(ANYTOWN, USA) Two teenage sweethearts were recently parked at the local lover’s lane when the radio announced that a violent madman had escaped from a nearby asylum. This dangerous lunatic could be easily identified—by the prosthetic hook that replaced his right hand. To her boyfriend’s great frustration, the girl insisted that he take her home immediately. When they reached her house, he came around to open her door, only to discover something dangling from the handle on the passenger-side door.
It was a bloody hook. No joke.
This happened to the brother-in-law of a friend of mine. Really.
And then there are the eight-foot-long, blind, albino alligators that roam New York’s sewers, flushed down the toilet as babies when they became unruly pets. It’s true. My barber’s first cousin twice removed has seen them, I swear. The dark of the sewers may have cost the gators their sight, but they still have jaws that can cut a man in half, or swallow a baby whole.
We know someone who’s personally seen the scientific proof that the gators exist. (Unfortunately, we can’t put our hands on that evidence right at the moment…)
There are urban legends, such as the classic tales involving “the hook” and the sewer gators of Gotham. Then there are the urban legends of beer, brewing stories that always seem to teeter between mild plausibility and complete absurdity. Like other urban legends, someone is always prepared to swear that they got these beer legends on good authority, from a dental hygienist whose uncle once worked next door to a brewery. Honest.
But, no matter how often they are repeated, most of these beer myths just don’t stand up to extensive scrutiny. Let’s take a look at some of the most prevalent:
Beer Legend #1: Wine goes better with food than beer.
Truth: Wine is a fine and venerable beverage. But the two countries that have shaped our ideas of what constitutes fine food—France and Italy—also happen to be cultures that make and drink wine. That doesn’t mean that these are the only cuisines to emulate, nor does it mean that wine is the only beverage to pair with serious food. In fact, for most dishes, there are beer matches that are every bit as compatible as any wine. And for some foods—spicy or sweet in particular—beer steps up where wine falls flat.
Want proof? Champagne and caviar may be a classic pair, but a crisp, authentic pilsner fares better with the famed fish eggs. Researchers have concluded that cheese deadens the palate to the wine that accompanies it; but beer with cheese—the stinkier the better—is a combination that is more than the sum of its parts. And over-the-top chocolate desserts seem to have been invented with stout in mind.
Beer Legend #2: Bock beer is made from what’s left at the bottom of beer barrels after their annual cleaning.
Truth: No, that sounds more like Marmite, the black, salty goo that the English spread on toast. Very much an acquired taste, Marmite is made from yeast extract from the Bass Brewery at Burton-on-Trent, among other breweries.
Actually, bock beer isn’t leftover anything. It’s a strong, malty lager, often a winter or springtime seasonal brew. Bock probably originated in the northern German town of Einbeck, the name of which likely became corrupted over time to “ein bock.” Because the word “bock” also means billy goat in German, bock beers often bear the image of a goat. The two meanings of the word are linked in a tale that describes a drinking contest between two brewers. When one finally stumbles, then protests that he was thrown off balance by a goat, the winner boasts, “Well, I made the bock that knocked you down!” That, however, is another legend for another time.
Beer Legend #3: Beer is fattening (and the closely allied myth “Beer gives you a beer belly”).
Truth: The notion that beer is particularly liable to add the pounds is the bogus belief that allowed the creation of the diet-beer industry. Has anyone contemplated marketing a skinny wine or a low-cal malt whiskey?
Beer is no more a culprit in weight gain than any other alcoholic beverage. In fact, since it is such a dilute drink, dieters can find it satisfyingly filling. A 1999 study in Belgium concluded that beer-drinkers who drink in moderation do not differ in their weight from non-drinkers. Surprisingly, some of the most popular dark beers, Irish dry stouts, are actually quite light in both alcohol and calories. However, don’t generalize to the higher-strength styles: an Imperial stout really will put a dent in your diet plan.
Beer Legend #4: Dark beer is strong (and/or in fattening and bitter).
Truth: The only absolutely true thing to be said about dark beer is that it’s, well, dark. The hue of the beer comes from the color of the grain used to brew the beer. Therefore, pale grain produces pale beer, and so forth.
The grain to make beer (mainly barley) gets its color from the heat applied to stop germination, a step in converting barley grain to malt. Back in the days when this heat couldn’t be well controlled, the roasting was uneven and most beer was dark-ish. With advances in technology, maltsters could produce malt that varied in color from pale straw to black. Those advances allowed brewers to choose the grains to produce beers with the color and flavor characteristics they wanted.
Dark beers can range from weak in alcohol to strong; so can light beers.
There is some truth to the claim that dark beer is bitter. Although most bitterness in beer comes from hops, highly roasted barley can impart a burnt toast-bitterness that gives character to many stouts and porters.
Beer Legend #5: Bottled beer tastes better than canned.
Truth: Once true, but no longer. Early cans may have been a revelation for consumers, who found them handy and portable. However, a tinny taste often crept into the beer. Aluminum cans (pioneered by Coors) reduced the risk, and a thin inner-coating of polymer now keeps the beer from contacting metal. If doubts linger about whether “good” beer belongs in cans, the success of the growing number of micro-canners should dispel it.
The problem with canned beer is its down-market image. You can shotgun a can of beer, and crush the empties on your forehead; you just can’t have that kind of fun with a bottle, and many connoisseurs of fine beer think you shouldn’t, anyway. But gradually, the convenience of cans will win over more drinkers and brewers who want a greater range of beer choices at beaches, golf courses and on airplanes—places where bottles are banned.
Beer Legend #6: Canadian beer is stronger than US brew.
Truth: Until rather recently, the alcohol content of Canadian beer was measured by volume (ABV) and US beer by weight (ABW). Since alcohol weighs less than water, its measurement by volume is a larger number than its measurement by weight: a beer that is 5% alcohol by volume (say, a Canadian beer) would be listed as 4% alcohol by weight (if purchased in the U.S.). The Canadian beer would bear the higher number, although the strength would be the same.
The two systems can have the effect of making some beers look weaker. The “three-two” beers that used to be permitted to 18-20 year olds in many states were 3.2 percent alcohol by weight. This comes out to about 4 percent by volume, only about half a percent weaker than many “mainstream” beers.
Increasingly, American beers’ alcohol contents are listed by volume. Canadian beers don’t look so strong any more.
Beer Legend #7: Imported beers are sophisticated.
Truth: A couple of decades ago, when diversity in American beer had hit its nadir, imports were virtually the only source of beer variety. If a drinker wanted an all-malt beer, an ale instead of a lager, or a dark beer of any description, imports were the way to go. The expensive imported beer became a badge of status, and this had some silly consequences: the poor condition of many imports once they reached these shores led some drinkers to regard skunkiness as a virtue, rather than a defect.
In fact, most of the big imports are brewed in the same broad style as American mainstream beer. Heineken, Corona and St. Pauli Girl (for example) are all in the same stylistic family as Budweiser, Miller and Coors. And our domestic specialty brewers are making some beers that European drinkers should seek out for their cachet.
If you equate sophistication with standing out from the herd, look to style, not national origin.
Beer Legend #8: Drinking beer through a straw gets you drunker.
Truth: Surprise! This one seems to be true, bearing out the beliefs of countless college students trying to court inebriation on a budget—and who don’t have much concern about actually tasting what they drink. Turns out that sucking beer through a straw vaporizes a portion of the alcohol, allowing it to be absorbed through the lungs. (And legislators are worried about outlawing the alcohol-inhaling machines…)
Now we’ll have to reassess those ancient pictures of Egyptians drinking beer from a communal pot through long straws. Seems that they weren’t filtering out detritus; they were catching a buzz.
Beer Legend #9: Beer is a man’s drink.
Truth: Well, only if you’re looking at the numbers. True, more men drink beer than women, but women should reassert their claims to the beverage for three primary reasons. First, women were traditionally the brewers (or “brewsters,” as female brewers were called) in many cultures, where beer making was a domestic duty, like baking bread. Next, hops (the plant used to flavor and preserve beer) contain plant estrogens that might be more congenial to women. Finally, in our culture, women are typically still taught to be more attuned to flavor than men, and the modern microbrewing movement is all about flavorful beers.
Beer Legend #10: The “hair of the dog” will cure a hangover.
Truth: This is based on the old-time aphorism that the best cure for a dog’s bite is an application of “the hair of the dog that bit you.” Of course, none of us would rely on that to cure rabies, and the application of more booze to cure too much booze is about as credible.
If you’ve had too much to drink, more alcohol when you wake up may indeed make you feel better, because it maintains the buzz a little longer. It forestalls, but does not prevent, the inevitable.
Beer Legend #11: Coffee will sober you up.
Truth: No, your body metabolizes alcohol at a rate that is unaffected by whatever other substances you ingest afterwards. Nothing speeds up liver function, which processes about one ounce of alcohol per hour. The only thing that coffee—or a shower—will do is keep you from drinking more alcohol, which may give you time to sober up.
Beer Legend #12: The order of consumption of alcoholic beverages matters.
Truth: “Beer before liquor, never sicker. Liquor before beer, in the clear.” It’s a treasured truism, passed from booze-seasoned granddad to naïve youngster, but it’s probably wrong. As individuals, we may treat beer, wine and spirits differently—do we toss down shots early in the evening and mellow out with beer later; or warm up with beer, and then get crazy with spirits?—but in the end, the sequence doesn’t matter. If you consume a lot of alcohol, you’ll get hammered.
There’s no better proof that the above advice is suspect than the equally beloved variation: “Beer on whiskey, rather risky. Whiskey on beer, never fear.”
Beer Legend #13: Ale is stronger than lager.
Truth: (See “Dark beer is strong.”). No, there are weak ales and strong ales, weak lagers and strong lagers. The ale/lager divide has nothing to do with alcohol strength, but with fermentation temperature. The world of beer can be divided into two great families: ales, where the yeast performs best at warm temperatures; and lagers, in which the yeast thrives at colder temperatures. This sounds terribly arcane, but it has important consequences for flavor: cold fermentation is very tidy, producing a very clean beverage; warm fermentation allows for more odd esters—fruity and spicy notes—that are the hallmark of ales.
Julie Johnson Bradford
Julie Johnson Bradford is the editor of All About Beer Magazine. Prior to that, she served as UN Ambassador to Belgium, was a regular on the last season of “Dallas,” and invented the candy “Pop Rocks,” which we hear will make your stomach explode if you eat them while drinking soda pop.