The anatomy of beer
By Mark Tichenor and Bruce Lish
I think we can all agree that beer in its modern form is the pinnacle of human achievement. But when it comes to educating the masses about beer, there’s still a long way to go. Not everyone’s a home brewer or beer connoisseur, so let’s take a look at what’s really in your pint glass.
Beer is simple yet complex, like Mexican food. There are only four main ingredients, but the variety of colors, flavors, and aroma is staggering. Today, we’ll talk about those ingredients and what they do.
First off, there’s the water. It might all be clear, but water varies in hardness, acidity, salinity, and proportion of mineral salts, and has a tremendous impact on the beer in which it goes. Great brewing towns like Munich or Burton-on-Trent have become brewing centers because the quality of the water in those areas was the best for brewing.
Interestingly, the water from Hemlock Lake is quite similar to the water in southern Germany, which is why many German brewers set up shop in the Flour City during the 19th century. With dissimilar H20, it would have been much more difficult to brew their beer to the style they were looking for.
Malted barley is the primary grain used in brewing. To make malt, the barley is germinated and then dried. This creates enzymes that convert the grain’s starch into fermentable sugar.
The germinated grain is dried in a kiln, and often roasted to various degrees. When you roast barley, it gets dark. That’s where dark beer comes from. Stouts like Guinness are made from barley that’s roasted until it’s almost black, whereas a light lager would use malt that’s just dried in the kiln.
Because of its sugar content, malt by itself would make for a very sweet beer. What’s needed is a flavor that balances that sweetness. That’s why we have hops.
Hops are a flower that stabilizes the beer and imparts bitter and floral characteristics. They also work as an antibiotic that kills microorganisms competing with the yeast. By themselves, hop flowers are oily and strong-smelling, and there are many types. The Saaz and Hallertau hops used in German beer differ noticeably in flavor and smell than the Fuggles and Goldings hops used in British ales. American IPAs often contain the piney Cascade hops from Washington State and Oregon.
For centuries, brewers combined these ingredients in various ways, adding a little beer from a previous batch, and then waited, and presto! New beer. It wasn’t until guys like Louis Pasteur came along in the middle of the 19th century that the function of the fourth essential ingredient, yeast, was understood.
Yeast is a microorganism that eats sugar and poops out alcohol. When introduced to the wort (as the freshly brewed pre-alcoholic beer is called), the yeast begins a wild orgy of gorging and reproduction, converting the sugars to alcohol until all that fuel is used up. Brewers can measure and control the sweetness and alcohol content by stopping the fermentation at the appropriate measurement.
As you’ve probably already guessed, there are multiple types of yeast, each with its own long, Latin name you probably don’t care about. Suffice it to say there are two categories: Top-fermenting and bottom-fermenting.
The top-fermenting yeast makes ale. It foams up on the surface of the wort, thriving at higher temperatures than its bottom-feeding cousin. Lager is made from the bottom-fermenting stuff. These yeasts need a longer, colder fermentation period, and impart a crisper taste.
Finally, there are adjuncts: Grains like rice and corn that are fermentable, but cost less than barley. American macro brewers use them to lower the cost of brewing so their shareholders can be happy. These grains also have their taste characteristics, as anyone who’s ever suffered through a warm Molson Golden can tell you, and give American light lager its signature flavor.
We don’t condemn the use of adjuncts, although our consumption of these beers is minimal. You drink what you like, and if you like Bud, than by all means, gulp away.
We, on the other hand, will be searching the internet for the definition of Reinheitsgebot.
Bruce is a certified beer judge and former commercial brewer. Mark owns a laptop and likes beer. For more on beer, check out the beercraft blog, updated regularly, at http://beercraft.blogspot.com. Send your questions, suggestions, or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.