Breaking Down Beer

January 05, 2016

Breaking Down Beer

Beer, a four-letter word that has the same number of essential ingredients, these are:

  • Grains
  • Hops
  • Yeast
  • Water

We say four essential ingredients because these are all you need to make great beer, but something as good as beer does not pass without experimentation Nowadays, brewers worldwide are brewing beer with all sorts of different ingredients, and some are just wacky; we summarised a few of them a few weeks ago in our article on the Craft Beer Arms Race.

For hundreds of years, it has been varieties and varying quantities of these four main ingredients that have provided us with many the different flavours, colours, textures and aromas in mankind’s favourite alcoholic beverage. But how do these ingredients vary to produce such a huge variety of beer? And what does each ingredient do to your beer that makes it so essential? Well these are the sort of questions that got us started on brewing beer. So here’s a little break down for all of you other beer lovers out there that want to be in the know.

Grain: Grain is the essence of beer brewing -as grapes are to wine, grain is to beer- and of all the available grains barley is the grain that lends itself best toward beer making; hence it being the most popular. Before it can be used in the brewing process the grain must first undergo a process known as malting. Malted grain gives your beer a variety of key essentials: it's colour, it's malty sweetness, it's body (provided by dextrins), it's head (formed by proteins) and, most importantly, the natural sugars necessary for fermentation. Malted grain can come in a variety of colours, flavours and degrees of roastiness, with each variety having a significant effect on the colour and taste of the final product.

Although barley is the most widely used grain in beer making many other can be used as well, either instead of barley or in addition to it; but more about that another day.

Hops: Although hops are used in, comparatively, small quantities during the brewing process their job is not to be underestimated; these small flowers pack a lot of punch. Hops contribute four properties to your beer: bitterness (counterbalancing the sweetness of the grain), aroma, flavour as well as helping to preserve the beer.

The profile of each hop variety is unique, making everything they do to your beer equally unique. The bitterness of a hop is measured by its alpha acid content; this varies from a low of 2.5% up to a high of around 15%. Brewmasters learn the bitterness numbers of hops for a variety of reason, but the main one is so that they know how much to add to their recipe. They also learn the flavour and aroma profiles of hops to help decide how much they should use and when to add them into the brewing process.

Yeast: It is this tiny, tiny organism that helps you feel tipsy after you’ve had a few beers. It feeds off the natural sugars and, in exchange for a good feast, it produces alcohol (ethanol) and carbon dioxide. Yeast not only carbonates your beer and gives it its alcohol content but it also defines what style of beer you’re drinking. There are two different classifications of yeast: Ale yeast (top fermenting) or lager yeast (bottom fermenting); and each yeast affects the flavour and aroma of the final product, often adding unique flavours such as fruits or spices.

Yeast was not always known to be an essential ingredient in beer, and before it's necessity to the brewing process was discovered in the mid 1800’s it was only when airborne yeast found its way in that beer would begin to ferment. Nowadays over 500 different strains of yeast have been identified and are stored so that brewers can select the one they want according to the style of beer they want to brew.

Water: In reality beer is just expensive water, with this ingredient contributing up to 95% of the final product. It is therefore no surprise that the water used can have a huge effect on the final product. In some cases it has even helped beers become renowned, for example: the Pilsner beer, originating from Plzeň (Czech Republic), gets its famous flavours and textures from the extremely soft waters found and used in the region. Many companies also use the water they use as an advertising point for their beer, making sure to mention their clear, fresh spring or mountain water in it their adverts. Nowadays, scientific know-how allows any brewer to alter their water source to suit their brewing needs by adding naturally occurring minerals; softening or hardening their water until they have the style of water they desire.

Feeling more knowledgeable after that? We hope so! Like we said, these are the sort of things that got us started on brewing beer and they’re also the things we have to give careful consideration to every time we want to brew a new style. If you’re still hungry for more knowledge our next few articles are going to delve deeper into some of these ingredients, in turn drawing out more details and information of their variations and how they affect your beer. We hope to see you then!