 75 degrees) than lager because brewers use a type of yeast that floats at the top of the tank and produces a foam. Ales have a quick brewing process -- while they can be aged, they’re often ready to go within a month.

Ales are full-bodied, sweet, and fruity with a typically stronger, more bitter hop flavor than lagers. Pale, red, brown (aka English ale) and stout (which can taste like coffee, chocolate, or, yep, even oatmeal) are just a few varieties in the ale family, which all have distinct flavors and colors.

Lager is fermented at lower temperatures (46 to 55 degrees) using a slower-acting type of yeast that settles at the bottom of the tank, giving it a smoother, mellower flavor than ale. “Lager” is the German word for “storage” and needs to age in this cool environment for a few months. The darker the lager (determined by how long its malted grain was roasted), the more complex its flavor will be. Pale lager originated in Germany and has become one of the most popular beers in the world. Amber lager is a North American variety with a strong, malty taste.

Pairing food and wine can get complicated…is it the same for beer?

Not at all! The one rule of beer and food pairing is refreshingly simple: Lighter beers call for lighter foods (grilled fish, chicken, salad), and darker beers complement richer foods (red meat, cheeses, even chocolate). So what are you supposed to drink when you’re at a bar or cocktail party after work and there are no real snack options in sight? Follow this mantra: When you sip sans food, keep it light. Even if you like the taste and richness of traditionally heavier beers, drinking ’em alone is a meal in itself and you may feel instant “beer bloat” by the time you slide off your bar stool.

Now, the skinny on light beer:

If you and your spouse are trying to whittle your abs, light beer may be the way to go. But you could find yourselves throwing back more brews (and calories) overall than if you’d gotten your fill from one or two regulars. Just keep in mind if you do go regular: A lighter-colored beer doesn’t necessarily have fewer calories than a darker one -- in fact, Guinness has less calories than many lighter-hued brews...who knew?

How to pour like a pro:

Even if you’re drinking from a plastic cup, you’ll get higher-quality, better-tasting beer with a proper pour. Here’s how:

step 1: Tip the glass at a 45-degree angle; then begin pouring your beer of choice. Aim the liquid toward the middle slope inside the glass.

step 2: As the glass fills from one-half to two-thirds full, slowly tip the glass upright and pour the rest into the center.

You’ll get a thick foam or “head” on the beer, which enhances the look, aroma, and flavor.

step 3: While you pour the last drops, make sure the head begins an inch (at most) below the top of the glass. Pour slow and steady -- especially if it’s a stout -- or you’ll get too much of a good thing.

Find the best beers from pale lagers to dry stouts

-- Riann Smith

See More: Bar & Cocktails , Entertaining