What is Beer?

5 12 2009

Traditionally, beer has four main ingredients: malted grain, hops, yeast, and water. While beer can, and does, contain different ingredients (also known as adjuncts) it needs these four ingredients to be considered “beer.” I could easily write a blog post on each of these ingredients, and I probably will. But for today, and overview.

  • Malted Grains: Traditionally beer is made with barley and/or wheat. However, people often brew with what they’ve got. Beers have also been made with sorghum, rice, corn, and other grains. Malting referrs to the process of forcing the grain to sprout. Grain is misted with a small ammount of water and then heated to allow the radicle (or root) to form. This begins the process of converting carbohydrates into sugars. The grain is then roasted in order to stop the sprout and to impart color and flavor. The malt is then soaked in hot water to further convert carbohydrates into sugars. The sweet liquid is drawn off the grains. What am I tasting here: Malt imparts sweet notes into the beer. It gives “brown” and “red” flavors: Malty, bready, toasty, grainy, sweet. It gives the “base” or “low” notes in the beer.
  • Hops: Hops belongs to the cannabis family–thus proving that two of the world’s favorite intoxicants are not too different. However, hops is more closely related to hemp than marijuana because it contains no THC–the psychoactive compound found in marijuana. There is no coincidence that hops grows well in the same regions that the United States grows its pot, Northern California and Oregon, but it grows well just about anywhere. In brewing, we use the reproductive cones of the hops vine. Hops cones are dried and then boiled in the malt extract. A combination of alpha acids and co-humulons impart bitterness and aroma to the beer. Hops are also a natural antibiotic which prevents spoiling. The amount of bitterness in a beer is measured in International Bitterness Unites (IBUs). What am I tasting here: Hops impart bitterness and aroma. They give “Green” and “Yellow” flavors: bitter, citrus, pine, grass, spice. Hops give beer its “high” notes.
  • Yeast: Yeast is a single celled organism. It “eats” sugar (C12H22O11) and converts it into alcohol (C2H5OH) and carbon dioxide (CO2). Yeast not only converts sugar into alcohol, it also imparts phenolic compounds, or esters. These are the fruity notes that round out the sweetness of the malt and the bitterness of the hops. In brewing, there are three main types of yeast: ale, lager, and wild. Ales are fermented at room temperature and tend to give of more fruity esters. Lagers are fermented at colder temperatures (right above freezing) and tend to give off less fruity esters. This gives the beer a “cleaner” flavor in order to give more attention to the malt and hops. And wild yeasts are found in the ambient air of the brewery. A brewer may use wild yeast in order to create a lambic, or sour beer. What am I tasting here: Yeast give off fruity notes: pear, berry, banana, apple. They “round” out the beer and give it “midrange” notes. They also give the “hot” or alcoholic flavors of the beer.
  • Water: Much like us, water makes over 95% of beer. And yet, for many of us, water is the most overlooked ingredient in beer. If there was no water in beer, all we would have is bitter, spoiled grain. And that would not be very tasty. Water not just acts as the medium for the alcohol, alpha acids, sugars, and yeast to be delivered to our mouths, it also imparts its own flavor. Water differs from region to region. It imparts its own sets of minerals. Water could be “hard” (have lots of minerals) or “soft” (have fewer minerals). Some breweries have entire ad campaigns on their water quality (remember “pure, Rocky spring water”?) While water quality does matter, the source does n0t mean much these days. Science helps us replicate the water quality from location to location. What am I tasting here: Water gives “blue” notes to beer: minerals and mouth feel.

We will go into these ingredients (along with adjuncts) in future posts. But in the mean time, that is what you need to know about what goes inside of beer. Next time you drink a beer, think about all those ingredients and then try to find them as you sip.

What is your favorite beer ingredient: malt, hops, yeast or water? What do you look for in a beer?