by Arvid Bergström Beer sommelier and author of titles such as Proef Bier (Taste Beer)
Beer is totally hotFrom four basic ingredients to endless flavours
In this blog, we’ll explain what beer actually is, what the main ingredients are and what possibilities this offers.
What is beer?
Beer is an alcoholic drink made from a soup of water and malt. Hops and yeast are added later on. This soup is known as wort. Wort is made by heating water together with malt. It’s extremely sweet and full of sugar. This sugar comes from the malt. Next, the wort is cooked with hops. When the wort has cooled, yeast is added. Now it’s beer. The yeast consumes the sugar and creates alcohol, carbon dioxide and aromas - it is now an alcoholic drink.
The basic ingredients
The main ingredients involved in beer brewing are grains, water, hops and yeast.
You can also add a myriad of other ingredients, such as unmalted grains, sugars, herbs, spices, fruit, plant parts and even vegetables, coffee and tea.
Brewers mainly use malted grains, and beer is almost always produced with barley malt. Other grains used to brew beer include wheat, oat, rye, buckwheat, spelt, corn and rice.
The brewer decides what grains to use and checks the quantities for each variety of malt. One variety (barley, for example) offers the choice of light roasted or dark roasted malts. This influences the flavour and especially the colour of the beer.
Beer is mostly made with hops. Hops are used as preservatives and to add flavour. There are three basic varieties of hop:
- The bitter hop is added to the cooking process. This variety of hop imparts a bitter flavour and has a positive impact on the wort.
- The aroma hop is added for smell, and is usually added at the end of the cooking process. Sometimes it’s added later (during the whirlpool, cooling or even ripening). This is called dry hopping.
- The dual purpose hop imparts bitterness as well as aroma and can be added at different stages of the cooking process or after cooking is complete.
Beer is made with different varieties and quantities of hop. Many hop varieties come from Germany, the Czech Republic, England, the US and New Zealand.
It’s fun to try and distinguish beers brewed with the same wort but different hops, as it shows you what each hop variety adds to the beer.
Different types of yeast can be used to make beer. There are four sorts of fermentation process. Low-fermentation beers have a clean, not particularly outspoken flavour in which you can mostly taste the malt and hop. They have far less flavour than the esters the yeast leaves behind during fermentation- pilsner is a good example. That doesn’t mean they’re easy to brew - you can taste anomalies in the brewing process immediately in the finished product.
With low-fermentation yeast, the hop and malt are more accentuated. The taste of the yeast is more of a background flavour.
Top fermented beers are more aromatic because of the fermentation process. It often results in more esters, and therefore more herbal, fruity undertones.
Esters are flavours created from the chemical reaction between alcohol and acids. Esters can release aromas such as banana, apple and even strawberry.
Spontaneous and mixed fermentation creates a variety of yeast strains, ‘wild’ yeasts and bacteria in the beer. This gives it a deliciously acidic and sour flavour.
Spontaneous and mixed fermentation are produced by wild yeasts and bacteria. Examples would be acetic, butyric and lactic acids. The quantity and aroma are strongly determined by the variety of yeast or bacteria.
Water is the basis for beer. The quality of water varies from region to region. There are regions with soft water, such as Pilsen, Czech Republic. Then there are regions with hard, mineral-rich water. The composition of the water impacts the brewing process and ultimately, the final flavour, by causing different reactions with minerals.
Water, malt, hops and yeast are the most important ingredients in brewing beer. But as you have read, brewers can create countless variations with just these four ingredients. And modern brewers are doing some serious experimentation.