For some, beer is a delight for the senses; for others, it’s an acquired taste. For Monique Alex, beer tender and connoisseur, beer is both an exploration in flavor and an immersion into a culture centered in community.
Alex used to hate beer, until she realized she was just drinking lousy beer. She wondered if others might be facing the same challenge. With five breweries in a 5-mile radius in Rochester, there is ample opportunity to explore and enjoy all the complex flavors that beer has to offer.
For those of us who are beginners, most beers are made up of four basic ingredients: barley, hops, yeast and water. Barley is processed into malt, then brewed. Hops are added during brewing to balance the malt with a more bitter flavor. Yeast adds carbonation and alcohol content during fermentation.
The two most basic categories of beer are ales and lagers. This is determined by how the yeast ferments during the brewing process. In ales, the yeast ferments at the top of the tank, making the yeast brew more quickly, which results in more flavorful, complex and generally darker beers. In lagers, the yeast ferments at the bottom of the tank, causing it to produce fewer of the compounds that add flavor. This process makes for crisper, less-complex beers.
Sample a flight
Alex recommends starting your journey into the world of beer by determining what flavors you like—malty, bitter, chocolatey, fruity. Most breweries offer detailed descriptions of the flavors and the experience of drinking each offering. Beer tenders at local breweries are great resources to help you make your selections. Breweries often offer a flight of beers—a sampler that allows you to taste different types and determine your favorites. If you consider yourself a wine drinker, Alex likes to have you describe the types of wine you like and then makes recommendations based on flavors. The most important thing when you begin your journey is to learn about your own tastebuds and explore a variety of beers.
Learning from the experts
When Alex moved to Rochester six years ago, she wanted to try homebrewing. She chuckles as she recalls that as a new homeowner, “I didn’t want to blow up our house that we just bought.” One day, she was walking on the trail by Little Thistle and decided it made sense to learn from folks who actually knew what they were doing.
“Steve and Dawn Finney are great people and really smart when it comes to homebrewing,” she explains. “As a beer tender there, I have gotten an education about the process of making beer. It is about being creative and learning as you go.”
Once Alex began learning, she realized that she could safely homebrew and did her first batch with a homebrew kit that was a gift from her wife. Currently, she is making her eighth brew.
Alex recommends that people start with an extract kit that comes with all of the ingredients you need. Some even come with essential equipment. Kits come in different sizes and with different ingredients so you can try making the beers that you know you like first. Kits give you easy-to-follow recipes ensuring that you will be more likely to have immediate success.
Life lessons from beer
When asked what life lessons she has learned from her journey in the beer drinking and brewing world, Alex chuckles. “You never really know what you are going to get. Allow yourself to experience the creative process of discovery. Be adventurous … if it sounds weird, you have to try it.”