So, what goes into the beer before it goes into you?
I have a friend, a wine-loving friend. Let’s call him Jacques (pronounced “jock”) Toutite (pronounced “too tight”).
Jacques Toutite is of the mistaken belief that wine is a far more complex and sophisticated beverage than beer. If he were a real person, he would have actually said so!
S'il vous plaît, Jacques! Not to start any debates with other wine “connoisseurs” (translation: blowing wind out one’s butt) -- there is no debate. Beer is by far more complex and diverse than wine. Don’t get me wrong. I like a nice glass of red wine on occasions, but to be frank, wine is sort of the simpleton of the alcoholic beverage family. “Duh, I’m wine. I’m made with mashed grapes and some yeast. I sit around in a dark vat (sometimes I get to go into another dark vat) until someone calls me wine. Do dee do dee do!”
Well, Jacques might say, “Zee grapes are subjected to many different soil and weather conditions. They must be harvested at the right time. Zee wine must undergo exacting fermentation conditions, including temperature and aging!”
Excusez-moi, Monsieur Toutite! It’s the same thing with beer, only there are more ingredients to deal with, and the fermentation processes is way more complex and exacting. Including your varietals and different blends, there are hundreds more distinct beer styles than wine styles, and within those distinct styles, there are more varieties, and within those varieties many more subtle and not so subtle differences. Thousands upon thousands of sub-varieties within all of the sub-styles. Hell, some brewers even add a little “complex” wine into their brewing vats.
Beer is so complex, yet so rewarding to research. It’s never-ending! You can be sure a new style is being created right now as I type! Yeah!
Well, what makes beer so complex? Why are there so many styles?
Water – Simple rule: The cleaner and purer the water, the better the chance that the brewer can control the final outcome of his/her brews. Although lesser-quality water will be filtered and then purified by boiling during the brewing process, it’s only natural that clean, fresh spring water will lead to a beer without any unwanted flavors or odors. Some brewers prefer using mineral water, which will lend a distinctive taste to the beer. Some beers are made with natural hard water, some with natural soft water. Many of the old established breweries were built upon wells thousands of years old. The water from these particular wells provides unique chemical compounds containing natural salinity, calcium, iron or other minerals found nowhere else on the planet. If the brewer is a damn, he/she will take into account their water source and use that to their advantage to brew a distinctive high quality beer.
Barley Malt – The Body of Beer - The Color of Beer - The Sweetness of Beer - Malt may be regarded as the foundation on which beer is made. There are two-row barleys (two rows of grain per ear), and six-row barleys. Two-row is more expensive and is used to produce more of the traditional styles of beer, whereas six-row barley produces a rawer and sharper-edged brew. Brewers may use either or both to their advantage to brew beers of unique qualities. Malt, when prepared for brewing beer, is extremely sweet. The effort to prepare and rinse the processed barley results in the amount of sweetness in the finished product.
Hops are the natural counterbalance to malt’s sweet nature. The type of barley and the degree to which it’s roasted help determine the beer’s color and flavor. Generally, the longer you roast the barley, the darker the beer. The more malt you use, the more body your beer will have. Some specialty beers are brewed with wheat malt or oatmeal, or a dose of rye. German Light Crystal, Biscuit Malt and Pale Ale can impart flavors from lightly sweet to herbal to cereal-like. Medium-roasted malts such as Caramel, CaraVienne, or Munich impart a richer, fuller and nuttier taste. Chocolate, Roasted Barley and Black Patent Malt are among the many barley malts used in brewing dark beers, known for their coffee, molasses and chocolate flavors.
Lately we have noticed an influx of gluten-free beers made with sorghum. Now our gluten-intolerant friends can suffer beer hangovers just like us!
Alternate Malts and Adjuncts - Cheaply made beers may use corn (maize) or rice in place of the more expensive barley malts. Corn is also sometimes used solely as a clarifying ingredient, and sometimes to aid in the fermentation process, and in some cases, does not cheapen or adversely affect the taste of the beer. Grits, malt syrups, rice or dextrose sugars may be added to stretch the malt product. Wheat beers are generally 50% - 100% wheat, with varying degrees quantities and roasting times. Oats, though heavier and oilier in consistency than barley, are a fine additional choice for thick, sweet stouts.
All beers need some fermentable sugars to convert to alcohol. The Belgians for centuries have used candi sugar, an inverted sugar, to help fuel their ales in orbit. Honey, the main fermentable ingredient for Mead, has also been widely used as a fermentable for ale.
Hops – The word “hop” is shortened from the Anglo-Saxon, “hoppan” (“to climb”). Usually hops are the “Star” of beer. The sharpness, dryness and bitterness of a given beer are derived from the type and amount of hops used. Hops also serve as a natural beer preservative. In this brief guide the bitterness imparted by the hops may be defined as metallic, tea-like, resinous or citrus. The citrus types may be further clarified as grapefruit, lemon, citrus zest, or limes. Hops with high alpha acid percentages are bittering hops. The hops used for aroma and flavor contain a lower alpha acid percentage. These are known as finishing hops.
However, brewers do not always follow this generalized rule. By blending and mixing different hop varieties, the brew master can create beers with unique flavors and aromas. Hops for brewing may be in whole hop flowers (which, surprise, have a more pronounced flowery profile), compressed whole flowers, pelletized hop pellets or hop extracts. Target hops are the most popular hops in the UK. and Challenger, Kent Golding, Brewers Gold, Bullion, Fuggles are hops traditionally associated with the U.K. Centennial, Cascade, Chinook, Crystal, Mt. Hood, Galena, Nugget, Perle and Willamette are basically US grown (mostly in the Northwest) hops. Styrian, a Slovenian grown Fuggles-style hop is becoming quite popular worldwide. Tettnanger, a mild hop with wonderful floral aroma and the very sharp edged and spicy hop, Hallertau hail from Germany and perhaps the most well-known hop, Saaz come from the Czech Republic. Summit, Zeus and a hop named CTZ possess the highest percentage of Alpha Acid at around 18%. Galena and Nugget possess weigh in at around13.0%, while Crystal and Saaz contain the lowest Alpha Acids at 3.3% and 3.8% respectively. But don’t be fooled by the alpha acid rating of individual style hops in a particular beer, because when adding an abundance of a lower rated alpha acid hop, you can easily make up the difference and produce a very bitter and acidic brew.
Yeast – Beer yeasts transform malt sugars into alcohol. There are top-fermenting, or ale yeasts, which ferment at warmer temperatures. These are the oldest form of beer yeasts. Ales, some porters, stouts, Kölch and most wheat beers use top- fermenting yeasts.
Bottom-fermenting yeasts ferment at lower temperatures and are used to ferment the newer style (19th century) lager beers, such as, Pilsners, Bock, Marzen, Oktoberfest and malt liquors. The invention of refrigeration in the 1880s revolutionized and greatly boosted the lager style. Serious brewers closely guard their yeasts strains, because they can maintain distinct, subtle yeast flavors and manipulate alcohol levels in a way that is very difficult to duplicate. Yeast can impart flavors and aromas ranging from citrus and cloves to sweet and astringent. Some specialty brewers allow wild, air-borne yeasts into the beer vats to create truly unique ale flavors. Trappist monks may be the foremost experts of wild yeast brewing techniques. One thing we can all appreciate about yeast is, they are cool little critters!
Now, keep in mind we haven’t even scratched the surface of all the methods and details of brewing a batch of any craft ale yet. Maybe that can be the focus of another article. But, now my head hurts from thinking too deeply and I am thirsty.
Quote: “Without question, the greatest invention in the history of mankind is beer. Oh, I grant you that the wheel was also a fine invention, but the wheel does not go nearly as well with pizza.” - Dave Barry