Daniel Girard, Brewmaster at Garrison Brewing Company, identifies all the ingredients needed to make beer.
Building Blocks of Beer
We have such a multitude of beer styles today, ranging from pale golden colour Pilsners to seemingly opaque black Stouts and Porters, and so many more in-between. The flavour of beer also ranges from the delicate character of a crisp German Helles to the bold fruity and spicy character of American-style Pale Ales.
Yet for all these differences, most beer contains only four ingredients: malted barley or wheat, water, hops and yeast. Like a chef creating a great dish, brewmasters follow time-honoured recipes for each style of beer, making slight adjustments along the way that reflects their personal style.
Get to know the basic building blocks of a beer and you’ll have a better understanding of why your favourite ales and lagers taste the way they do.
By volume water is easily the main ingredient of any beer so it shouldn’t be surprising that it is a very important component. Breweries were traditionally built close to a source of water and regional styles emerged that reflected the character of the river or stream used to make the beer. The high sulfate content of Burton-on-Trent in England, for example, was and continues to be the perfect location for producing a sharp, bitter style of Pale Ale, while the very soft water of Germany’s Pilsen area is ideal for producing Pilsners with clean hop bitterness.
Continuing with the chef analogy, malt can be compared to the bones, carrots, celery and onions used to make a great stock. How the bones are roasted determines the colour of the stock and the amount of bones and vegetables relative to water contributes to the flavour intensity of the liquid.
Similarly, malt represents the stock of the beer. Malt contains the starches which will be converted to fermentable sugars during the mash (soaking of crushed malt with hot water) that eventually will be transformed into alcohol during the brewing process. Alcohol gives a beer its impression of weight and texture; so the most full-bodied beers often have high malt content.
Malt is made by soaking the seeds of a grain (most often barley but sometimes wheat) in water. This transforms the proteins and starches into fermentable sugars. The grain is then dried in a kiln. The drying process is done at varying temperatures. When dried at low temperatures for a longer period, the grain remains light in colour and flavour. When dried at increasingly higher temperatures, the grain takes on a more amber colour and develops nuttier, caramelized notes and can even acquire chocolate and coffee flavours. Brewers will select a style of malt to match the recipe of the beer style they are making or even choose to use a few different kinds of malt to create a beer with complex malt character.
Hops are used by a brewmaster much the same way a chef uses fresh herbs and spices. Hops can lend notes of citrus, spice, earth, pine and sometimes even a grassy character to beer. Much like your spice rack at home, a brewer has a number of hop varieties to choose from to get the exact character he or she is looking for.
Hops also contribute to the bitter, drying quality of many beers. Brewers add hops in two stages during a part of the brewing process called the boil. The first stage is for the aroma hops and the second stage determines the bitterness of the beer. The more hops that are used in final stages, the more bitter the beer.
So what are hops? Hops are the flower of the hop vine. The hop vine grows in cool northern climates such as Northern Europe, Canada, England, New Zealand and Oregon, which explains perhaps why there are such well-developed beer cultures in places like Canada, Germany and Belgium.
Without yeast, we wouldn’t have beer or any beverage alcohol for that matter. Yeast are microorganisms that are classified in the kingdom Fungi. Yeast is required to convert the fermentable sugars attained from the malt into alcohol. But there is more to it.
Yeast is a surprisingly fascinating organism. There are thousands of different strains of yeast. Some, we have learned, work at low temperatures and are perfect for making lagers. Others work at higher temperatures and are used for making ales. Not only do different yeasts work in different ways, yeast can also impart flavour to a beer.
It’s not chic to talk about yeast selection, and you’ll never see a brewery list on their website or the back of the bottle which yeast they used, but ask any brewery and they’ll tell you yeast selection is one of the most important components of any great beer.