Heavenly Flavors from Earth. We pour it, sample its aroma, analyze its color and we taste it and really love it. But what is beer? The four main ingredients in beer are water, malt, hops and yeast.
Water: The Base
Water makes up 90 percent of beer content. It has a large historical significance and influence in the development of many styles of beer and influences beer color, aroma and flavor profile. Water is equally significant today; however, modern science allows brewers to test the pH profile of their water and to adjust it as needed for the desired interaction of the other ingredients—the malt, hops and yeast—in their brew. Brewers today are no longer beholden to or limited by the mineral chemistry of their local water supply.
Malt: The Soul
Barley malt, more commonly referred to as “malt,” is the most frequently used cereal grain in making malt beverages. It provides essential starches, enzymes, flavor, sweetness, body, color and foam, and it also balances hop bitterness.
Barley malt is barley that has been soaked in water right up to the germination point. The kernels, bursting with enzymatic reactions, are then kiln-dried with hot air before they sprout. This halts the starch-to-sugar conversions and produces dried kernels of malted barley.
There are two classifications of barley used to make malt: six-row barley and two-row barley. The visible difference is in the physical arrangement of kernels or seeds on the stalk of the plant. Six-row barley has six rows of kernels on the stalk, while two-row has two. The brewer’s perspective is in the functional differences: six-row barley has more protein, less starch and a thicker husk (outer shell) and contains a higher enzyme content that converts starches into sugars for fermentation.
Large American commercial breweries prefer six-row barley as it aids in the conversion of adjunct starches, such as rice and corn, during the mashing phase of brewing (see Brewing Process). American craft brewers generally prefer American grown two-row barley for its thinner husk, which retains a desirable protein and enzyme content (compared to most European grown two-row). The husk is considered because it contains tannins that factor in a hazy appearance and astringent taste to the beer.
Other grains such as oats, rye and wheat are often used along with barley for aroma, flavor, appearance and body. Wheat is used as a primary grain in various styles of beer, including German Hefeweizens, Belgian Witbiers and American Pale Wheat Ales. The wheat can be malted or unmalted and is included in various quantities as a percentage of the grist (combination of milled grains). The wheat proteins generally contribute to a large head formation when the beer is poured. Adjuncts such as rice and corn may also be used. Rice and corn are often thought of in the context of industrial-brewed beers such as Budweiser, Miller and Coors, where they are used to replace barley malt to lighten the beer. However, they—along with oats and rye—are used skillfully and purposefully by small craft brewers to achieve desired appearance, aroma, flavor and mouth-feel.
Brewers select different types of malt to produce their beers depending on the color, aroma and flavor profile they wish to achieve in their finished product.
Used in virtually all beers, they are light-colored and typically have higher enzyme activity and concentrations of fermentable sugars for the yeast to feast on and produce alcohol and carbon dioxide: booze and bubbles. Examples include Domestic 2-Row Pale Malt, German Pale Malt and English Pale Malt.
Specialty Malts:These are kilned at higher temperatures—essentially toasted—after drying, resulting in darker-colored malts (and thus, copper/amber colored beers versus yellow/golden) and often sweeter flavors. Examples include Vienna Malt, Munich Malt, Biscuit Malt and Rauch Malt—a German malt smoked over flaming beech wood imparting a wood-smoked flavor in the beer.
Caramel Malts:Also called “Crystal Malts,” these are kilned while still moist and thus “stewed” rather than toasted or roasted, resulting in sugar caramelization. Caramel malts often impart greater body and dextrinous mouth-feel to the beer, as well as copper to red color and sweet flavors including caramel and toasted or sweet toffee. Examples include German Medium Crystal, English Crystal and Belgian CaraVienne.
Roasted Malts:Kilned at very high temperatures to carbonize the kernel, roasted malts are typically used in small quantities by the brewer for the sole purpose of adding deep, dark color and a roasted—and even burnt—or charcoal flavor to the beer. Examples include Chocolate Malt and Black Patent.
Hops: The SpiceHops are the flower cones harvested from the female hop plant humulus lupulus. Hop cones contain essential oils and alpha acid and beta acid resins, which provide a host of benefits to beer. Hop oils impart desirable flavors and aromatic essences to beer, such as citrus, flowers, spices and grass, or piney, earthy, woodsy notes. The alpha acids provide the bitterness to beer necessary to offset the malt sweetness, and the beta acids provide the benefits of antibiotic and preservative effects.
Just as winemakers create wine character by using a single grape varietal or a blend of different grapes, brewers create beers of a desired character by selecting different hop varietals based on the aroma and flavor characteristics. Some of the most widely used hops are associated with several of the world's most highly regarded hop growing regions, including the Hallertau region in Bavaria (Germany); the Žatec region in the Czech Republic; Kent and Worcestershire in England; and the U.S. Pacific Northwest. Also noteworthy is Styria in the northeast region of Slovenia, known for the Styrian Golding hop varietal. More recently, New Zealand has emerged as a hop growing region producing some relatively new hop varietals, including the Nelson Sauvin hop, which is known for its Sauvignon Blanc grape-like aroma and flavor.
From Germany come the varietals Hallertauer Mittelfrüh, Hersbrucker, Tettnanger and Spalter, and from the Czech Republic comes the Žatec (Saaz in German) hop—often referred to as Noble hops. From England come popular hops such as Challenger, Fuggle, Golding, Northern Brewer and Target. Widely used hops from the Pacific Northwest include Amarillo, Cascade, Centennial, Chinook, Columbus and Simcoe.
Many New World hops are relatives of popular Old World varietals. For example, the Willamette hop from the Pacific Northwest was developed and bred from the English Fuggle and a New Zealand hop called Pacifica was bred from Germany’s Hallertau Mittelfruh. Newly bred hops often retain the desirable aroma and flavor characteristics of their parent(s) while taking on additional qualities.
Yeast: The LifeEarly brewers didn't know about yeast, although it was certainly a vital ingredient that existed in nature and “magically” turned their bready-sweet liquid into beer. Thanks largely to the work of Louis Pasteur and his microscope, yeast was discovered in the 19th century. These living, single-celled micro-organisms feast on sugars in the malty liquid converting them into alcohol and carbon dioxide.
With many different yeast strains, some are more desirable to brewers than others based on their voracious ability to act on sugar and the aroma and flavor character they impart to the beer. Many brewers today have cultivated yeast strains that they use consistently in their beers. They carefully maintain and reuse these yeast cultures, keeping them safely refrigerated between brewing cycles.
The two main types of yeast that brewers use are ale yeast and lager yeast. Ale yeasts are often called “top fermenting” yeasts because they ferment at warm temperatures and rise to the top of the fermenter, producing volatile flavor compounds called esters that give off the fruity, flowery or spicy character. Lager yeasts are often called “bottom fermenting” yeasts because they ferment at cooler temperatures and drop to the bottom of the fermenter. Esters are not produced, thus allowing a clean and smooth character to most lager beers.
Other yeast strains include wheat yeasts such as Hefeweizen ale yeasts and Belgian wit yeasts that impart aromas of banana, clove and other spices. Brettanomyces (Brett) wild yeasts and Lactobacillus (Lactic) bacteria cultures impart very distinguishable, often “funky,” “barnyard” or sour characters in the beer and are used in certain beer styles such as American Wild Ale, Flanders Red Ale and Belgian-Style Lambics.
All about the Land:
“Terroir” is a word not often used when describing beer as it is with wine. Yet, historically there was a greater abundance of terroir, or influence of the local land on ingredients, in beer than in wine. In wine, the terroir comes from a single ingredient: the grape. Beer derives its terroir from multiple ingredients—water, barley and hops—all of which in the early days of brewing were sourced and cultivated locally or regionally, and played key roles in determining the style, color and flavor of the beer being brewed.
The various hop varietals brewers used were indigenous to the local region and imparted a signature character to the brews. The natural water source was also a significant component to the terroir in beer; its mineral content and pH determining what types of malts could be used and the quantity of hops necessary to produce a palatable brew.
Today, modern technology allows brewers to adjust the minerals and pH of the brewing water in order to accommodate whatever beer style they intend to brew, and malts and hops are sourced from all over the world. So “terroir,” in the traditional sense of the word, has become somewhat blurred with beer. That said, many craft brewers place an emphasis on the specific hop varietals used in their beer, listing them on their Web sites and bottle labels. The hop aroma and flavor character in your glass of beer owes much to the hop varietals used, and specific hop varietals are generally sourced from particular growing regions of the world where they flourish in that climate and soil. For example, some American craft beers have German (Bavarian) Hallertau region or Czech Republic Žatec region terroir from the Noble hop varietals used in their beer. Some use hops from New Zealand, etc.
Perhaps it is due to the common practice of using a blend of malts and hops from different regions, as opposed to a single grape varietal from one wine region, that terroir is not often invoked in beer vernacular. No matter, a glass of finely crafted brew from today’s beer artisans is sure to invoke more meaningful, user-friendly words such as “Wow,” “Ahh,” “Incredible” and even complete sentences strung together, like “Ahh. Wow, I’d like another glass of this incredible beer!”