New beers stress flavor, your health

May 15, 2002|By ROB KASPER

TWO NEW beers are appearing in Baltimore this month. That, by itself, is not much news. Brands of beer can pop up and disappear as fast as spring flowers. Yet the arrival of these two beers, Czechvar and Michelob Ultra, caught my attention because of their divergent appeals to the beer-drinking public.

Czechvar is a lager imported from Ceske Budejovice, a city in the Czech Republic renowned for its full-flavored beers. World travelers might call this beer the "real Budweiser," a title that Anheuser-Busch, which brews the American Budweiser, would dispute.

Thanks to marketing agreements and legal battles, the only brew that can call itself Budweiser in North America is the one brewed by Anheuser-Busch. And so this Czech beer, which in Europe is called Budvar, is appearing in Maryland and about 16 other states, sporting a label that reads Czechvar. This name roughly translated means Czech brewery. It was made up by the brewery's marketing department.

"This is a beer aimed at people who drink imported beers," said Rob Neuner, head of Czech Beer Importers, the Darien, Conn., firm that imports Czechvar for the eastern section of the United States. "It is a beer for people who want flavor in their beer and don't worry that much about calories," he said.

The beer, which is 5 percent alcohol by volume, is made with Moravian malt, Saatz hops and water from the brewery's own wells, Neuner said. This beer matures in horizontal lagering tanks for at least 90 days (many breweries have vertical lagering tanks).

I don't know whether I can taste the difference between beer that has been lagered sideways as opposed to up-and-down, but the bottles of Czechvar I sampled were impressive. This is a beer with an appealing gold color, an impressive head, a creamy body and an outstanding, bitter finish. Moreover, for a beer that had a lot in it, it was surprisingly quaffable. I could see why brews from this region of the world have been making kings, emperors and plain-old beer drinkers happy for centuries.

(Czechvar should be appearing in Baltimore area beer shops this week, priced between $7 and $8 a six-pack, said Sherri Casey, head of Legends Ltd., the firm distributing the beer here. Customers can call the distributor at 410-817-4804 to find the closest retailer carrying the beer, Casey said.)

While the brewers of Czechvar are stressing flavor, the folks making Michelob Ultra are emphasizing health. In particular, they are touting the fact that Michelob Ultra has fewer carbohydrates than any other beer on the market.

An average beer has about 13 to 15 grams of carbohydrates per 12-ounce serving, while light beers weigh in at 5 to 7 grams, according to The Low Carb Luxury Newsletter. Michelob Ultra has 2.9 grams per 12-ounce serving.

The beer has been in test markets and this week is being rolled out in Baltimore, Washington, Chicago and Florida. (In Baltimore, it is being distributed by Winner Distributing Co., 410-282-1600, and is expected to sell at between $5 and $6 a six-pack.) As part of its marketing push, Anheuser-Busch, brewers of Michelob as well as Budweiser, sent staff brew master Jill Vaughn and vice president Dave Peacock out to meet members of the beer-drinking media.

My first question of the Michelob Ultra team was, "Why?" Why bother to make a beer with low carbs?

Peacock answered by saying that market research showed there are beer drinkers out there, primarily light-beer drinkers, who are "counting their carbs." Michelob, which already made nine styles of beer carrying its name, decided to add a 10th, Michelob Ultra, aimed at this carb-counting market.

Basically, this group of beer drinkers falls into two age categories, he said, the younger set, 21-27, and the older, 40-50 set. Members of the younger set are carb-conscious because they want to keep their bodies in top shape, he said. They tend to drink several beers at a time, primarily on social occasions such as hanging out at a club or a friend's apartment, he said.

The older carb-counters are looking for beers that are less filling or, as Peacock put it, "less bloating." They often drink beers with meals, he said, expressing his hope that the low-carb beer will replace the glass of wine as a mealtime beverage for this age group.

The second question I asked was how do you lower the carbs in a beer. Brewer Vaughn answered this, saying basically that you extend the mashing time in the beer-making cycle from something like 45 minutes to something like three hours. The extended mashing time lets the enzymes convert more simple sugars into alcohol. If the alcohol level gets too high, it is rectified at the end of the brewing process by adding water. Michelob Ultra is a moderate 4.1 percent alcohol by volume.

Maybe I should be counting my carbs, but I don't. Nonetheless, I tried a couple of bottles of Michelob Ultra. It had a pale-yellow color, a slightly sulfur nose. There was not much flavor, but what was there was not offensive. There were no off notes, no nasty chemical notes that sometimes pop up in light beers. At one point, I noted a pleasant citrus flavor.

I probably could drink a Michelob Ultra with a meal. But only if I had run out of wine.

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