Beer is one of the oldest and most popular drinks in the world, and for good reason. The alcoholic delight has become a fundamental part of the human experience and, despite subtle differences, shares the same basic ingredients across all of its different incarnations.
But what exactly is beer? Beer is a fermented beverage made using cereal grain. Within that definition, there are four specific ingredients that are present in all beers across the board: grain, hops, yeast, and water.
Each of these essential ingredients has many permutations that make a significant difference in how a particular beer turns out. Below is a breakdown of each ingredient, their role in making beer, and how they affect the final product.
The grains used to make beer are essentially the same as those used to make breakfast cereals (hence the name ‘cereal grains’). The most common ones are barley and wheat, but beer can also include rice, corn, oats, rye, and more.
When it comes to barley and wheat-based beer, the first step is to put the grains through a malting process that metabolizes the natural grain sugars through grain germination. It is this sugar, maltose, that feeds the yeast going forward in the fermentation process.
This process starts by soaking the grain seeds in water until the plant starts to grow from it, then it is put into a kiln before it can sprout. The most important factor is how the seed is dried since different methods can produce different flavors and colors.
Grains, and their malting, provide some key things to every beer, including:
- Flavor (a degree of sweetness with deep malty notes of nuts, toffee, caramel, and fruit)
- Color (ranging from copper to dark brown in color)
- Aroma (ranging from perfumy and sweet to rich and deep)
Hops are a flower from the hop plant Humulus lupulus. They are used primarily in beer production to add bitterness, aroma and stabilize the brew.
All beer on the market today contains hops. If they didn’t, they would be considered a “gruit,” which is almost a beer but uses strange herbs like bog myrtle, heather, or juniper instead of hops.
Hops grow best in moderate climates with rich soil and lots of sunshine, typically in regions with similar latitudes, like the Pacific Northwest and Belgium. Hops provide beer with a variety of flavors and different levels of bitterness which balance out the sweet taste from the malt.
Hops visually resemble tiny green pine cones and, critically, theft contains a powder called lupulin, which has oils and resins essential for beer making.
The most important resin within hops is alpha acid (or humulones} which provides beer with its signature bitterness. When hops are boiled, these alpha acids go through a chemical change which bitters the beer. The less time the hops are boiled, the less bitter the beer.
Another compound within hops is beta acids, which are essential for their aroma contributions to beer. During brewing, beta acids are oxidized by air during the natural aging process and contributing volatile aromas to beer flavor profiles. Additionally, hops contain essential oils and flavonoids that play a role in the flavoring and style of a brew.
Hops provide these key elements to beer:
- Bitterness (sharp and intense to offset the sweetness of malt)
- Aroma (fruity, earthy, citric, floral, or piney based on hops)
- Stability (adds to shelf life and prevents bacteria from growing)
- Flavor (intense flavors that, aside from bitterness, add complexity to brew)
A third and equally important ingredient in all beer is yeast, the living ingredient. Yeasts are eukaryotic, single-celled microorganisms of the fungus kingdom that have been used in fermentation since the dawn of civilization.
In beer brewing, yeast consumes the malted grain sugars and excretes ethyl alcohol and carbon dioxide as a result.
There are two major types of yeast strains used in the production of beer; ale yeast and lager yeast. They have distinct differences and hundreds of varied strains within each category that are essential for any beer enthusiast to understand.
Ale yeast, or “top-cropping” yeast, forms a foam at the top of the wort during fermentation and ferments at warmer temperatures of 60˚–70˚F. Because of their warm fermentation, ales typically ferment and age in a shorter period of three to five weeks. Ales are a much older, more traditional style of beer that’s still common on the beer marketplace thanks to its simple fermentation style.
Alternatively, there’s lager yeast (or “bottom-cropping”), which works at much colder temperatures of 35˚–50˚F for the brewing of lagers. This style takes much longer and can take up to 6 to 8 weeks to ferment. Lagers tend to have a crisp, clean taste. These brews also produce fewer fermentation by-products and allow the malt and hops to take the lead for flavor.
Certain ales like stouts, pale ales, and IPAs include hops that stabilize the quick fermentation and lead to a fruitier, spicier flavor. On the other hand, lagers such as helles and pilsners tend to have a lighter taste from the low-temp fermentation.
Water is the essence of life, both for us and for beer. Considering that beer is 95% water, it’s no surprise that it’s an important ingredient. The mineral content of the water used is critical in how the beer turns out, which led to regional beers being distinct from each other throughout history.
Water affects beer in three distinct ways:
- The character of the water determines the flavor of the “wort.”
- The pH of the water can have an impact on the beer’s bitterness.
- Any contaminants, such as chlorine, within the water can affect the beer’s taste.
There are five primary ions in water that will positively affect beer. They are calcium, chloride, magnesium, sodium, and sulfate. These ions, as well as unwanted contaminants, can have a drastic, unexpected impact on any brew of beer when not properly understood.
Back in the day, it was difficult to alter the mineral content of your local river when trying to brew beer. As a result, the quality of a brew depended heavily on where the brewers got their water.
For example, in Bavaria, the water often had high carbonate content, which led to their beers being darker and generally lower in hoppy bitterness. Other beers, such as Irish stouts, were beholden to the untreated water available, which resulted in dark beers.
These days, the mineral content can be manipulated and adjusted in any way desired by the brewers to create different styles without being forced to rely on an area’s natural water.
Four Beer Essentials
That’s all it takes to make a beer: grain, hops, yeast, and water. Sounds simple enough, right? But the difficulty and fun of brewing beer are how to put together and play with these four ingredients to make something special.
Making beer is an art form, and these ingredients are your tools. There are thousands of beer styles on the market and equally as many breweries, both big and small. Each of them has to get creative with the grains, hops, yeast, and water at their disposal.
Beer drinking is associated with everything from eating, social gatherings, games, festivities, and even high art. Here at TapRm, we just love it for the taste and variety. Find out just how interesting these four simple ingredients can get with some of the beers we carry.