Beer is made of four main ingredients.
Water is the essential starting point, making up most of the beer’s weight. Grains contribute sugars, which are the primary food for yeast, but also contribute flavor and body.
Hops are a relatively new addition to beer making, not becoming popular until the 16th century, replacing other bittering and flavoring agents, but quickly becoming ubiquitous.
Lastly, yeast is the microbe that brings everything together and creates beer from wort through fermentation.
When considering making a beer recipe, these four ingredients often play an equally important role in how the final beer will be perceived by a beer drinker, even if one is meant to be the star of the show.
Water is the main ingredient in beer and it is often overlooked. Historically, water is what shaped the beer styles that defined regions. The diversity of water profiles across the world has been integral in the development of the variety of beer styles we know today.
The reason that dry stout has such strong ties to the Dublin area is water. The water in this region of the world is very “hard,” thus requiring acidification via dark grains to brew good beer. The same can be said for the Pilsen region in the Czech Republic. The water there is amazingly “soft,” lending itself well to the advent of Pilsner beer.
Nowadays, brewers have the knowledge and technology to analyze and alter their water. Brewers are no longer constrained to any specific style. Laboratory analysis can give brewers insight into what is in their water. Using this information with careful additions of salts and acids, many different water profiles can be created.
Hard water is best suited for brewing dark beers. Hard water has more buffering capability, allowing for the use of more acidic dark grains while still keeping the beer pH in check.
Soft water does not have these buffering capabilities, lending itself better to lighter beers.
Brewers can even season their beer with water chemistry. By using salts like gypsum and calcium chloride in the mash, the sulfate and chloride concentrations change in the final beer.
Sulfate changes the perception of crispness and bitterness in beer. Chloride will help accentuate malt as well as fullness.
Changing water chemistry is a subtle but effective way for brewers to turn bland beer into great beer. Similar to how chefs use spices to season their food, brewers use brewing salts to accentuate flavors in their beer.
Ingredients including barley, wheat, oats, rice, corn, rye, and others can make up a brewers wheelhouse of grains they use.
Some of these grains are malted, but unmalted versions may also be used to add additional layers of grain flavor and complexity to the beer.
The process of malting converts raw grains into malted grains. The malted grains contain vital starches and enzymes that brewers need to make beer. A large palette of malt scales helps brewers create a variety of flavors and colors in their beers. And a little goes a long way.
Many different types of grains can be malted, but it is most often barley. The malting process is usually conducted by professionals called maltsters but can also be done at home.
Malting begins with steeping the grain with water. After the grains have been adequately moisturized, they will begin germinating. During this process, vital enzymes are developed. The grains are then dried and kilned. This halts the germination process and allows maltsters to convert the germinated grains into many different types of malt, by using different methods and temperatures.
Depending on how you kiln, grains can become different types of malt, but the malt will always be divided into one of two categories.
The first category is base malt. These malts are very lightly kilned, giving them a light color. This less invasive process allows the malts to retain more of their enzymes. Malts with more enzymes are classified as being more diastatic. This diastatic power allows base malts to use their enzymes to convert their own starches into sugars. Base malt almost always provides the large majority of a beer’s malt bill, or recipe.
Malts kilned aggressively are called specialty malts. The higher temperature and longer brew times give these malts more colors and flavors, but more enzymes are denatured by the heat. Having low to no diastatic power, specialty malts do not have sufficient enzymes to convert their own starches to sugar. Base malts are usually used in conjunction with specialty malts, partly for this reason.
Adjuncts in brewing are classified as any non-malt source of fermentable sugars. Unmalted grains are included in this category. Many brewers use unmalted and flaked versions of grains like barley, oats, and wheat to elevate their beer. These grains can be used to improve mouthfeel, head retention, and body.
Depending on the style of the beer, brewers may only use base malts, a combination of base malts, specialty malts, and adjuncts. All of these grains come together in specific proportions to form the grain bill of a recipe.
Most grains need to be milled before use. Milling crushes the kernel of the grain and exposes the starches inside.
Crushed grains are combined with water to create a mash. The mash is heated to a specific temperature to activate the enzymes naturally occurring in the malt.
The enzymes work by converting the starches inside the grains to sugars. Depending on the temperature of the mash, different types of enzymes are active.
The separate types of enzymes work differently in converting starch into sugar. Some enzymes create long chain sugars, which are less fermentable by yeast, leading to more body in the beer. Other types of enzymes create simpler sugars, which are more fermentable by the yeast and lead to a drier beer.
The resulting sugary liquid left after mashing is called wort. This contains all the necessary sugars, vitamins, minerals, and proteins necessary to make beer. The wort can be used directly or can be further processed to create malt extracts.
Maltsters create malt extracts by brewing wort and then processing it. This involves removing most of the moisture from the wort to make Liquid Malt Extract (LME). The LME can be processed even further and mostly dried out to make Dry Malt Extract (DME).
These extracts make it very convenient for brewers to make beer, allowing them to skip the mashing process entirely.
All permutations of grain and malt allow brewers to create a wide variety of flavor and color in their beer. There exists such a large variety today, that any beer maker will have no shortage of options when formulating their next great creation.
Hops are flowers that are used for bittering, flavoring, and stability of the beer. Traditionally, other flowers and herbs were used for this purpose, but those practices have mostly been abandoned due to the superiority of hops.
Hops provide the flavor and bitterness and can balance the sweetness of the malt, all while being an excellent preservative in beer. Different breeds of hops can be used for bittering, flavoring, aroma with some specializing in one specific area and others able to perform all three duties.
Scientific hop breeding has been conducted since the early 20th century. At this time there are over nearly eighty varieties grown commercially around the world, but the number is constantly growing in today’s brewing industry of ever-changing flavors. Hops are grown on six continents, the terroir of each environment allowing the flower to express unique properties, much like grapes.
The flower grows on a bine, which is usually trained to grow on a trellis or a similar vertical wire structure. This structure is usually around twenty feet (six meters) tall when grown commercially. The entire bine is pulled down when it is time to harvest the hops.
Once hops have been harvested, they must be dried and processed. Some hops are sold as is, called whole cone hops. The majority of hops are processed into either extracts or pellets. Hop pellets are the most popular form when used in brewing due to their consistency, ease of use, and storability.
Bittering is the main use of hops for many beer styles. Hops contain alpha acids, which are the major contributor to bittering. These acids are not bitter by themselves and must be boiled. The boiling isomerizes the alpha acids to convert them to bitter iso-alpha acids. The longer the hops are boiled, the more alpha acid is isomerized, with diminishing returns after about one hour.
The bitterness potential in hops can range widely. The least potent hops may contain only two percent alpha acids, while the other side of the spectrum can contain over fifteen percent. A hop variety with a high percentage of alpha acids is usually considered a bittering hop, but may also be used for other purposes.
The potential of a hop is not limited to bittering. The composition of a hop is very complex and the flower is still the subject of research. It is believed that a single hop may contain over one thousand different compounds. Many of these compounds contribute to the flavors we get when hops are added to the beer. Some hops add primarily floral or grassy notes, while others offer up citrus-like tastes and aromas. New hop strains with creative flavors are being bred, with tropical fruits being a major draw.
Hop oils contribute a wide array of flavors and aromas to beer. These oils are very volatile and diminish during boiling and fermentation. To get around this flavor reduction, brewers will avoid boiling hops when they are trying to extract flavor as much as possible from these precious oils.
After the wort and bittering hops have been boiled together, a brewer may add additional hops. These hops are called flameout hops, whirlpool hops, or steeping hops. Because the addition happens after the boil, the flowers are subjected to lower heat, allowing flavor extraction without much volatilization of oils or the isomerization of alpha acids.
In addition to bittering hops and whirlpool hops, brewers can also pack in more flavor and aroma with a dry hop. This method of hopping happens after the beer is already in the fermentor. Hops are added directly to the fermentation vessel, either during fermentation or after fermentation. This allows the extraction of maximum flavor and aroma, minimizing losses due to heat.
In the age of IPA, brewers are constantly finding new and exciting ways to use hops. This flower is amazingly complex and capable of providing a huge array of flavors and aromas to beer.
Yeast has been in use and domesticated by humans for thousands of years. The fungus has played a vital role in thecreation of a wide array of fermented foods and beverages. Although these foods clearly went under some transformation, humans did not know exactly what was causing this until the 1860s. This was when Louis Pasteur discovered that yeast was responsible for fermentation.
The two main species of yeast used in beer making are Saccharomyces cerevisiae (ale yeast) and Saccharomyces pastorianus (lager yeast).
Ale yeast is more commonly used at higher temperatures. These higher temperatures cause the yeast to produce more flavor in the final beer. Ale yeast is often detectable due to a strong presence of esters in the final beer, which often is florally or fruity.
Lager yeast is used at lower temperatures, creating beers that are more crisp and clean.
Yeast for brewing comes in two forms, liquid yeast, and dry yeast. A pouch of liquid yeast for homebrewers tends to have 100 billion cells of fresh yeast. Liquid yeast should be stored in the fridge. It is perishable, however, and the yeast’s viability in this form can diminish up to twenty percent per month.
Dry yeast is another popular option for brewers. This kind of yeast has been dried while in an active state. This means that the yeast has been processed with all the required nutrients.
Due to the limitations of the drying process, there are less varietal options when it comes to dried yeast. Dried yeast can be stored in the fridge but it will also last a long time at room temperatures.
There are many strains of yeast within the species listed above. Each strain has its own fermentation properties and flavor contributions to the final beer. When a brewer is creating a recipe, yeast selection is very important.
Some yeasts, such as lager yeasts, do not contribute much flavor to the beer and are used in beers where the grain or hop flavor is the star of the show. Other yeasts, such as Belgian yeasts, contribute many types of flavors. Beers like this are most often formulated to highlight the yeast.
During the beer making process, brewers can change how they use yeast to control beer flavor. By adjusting the pitch rates, temperatures, and other conditions of fermentation, they can force the yeast to bring out different types of flavors.
Yeast is of the utmost importance when creating beer. Not only does yeast contribute a huge amount of flavor to the final product, but they also conduct fermentation. Without this transformative process, we would not have beer.