Beer is most simply defined as a beverage made from yeast fermented grain and flavored with hops that contains alcohol. The German Reinheitsgebot (beer purity law) was a decree first issued in 1516. It dictates that beer can be made only from barley, malt and hops. In 1516 how yeast worked was a mystery. In today’s world there are multiple grains used by different brewers, many varieties of hops, the ability to alter water for production, different yeast strains and plenty of other ingredients to put into the grist or list of ingredients used to produce a beer or ale. The decision on which ingredients to use along with a decision on how to make use of those building blocks during production will define the product produced by taste, alcohol volume and style.
Let’s begin with the most basic ingredient and the biggest component of any beer. That would be water. Water is the medium in which the chemical processes of making a beer takes place so it plays a very large role in the final outcome of the product. Beer was originally sought because people knew that drinking a fermented beer was healthier than drinking straight up water. Nobody knew why until only fairly recently as microscopes and science explained bacteria and boiling to sterilize. Indeed many of these discoveries were fueled by brewers who sought to understand their product and systemize production. The available water locally dictated style for a region. Through trial and error brewers learned which beers worked best with that water. Modern brewers almost always use a municipal water source to make beer. Now we understand that by adding chemicals we can control acidity, mineral content, flavor to suit the style we wish to create.
Barley has been called the soul of beer. It is a cereal grain – a variety of grass. The plant has been selectively bred and harvested and seeded for improvement for thousands of year. There are two types of barley: two row or six row. The difference is the arrangement of kernels on the plant stalk. Two row has larger kernels and more convertible sugars. Six row is smaller and requires more to make the same amount of beer. A beer made only with barley is called “all malt.” When German immigrants got to this country and tried to make the popular lagers from their country here they had a problem. The six row made a beer that was hazy and by appearance inferior to the clear golden lager in Germany. They experimented and discovered by adding an adjunct grain – corn or rice the haze cleared and the product was more desirable. Now many grains can be used including wheat, barley, oats, corn, rice and even quinoa.
When a brewer cooks barley or other processed grain in water they wind up with a sugary liquid called wort. This would be an alcohol containing sugary liquid. To balance the sweetness brewers include hops. Hops are the flowering buds of a vine that grows at either side of the world about halfway between the equator and pole. Again through management and selection many varieties of hops have been created. American hops tend to be bold and pungent, European hops piney and floral. The quantity and type of hops used and balance between sweet and bitter defines beer origin and style.
Yeast is a naturally occurring organism that early brewers had no understanding of. Fermentation was literally a gift from God. But brewers again sought to understand the crucial role in getting the fermentation correct without spoiling the flavor of beer. There are basically two kinds of yeast. Ale yeast ferments more rapidly at a warmer temperature. Lager yeast is bottom fermenting and requires colder temperatures over a longer period of time. Lager is the German word for storage.
Brewers market with a variety of words and images designed to make the potential customer aware of the quality of ingredients, the purity of ingredients and the quantity of ingredients they use. The expense in obtaining the best ingredients is a time honored way for a brewer to justify the price of the product they offer.