Beer is a cereal-based beverage flavoured with herbs that has been enjoyed since prehistoric times. Throughout its history, various ingredients have been used in its production including rice, rye or millet, bog myrtle, yarrow and heather.
Today’s beer has four main components - water, malted barley, hops and yeast – all of which are used to produce the familiar golden beverage we know so well.
Water is the single largest component of beer and in brewing is referred to as “liquor.” Any water used for brewing must be of drinking quality. In the brewing process, water affects all other components by its presence, the amount used, and by the minerals dissolved into its lattice-like structure. Minerals affect the PH of water and define its inter-reactions when placed in contact with other brewing materials.
Barley is generally the brewer’s choice of grain when making beer as it contains large amounts of starch, enzymes for converting its starch into sugar, and an attached husk that makes malting easy. Barley is one of the earliest domesticated plants, derived from the grass Hordum Vulgare and is widely adaptable as it thrives in cool climates and varying soils.
Did you know?
Beer is ranked the third most popular beverage in the world, after water and tea.
Malted barley is produced by germinating the seed to activate the plant’s growth cycle; its enzymes convert complex starches to simpler fermentable sugars used for embryonic growth. This is allowed to proceed to a determined point and is then stopped by carefully applying heat which will cause the embryo to die but merely inactivate its enzymes. The malt is cleaned and dehydrated to around 4% moisture. The now “malted” seed has greater keeping quality, a more friable structure and will retain the potential to convert its starches to fermentable sugars. Barley’s attached husk makes this process easier by containing other inner materials well.
Hops are a perennial vine found throughout the Northern hemisphere, called Humulus Lupulus from the Latin for “wolf in the willows.” Hops are dioecious, meaning they are either male or female. In the case of beer production, it is the female hops flower that provides the resins that act both as a flavouring and a preservative. Rich in aroma, hops are closely related to hemp and other members of the Cannabis genus.
Yeast is integral to fermentation as it cannot occur without it. In beer production, there are two main species of yeast used; Saccharomyces cerevisiae for ale and Saccharomyces pastorianus for lager. These yeasts actively metabolize the sugars, proteins and minerals in unfermented beer to reproduce itself. In doing so, they also produce ethyl alcohol, CO2, and a wide range of aromatic compounds and phenolics that permeate fermented beer.
By combining the four main ingredients of beer - or adding additional ingredients - in varying amounts for differing lengths of time and at various temperatures, brewers can create the wide ranging styles of beers we find today. “Ales” are the oldest style; they are warm-temperature fermented at 13°C-22°C and are rich with aromatic compounds. This is starkly contrasted by the lean, clean flavours found in cool fermented 4°C-7°C “lager” style beers.
Crushing the malt and adding it to the heated “liquor” at temperatures of 63°C-68°C activates the dormant enzymes and allows them to degrade the complex starches to simpler sugars of varying fermentability. By adjusting this ratio and controlling the times, brewers can make a fuller or lighter style of brew. The new made “wort” (unfermented beer) is run off the grains, often using the husk of the malted barley as a filter.
This wort is then boiled to precipitate unwanted components, making for a cleaner, clearer and longer lasting beer. Hops are added at various intervals during the boil depending on whether bitterness (the longest time), flavour (medium time) or aroma (the shortest time) is desired.
Did you know?
Beer is as ancient a product as bread, and the two food products clearly share a long history together going back thousands of years.
This hopped wort is now cooled and the yeast is added to begin fermentation, which varies in time: shorter for ale (three to seven days) longer for lager (seven to 14 days). These periods of vigorous ferment are followed by a quieter one, again shorter for ales (five to 12 days) and longer for lagers (14 to 60 days). For the second ferment, the new beer is transferred to fresh containers off of the residues of the first; temperatures are cooler and the beer clears as fermentation completes.
The new beer is now ready to finish in various ways - filtering, pasteurizing or just settling - before being packaged for sale.
Style is a matter of preference. For example, every brewmaster, distilling manager and winemaker has a distinct style unique to themselves, an expression and an example of their standards and likes of a certain beverage. Out of this inherit personal style is born a wide array of different products.
When it comes to brewing beer and in particular brewing craft beer, many people start out home brewing as a hobby. What starts as a hobby soon turns into a passion, in turn honing the brewing craft while sharpening palates to the many worldwide beer styles, even discovering or inventing a few new recipes along the way.
It may be surprising to learn that among the many different styles (and sub-styles) of beer produced, almost all of them have the same ingredients. From the light, clean flavours of a European Pilsner, to the complex, aromatic and bitter American India Pale Ale. So what makes the flavours of each beer unique? Where do the different colours, aromas and flavours come from? Let’s learn a little bit more about beer.
Did you know?
Rheinheitsgebot is an old Bavarian Purity beer law, passed in 1516. It allows only for malt, water, hops and yeast for beer making. It remains to this day on the books in Germany.
Beer is a great family of starch-based alcoholic beverages produced via fermentation. In this day and age beer is commonly produced throughout the world wherever grain is grown. Beer is often produced from four main ingredients, malted barley, water, yeast and hops. There are adjunct grains other than barley also frequently used in beer production such as, corn, rice, rye, wheat and other grains. Following we will showcase these four main ingredients of beer and how they impact the colour, aroma and flavour.
Let’s start with barley, or in particular malted barley. Barley acts as a source of starch. Starch is converted into fermentable sugars which provide the necessary fuel for fermentation. Malted barley goes through a malting process to assist with the starch to sugar conversion. Part of the malting process includes drying the malted barley; at this point the maltster can impart different levels of toast to the grain. To best understand this, let’s use the analogy of toasting bread. Think about the difference between the sight, smell and taste of a lightly toasted slice of bread and a charred slice of toast, very different from each other. This toasting of the barley as part of the malting process is what can provide the wide assortment of different appearances and flavour nuances within the brewing process and the finished beer. Another factor affecting the flavour is the quality and origin of the barley. Barley from Europe or Asia for example will have a different taste than locally grown Canadian barley.
Water is the main ingredient in beer. Often, water is thought to have little impact on the flavour or structure of beer but the truth is, water makes up between 90%-95% of the finished product. Any ingredient with that large of a proportion within a recipe will surely have an impact on the finished product. So how does water influence the structure, body, weight and flavour in beer? That question can be answered with an example that many people can relate to. Think of the very best glass of tap water you have ever had. If you travel a few hours out of Winnipeg to a cabin, a different city, or perhaps even a different country and taste the tap water, by contrast it does not taste the same. Linked to the location of a given water source is its mineral content and make up, “hard” water with a higher concentration of minerals will have a different flavour than that “soft” water which has less minerals. This difference in the makeup of a water source will carry over into and affect not only the flavour of a finished beer, but also can impact the brewing methods and processes used to produce it. Water is without a doubt a very important ingredient within the brewing process.
There is a lot of mystery surrounding the chemistry of brewing. It was not until the 19th century that yeast was formally discovered as an ingredient in beer. Louis Pasteur discovered the role of microorganisms in beer production, arguably the most important of which is yeast. Prior to the 19th century, brewers would routinely add some of the slurry from the previous batch of beer (basically left over muck from the brewing process) and unknowingly were inoculating that batch with the previous batches yeast! Another method that was used then and is still used today, would be to brew beer in open vats, allowing the natural airborne yeast and other microorganisms to do their magic in the brew.
All beer styles can be whittled down to two main types. Ales and lagers. The main point of differentiation between these two styles is the specific species of yeast that is used to create fermentation. Both types of yeast require different conditions to ferment properly and thus will add unique flavours and aromas to the finished product. Ale yeast is known by scientists as Saccharomyces Cerevisiae and brewers refer to ale yeast as “top-fermenting.” Lager yeast is known by scientists as Saccharomyces Pastorianus and is referred to by brewers as “bottom fermenting.” While fermentation is taking place, the yeast being used is converting fermentable sugars in the pre-beer (also known as wort) into different by-products, most notably alcohol, carbon dioxide and heat. Along with the three aforementioned by-products of fermentation there are also other chemical reactions happening between the yeast and the pre-beer and these reactions create different flavours and aromas based on the multitude of by-products being created. To elaborate on the differences between yeast types, fermentation using ale yeast typically occurs at a warm temperature and also ferments at a fast pace, often in a matter of days. Fermentation with lager yeast typically happens at a cool temperature and at a much slower pace, often it takes weeks. Both methods produce great flavour and aroma in beer, however, when the fermentation process happens more quickly, a larger amount of flavour and aroma producing by-products are created and carry over into the finished product. This is why ales tend to be fuller bodied and richer tasting than lagers, which are known to be lighter, cleaner and crisper. It is pretty amazing to think that something microscopic has such a large impact on beer styles and flavour. Without yeast you would not be able to brew beer.
Did you know?
Before hops were used in beer production brewers would add herbs and spices to beer as both a preservative and flavouring agent. Some commonly used ingredients were sweet gale, spruce tips, pine twigs and other locally sourced herbs. Some craft brewers today will produce small quantities of this beer style which is called Gruit.
The last but definitely not least ingredient used in beer production is hops. Hops are a plant, a climbing vine within the nettle family. Hops have been cultivated since ancient times but were not commonly used to brew beer until roughly 1000 years ago. The part of the plant brewers will use at various stages of the brewing process is the hop cone. There are many varieties of hops grown and produced worldwide and most are identified in the brewing process by name, Saaz, Cascade, Gem, Galaxy and Goulding just to name a few. Hops play a large role in providing beer with lots of complex flavours and aromas.
Hops also play a role in dictating different beer styles. A brewmaster's choice of what variety to brew with how much hops to add, and when to add hops in the brewing process can all dictate what category of style the finished beer falls under. For example, one of the most popular and widely produced craft beer styles are India Pale Ales. India Pale Ales are known for their amber colour and pungent hop aroma and flavours. Different styles of beer will have the essence of hops expressed in varying ways on the palate. How these tastes are perceived boil down to the choice of hops and how they are used in the brewing process.
Hops are a dual purpose ingredient. Not only do they provide a lot of flavour and character to a beer, hops are also important because they act as a natural preservative and stabilizer. One of the reasons hops were cultivated long before their use in beer is that they have antibacterial qualities which help provide a great environment for yeast to thrive during fermentation and a longer shelf life to the finished beer.
A great analogy for thinking about the vast diversity of hops is to think about them like different grape varietals. Depending on what part of the world the hops are sourced from can play a big role in the flavours and aromas the hop cone will impart on a beer. The terroir, (location, environment, micro climate, variety and cultivation method) will have a great impact on the structure and flavour potential of the variety of hop planted. Some varieties are better suited to certain climate and soil conditions, much like grapes grown for winemaking. Similar to the way winemakers will blend specific grape varietals together to make a wine, brewmasters will often use multiple varieties of hops in a single brew to build both complexity and balance in their beer. Hops are bitter, so in a general sense, using large amounts in the brewing process will add a bitter flavour while providing a lot of aromatics to beer as well.
Did you know?
Hops are widely cultivated in the Yakima Valley in Washington State.
It is important to note that hops are but one of many factors that dictate what style of beer is being produced. When you take into consideration the multitude of different ways that the four main ingredients of beer impact the sight, smell and taste, it is quite amazing. The different factors that affect flavour and aroma of beer are vast. This is one of the aspects that make brewing and craft brewing exciting. The possibilities are endless! Brewing is a great way to showcase creativity, skill and an artisan touch via beer production. What better way to display the effort and time-consuming dedication of brewing a great beer than to share your creation.