In a world where most food is filled with High Fructose Corn Syrup, Erythritol, Zinc Picolinate, and brominated vegetable oil things can get confusing, scary, and mostly hard to pronounce. Luckily beer is the opposite of all that craziness. Most styles of beer rely on 4 ingredients; water, malt, hops, and yeast. I’m gonna take a look at what those are and what else might pop up in other styles.
Disclaimer: This is only meant as a brief introduction and I may have misunderstood the role of some things.
Like human beings beer is mostly water, but in beer water isn’t just water… ok that doesn’t make sense, but it will! In America the water that reaches our tap has been filtered to hell and back and has had various chemicals added to it (see: Dr. Strangelove). This is a relatively recent development and for most of beer’s history water has been pulled out of the nearby stream or well. That available water was contaminated with minerals from the nearby land which effected all types of things in the brewing process. I’m not gonna get into that here, these days breweries add those chemicals back into the filtered water so they can match the water conditions in 1800’s Belgium, Germany, or many other times/places.
Malt = Malted Barley, barley = a cereal grain, cereal grain = cultivated edible grass. Malt is what makes beer beer. I’m gonna try and not get to scientific (because I’ll confuse both of us) but malt contains enzymes which mixes with hot water to create chemical reactions.
Ok, so what’s the difference between barley and malted barley? Again trying to not get to sciencey, they take the barley and get it to start growing again, aka germinating, then they abruptly stop that process with heat. This maximizes the enzymes in the malt. The amount of heat they add and the way they add it changes the color of the malt thus changing the color of the beer. Super dark beers like Guinness are brewed with dark malts which have been roasted for longer than the malts used in an IPA.
So where are we at now? Well malt + water = wort. I’m not counting wort as an ingredient because it’s a sum of other ingredients, like how batter isn’t an ingredient in brownies it’s eggs and milk and all that.
Hops are present in all beers but get all the attention in IPAs. For the past few years there has been a nuclear arms race of sorts to make the hopiest IPA possible. So what the hell is a hop anyway? It’s a type of plant that grows in a certain range of both the north and south hemispheres. In the northern hemisphere it notable grows above the grape-line, this is why Italy is all about their wine and Germany is all about their beer.
There is a whole lot of science and botany in what goes down between hops and beer, all of which is far beyond the scope of this post. Bottom line is they mainly help preserve the beer, which is why people started using them 1,000 some years ago. They also add bitterness and flavor, which is why we go crazy for them today.
Yeast is where the real science of beer happens. Brewers make wort and yeast makes beer. It’s a single cell fungus that comes in many varieties, some used for baking and some for brewing. It takes the enzymes and sugars from wort and through magic (or science, but I like magic better) turns them into carbon dioxide, ethanol, and all kinds of other stuff. Still trying to keep this kinda brief there are various strains of yeast for different styles, like weissbeer, Belgians, ales, and lagers. There is also a whole category of “wild yeasts” also known as crap floating through the air. This is where lambics get that funk from.
I’m gonna break this down into 2 sub-categories, adjunct grains and everything else.
Adjunct Grains are where we get wheat beers, rye IPAs, and oatmeal stouts from. They’re used in combination with malted barley and each add their own unique texture to the beer. Each also has it’s own historical/stylistic context and reason for use. Wheat, rye, and oatmeal are the 3 most common adjunct grains for craft beer but rice and corn are adjunct grains as well. Rice and corn aren’t really used in craft beer at all, but are heavily used by the big 3. Corn and rice both help lighten the color, flavor, body, and calories of beer. I’m going to try and avoid passing judgement here, if you like that kind of beer awesome if not cool, that’s what opinions are for. Other than BMC beers rice is also used in some Japanese styles of beer.
Everything Else pretty much includes anything imaginable, just look at Dogfish Head (I mean that in both a good and bad way). Mostly this means cinnamon in winter beers, orange slices, honey, molasses, peaches, seriously… whatever. This list could go one for pages but I just wanted to give you a small idea that the imagination of the brewer is limitless.
This short list of things come together in various combinations at different temperatures for certain lengths of time to create the entire world of beer. I find that mind blowing, 4 main ingredients and 2 or 3 others used occasionally end up creating a hundred some, and growing, styles of beer. A hundred some styles that each brewer can tinker with to make them their own.
Before anyone comments that I skipped over x-style malts/hops, or over simplified the role of yeast, please understand I mean this post as an introduction to the basic ingredients of beer for someone who knows absolutely nothing about what’s in that awesome stuff in their bottle. If this little intro to beer ingredients as made you curious I strongly encourage you to read Randy Mosher’s Tasting Beer, turn to Google, or ask your favorite local brewery. Also in time I will probably have more posts digging into each ingredient more.