My Quick Beer Education With Michael Agnew

In this episode of The Thoughtful Cooking Podcast, I had the opportunity to interview Minnesota’s first Certified Cicerone (a formal name for a beer master) Michael Agnew.  Obviously, Michael knows way more about beer than I do, so I was sure to use this time wisely to boost my beer education as quickly as possible, from the basics of how beer is made to more advanced topics like properly pairing beer with food for optimal results.

Topics Covered:

  • what is a Certified Cicerone?
  • what is beer?
  • history of beer
  • how beer is made
  • hops are super important
  • how beer is viewed in the press
  • craft brews vs large scale brewers
  • different shaped glasses for different style beers
  • proper beer tasting
  • pairing beer and food
  • quick beer recommendation

PODCAST TRANSCRIPT:

Welcome everyone. I’m Greg Fleischaker with The Thoughtful Cooking podcast. Today I’m sitting down with Michael Agnew from Minneapolis, Minnesota to discuss beer.

Michael is a certified cicerone, which hopefully he’ll discuss with us today, as well as the author of the book A Perfect Pint Beer Guide to the Heartland. He has written for many magazines and websites, including Growler Mag, the Minneapolis Star Tribune and Beer Connoisseur. He also offers a guided beer tasting and educational service for corporate events, office parties, as well as private parties.

In addition to being a beer expert, Michael is involved with the website Let’s Grab A Beer, (www.letsgraba.beer) with the common goal of promoting beer and elevating the context around this beverage and the thought process of enjoying beer.

Michael, first thank you so much for your time today. I really appreciate you letting me pick your brain a bit about beer. Did I get that right? Did I get the introduction right?

Michael:    That sounds right. Thanks for having me.

Greg:    Wonderful. You’re a Certified Cicerone. Can you tell me a little bit about what that is and what it means to be a Cicerone?

Michael:    Sure. The Cicerone program was started in Chicago in 2007. Basically you can think of it as the beer world’s version of a sommelier. A beer guide, if you will.

Greg:    Wonderful. The sommelier, that’s a formal name I guess. Is the Cicerone program as recognized, or is it working to become as recognized?

Michael:    Yes. Cicerone is actually a trademarked term. Unless you’ve passed the series of exams to get the certification, you can’t call yourself a cicerone. It is gaining recognition. There are now cicerones all over the world, so it’s picking up a lot of recognition and a lot of credibility.

Greg:    I don’t know if it’s classroom hours, but there is some education that goes into it? It’s not a local guy in the bar who’s tried twenty beers and says I’m a beer master? What kind of stuff do you have to know that sets you apart from what a normal “regular guy” would know?

Michael:    There are several areas of knowledge to the Cicerone programs. There’s beer service and storage, beer styles, tastings, draft systems. It’s a broad, broad range of knowledge. Basically to get the certification there isn’t a formal education process at this point in time. It’s mostly pretty much self-taught, but there’s a series of exams that you can take. There are four levels now to the program. The basic level is a certified beer server. It’s an online exam. The Certified Cicerone level is a four-hour exam with two to three hours of written, twelve beer tastings and a draft system demonstration.

Greg:    So it’s a broad depth of knowledge? It’s not just a little bit of tasting?

Michael:    No. It’s a really broad … Broad and deep, let’s call it.

Greg:    Okay. I’m an on again, off again beer drinker. I probably don’t know as much as I should. I really enjoy food. I really enjoy hanging out with friends and family. I feel like I know more about beer and wine, but I’m not even sure I could answer the basic question, what is beer? What makes beer beer as opposed to some other beverage?

Michael:    The definition of beer is a fermented beverage made with cereal grains. That actually includes sake. Even though we call sake rice wine, it starts with a cereal grain and the process of making it is much more like it is making beer than it is like making wine.

Greg:    Okay. So sake is a type of beer?

Michael:    In a sense yes.

Greg:    Not many people would recognize it as such, but you’re saying technically speaking perhaps?

Michael:    Yes.

Greg:    Okay. Cereal grains? That’s going to be our grasses … Not literally grass, but like wheat, barley, rye, oats?

Michael:    Primarily barley, but also wheat, rye, oats. You can really make beer out of almost any grain. Primarily it would be barley, wheat and rye.

Beer Ingredients with Logo

Greg:    Did beer come into existence … Another question, was it discovered or invented, but did it come into existence around the same time that people started cultivating these cereal grains or was it existing before that?

Michael:    Actually nobody knows how long it’s been in existence or whether it was invented or discovered. There’s archaeological evidence going back to as far as 3000 BC in China for fermented beverages. They were making it long before that, but they have pot scrapings that go back that far. There’s even various serious scholarship that says one of the reasons for the formation of settled agricultural civilization in the Fertile Crescent was to grow barley to make beer because it was an important part of ritual life in that region.

Greg:    So maybe bread and beer were the cornerstones of civilization?

Michael:    Indeed.

Greg:    Okay. That’s great. You mentioned that fermentation is a key component to making this beer. I’m a little familiar with yogurt or dill pickles or kimchi or some fermented foods. A lot of health experts tell us that fermented foods are great because we get beneficial probiotics and digestive enzymes. Is that true for beer? Do I get to say that … Does it hold some of the same health benefits or is it a different kind of fermentation we’re talking about?

Michael:    I can’t speak directly to the health benefits, but I can say that beer is fermented with yeast just like wine or any of the other fermented beverages out there. It’s the same organisms basically that ferment beer and any other fermented goods.

Greg:    Okay. You caught me up a little bit on history. I’m curious about the process of … Not too technical. I’m sure you could … I don’t want to take up your whole afternoon, but … We have some grains and a brewer decides I suppose which grain they want to use because it will effect the final beer. What is the process … I understand there are a thousand variables, but a quick rundown of the process of what someone might think about, what grains they might want to choose and taking it from the field to my kitchen table.

Michael:    I should say there are other things that go into beer as well, like hops for instance are a really important ingredient in beer. Basically the brewer is going to decide on a recipe. They’re going to choose different types of malted grains, so the grain is put through a malting process. It’s sprouted in kilns to get different flavors and colors.

Greg:    Is that what malted means, that they sprouted the grain, that they let it germinate a little bit and then when it starts growing … Is that what malting is?

Michael:    That is what malting is. Yes.

Greg:    Okay. So when I make bread out of sprouted grains I’m kind of walking down the same path?

Michael:    Exactly.

Greg:    Okay. Cool. Sorry for the interruption.

Michael:    Then what the brewer wants to do is extract the sugar from those grains, so they do a process called mashing, where they soak the grains in water of a certain temperature and that activates enzymes that convert starches into simple sugars. They draw that sweet, it’s now called [inaudible 00:07:48] off and put it in a boil kettle and boil it for a period of time. During the boil they’re also adding the hops that they’re going to use that are going to provide bitterness and a load of flavors and aromas. Then it’s cooled and fermented. That’s the basic process for making beer.

Greg:    Each one of these steps I’m guessing has a whole bunch of variations? You made it sound like it was super easy but … You said they add the hops. I’m guessing there are lots of different kinds of hops you can choose or how much you want to use?

Michael:    Oh, yeah. There are hundreds of varieties of hops. Hops give us both bitterness to balance the sweetness in beer and flavors and aromas, so brewers are going to choose hop varieties based on the level of bitterness they want and also on the types of flavors and aromas they want to put in their beer. They can add hops at various points during that boil. If they add hops early in the boil, they’re going to extract more bitterness from those hops. If they add them later in the boil, they’re going to extract more flavors and aromas from those hops.

Greg:    Is that just due to the length that the hops have been in there or are you talking about the temperature of the boil affects the flavor coming off the hops?

Michael:    The deal is the acids in hops that cause bitterness won’t absorb into liquids straight out. They have to be boiled. That causes a chemical change that allows them to absorb into the liquid. You have to boil them for a longer time so you get that chemical conversion to happen. The oils that give the flavors and aromas in hops are really volatile. If you boil those for too long, you’ll just boil them away. Therefore they add those at the end of the boil so that they dissolve but they don’t volatilize away.

Greg:    Okay. Then it’s part of the artistry of each individual brewer to figure out what kind of balance they want between the hops and I guess the malted flavoring, sweet versus bitter? Every one has a different palate?
Michael:    That’s dependent on the whim of the brewer. It’s dependent on the style that they’re trying to brew. If they’re brewing an India pale ale or instance, they’re going to emphasize those hops and they’re going to use a lot more of those bittering and aroma hops. If they’re brewing a malted beer, like an Oktoberfest for instance, they’re going to need just enough hops to kind of balance the sweetness and keep it from being sticky.

Greg:    There’s not really you’re saying a right profile for beer? It is a wide spectrum from very hoppy to very malty and everything in between?

Michael:    It certainly is. The difference of style line categorizations, depending on the organization’s guidelines that you’re looking at, there’s anywhere from ninety to almost two hundred different styles of beer, each with an individual, distinct flavor profile.

Greg:    Wow! That kind of blows my mind. I shouldn’t feel bad if I like maybe something more towards the malty end and less hops? That doesn’t make me a bad beer drinker?

Michael:    Heavens no. Drink what you like.

Greg:    Okay. Wonderful. I’ve heard the term and you’ve already indicted maybe … Not that I’m going to ask about some of the health aspects, but I’m concerned because it seems like sometimes beer gets a bad rap. You hear the term beer belly and things like that. Certainly there’s a way to drink beer responsibly in today’s society and still … I’m not trying to become Mr. Olympia or whatever, but maintain a healthy lifestyle. Beer can fit in a healthy modern lifestyle? Yes? Do you think?

Michael:    Sure. Really it comes down to moderation. If you do anything in excess, then you’re going to suffer consequences from that. Really moderate consumption of beer is the same as moderate consumption of wine or any kind of food.

Greg:    How come wine gets so much more love in the press and in movies? Why is that so romanticized, when it sounds like beer is every bit technically demanding and artistically demanding as wine? Is it just I’m watching the wrong movies or is that actually the case, that sometime wine gets more love in the press than beer might?

Michael:    I think nowadays beer is getting lots of love in the press. With the boom in craft brewing you’re seeing beer get a lot more attention of late, and a lot of the attention that it deserves, just given the variety of flavors and everything. I think what we’ve seen is prior to thirty years ago we had kind of a beer model culture. Beer didn’t seem as interesting as wine or as complex as wine. Now we’ve got this whole spectrum of different beers out there from the American light lagers all the way to the big, rich, complex imperial stouts that have lifted beer up to a level I think similar to where wine has been for a long time.

Greg:    Cool. Okay. Has it hurt at all that there’s so much national angst about gluten and gluten intolerance, or is that a little overblown? If you have, like you said before, moderation … If you have a beer or two … I’m not talking about people with real medical conditions, but just the general sense out there.

Michael:    Again, I can’t speak to the health aspects of this, the medical aspects of this. I can say beer does contain gluten, so if you’re concerned about that, it’s something to think about. There are also gluten-free beers being made now.

Greg:    Are they any good?

Michael:    There are some. They’re getting better all the time.

Greg: All right. You talked about some of the craft beers earlier. I used to be a glassblower, an artist, and I kind of felt that there was always some level of … I don’t want to say it, but the small guy often produced a different quality, sometimes a higher quality than some of the big box stores as far as the art was concerned. Is that maybe true of beer or sometimes true? You can’t really tell by the size of the brewery?

Michael: I would say you can’t really tell by the size of the brewery. I also think certain styles of beer get a bad rap, an undeserved bad rap. It’s all beer, whether it’s a light lager or, again, those imperial stouts. They all take a certain level of skill to make. In fact, those light lagers are extraordinarily hard to make consistently.

I really don’t think in terms of quality that the size of the brewery matters. I can point to lots of great big breweries who are making extraordinary beer and I can point to lots of small breweries who are making pretty bad beer.

Hop Culture Final

Greg: Okay. You just said something about a lager, and I’ve heard the term lager and ale. I’m not sure I know the difference. Is that something that I should know if I’m someone who’s concerned with what I eat or what I consume? Should I know the difference.

Michael: Really the only difference between the two, or the primary difference between the two, I should say, is the type of yeast that ferments them. One ferments at a higher temperature and gives more of the round yeast fermentation flavors, whereas lager is fermented at a colder temperature and gives a cleaner, crisper profile that really let’s the malt, and especially the hops, shine through.

Greg: Okay. So two different strains of yeast? Two different actual yeasts, and that’s the difference?

Michael: Yeah. Two different actual species of yeast.

Greg: Okay. Cool. I think I saw in an article that I think you wrote that you think that different beers should be consumed in different style glasses? Is that right?

Michael: Uh-huh (affirmative). It’s …

Greg: And just a … go ahead.

Michael: It’s really just like wine. You’ve got Bordeaux glasses, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera going on. Each of those is designed to highlight the characteristics of a particular wine. It’s the same with beer. There are beer glasses that will highlight the characteristics of particular beer styles, given the shape and the volume of the glass.

Greg: Okay. I saw that article and I had to laugh, because as I mentioned earlier, I was a … Not laugh mockingly, but I was amused because a friend of mine who also is a glassblower started a company just for that purpose, Pretentious Beer Glass Company. It’s strictly different shaped glasses for different beers. It was funny that the two worlds sort of tied together there for me. Maybe I’ll have to invest and get a set of glasses…

Michael: I think you should.

Greg: When you’re tasting beer, I’m sure you would do it differently than I would. Again, someone who’s concerned with quality and good times with friends and family and good food, how should I taste beer? What is the proper way … Is there a proper way to taste beer? To enjoy it and … Enjoy the artistry of the beer making and enjoy myself in the moment?

Michael: Yeah. Definitely. I would say the first thing is … My basic tenet is think and drink. Don’t just guzzle it down. Really pay attention to what you’re drinking. People aren’t necessarily accustomed to doing that with beer, but you’ll discover a world of flavor if you do so. But then the process, you definitely want to smell your beer, so just swirl it slightly, not like the wine folks do. Just swirl it slightly to raise a little bit of head and take a big smell. You’re going to get a load of aromatic pleasure from that beer, particularly in the hoppy beers, because hops really deliver a gobsmack of aroma, whether it’s citrusy or herbal or piney or spicy, whatever.

You want to be sure and look at your beer. Admire the color. Admire the clarity. Admire the head. Then when you taste the beer, again pay attention. What are the malt flavors you’re getting? What are the hop flavors you’re getting? Are there any fermentation derived flavors? What’s the mouth feel? Is it full-bodied or light-bodied? What’s the level of carbonation? There are all these things that you can pay attention to if you really take the time to think and drink, like I said.

Greg: Okay. When I take my first sip or two, do I want to drink some of the head? Do I want to try to avoid that? Is that part of the experience?

Michael: The head is totally part of the experience. Remember, the head is mostly beer. It’s beer and air basically. The head does a couple of things. One, the combination that forms the head is carrying those aromas out of the glass. The head also kind of forms a cap on the beer that helps to keep those aromatics kind of restrained in the beer, if you will. It kind of focuses them towards your nose.

Greg: Okay. When I’m having people over and we want to taste a couple beers or if I’m out and about, is there something I should look for that lets me know that one beer may be of a higher quality? That the brewer knew what they were doing a little bit more than another? Or is it sort of whatever I enjoy is okay and I don’t need to overthink it too much?

Michael: I would say whatever you enjoy is okay and you don’t need to overthink it too much. There’s nothing on the label, per se, that’s going to indicate quality. If you like something, drink it.

Greg: Go for it? Okay. What about eating? Again, I appreciate your time. I don’t want to take your whole afternoon, but maybe a couple more questions if you’ll let me.

Michael: Sure.

Greg: We haven’t talked about eating too much with the beer. Is there something … Maybe a couple tips or something you try to do when you pair beer with food, or is there something that I should try to do?

Michael: Yeah. Definitely. First thing I do is try and match intensity. This is very similar to pairing wine for those few who like to think about wine and food. I match intensity, lighter food with lighter intensity beers, heavier foods with heavier intensity beers. I look for flavor bridges, flavor complements. For instance, let’s stick with hops for a moment, the kind of flavor profies you get from hops.

If you’re looking an American India pale ale for instance, you’re going to get a lot of fruity and piney and floral hop flavors, so if you have a dish that has some kind of a citrus characteristic in it, that’s going to bridge well. Another kind of thing is contrasts. The citrus in an American IPA really contrasts nicely to the sweetness, and the bitterness of an IPA really contrasts nicely to the sweetness of a carrot cake. You’re looking for bridges and you’re looking for contrasts when you’re pairing.

Greg: Okay. It can certainly be done and I can … It’s not, again, bad of me to bounce from one beer to another depending on what I’m having over the course of an evening?

Michael: Right. Another example of that for bridges, thinking that we’re in the fall season now and fall foods and beer are really great together, especially some of the maltier beers. Think Oktoberfest. This is Oktoberfest season. The kilning of the malt for Oktoberfest gives the same flavors actually that you get from browning when you cook. Think browned sausages or something like that, anything where you’re going to get that browning from cooking.

Another way to think about pairing is … The wine people say if it grows together, it goes together. With beer I like to say if it’s made together, it goes together. Using that Oktoberfest example again, it’s a German style beer, so think German foods. Think roast pork or sausages or that sort of things.

Greg: Okay. Wonderful. Again, I really appreciate your time. If I may, one last question. Anytime I get to talk with people who enjoy food or beverages and they spend a good deal of time thinking about these issues, I like to ask them if they can think of anything over the past weeks or months … What was your favorite meal or dish or a snack, in your case maybe a beverage; just one thing that sort of pops out in your mind that you can remember right now that really worked for you for whatever reason, it just hit the spot? Is there something that you can share with us?

Michael: In terms of a beer, I just recently did a big blind tasting of Oktoberfest. I think that Oktoberfest is just the perfect beer for this season. The color matches the changing of the leaves. It’s leaning a little bit towards malt. There’s a whole range of great Oktoberfest beers out there right now.

Another thing that I think people could look out for right now, this is the hop harvest season and brewers are going to start coming out with their fresh hop beer. Those are beers where the hops are picked and immediately put into the brewing kettle before they’re dried. It gives you a really bright, fresh hop flavor and adds just a touch of sort of chlorophyll grassiness to the beer. Those beers are going to be coming out any day now.

Greg: I will try one of those and I will think of you, but I think that I tend towards the maltier side of the spectrum if past performance is any indication of future preference.

Michael: Like I said, drink what you like.

Greg: That’s right. I really appreciate you speaking with me today. If someone listening wants to get in touch with you, maybe purchase your book or read your articles, hire you for a tasting party, what’s the best way to reach out and find you?

Michael: They can look at my website at aperfectpint.net. They can always email me at michael@aperfectpint.net, and I’m on Facebook under aperfectpint.

Greg: Wonderful. I really appreciate your time today.

Michael: Sure. Thank you.

Greg: Thank you.

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