Beer is a deceivingly simple drink. Usually, it only has four ingredients: barley, hops, water, and yeast. However by adjusting these ingredients in small but significant ways, or by adding additional elements to the mix, brewers have an unlimited palate from which to paint from. The section below will give an overview of brewing ingredients, and how they can effect the final outcome of a beer.
Grains form the foundation on which beer is built. They lend flavor, aroma, color and mouthfeel to beer. They also provide the raw ingredients needed for the yeast to create alcohol. Quite simply, without grain, there is no beer.
Many grains can be used to brew beer. Without looking too hard, you can find beers brewed with wheat, oat, corn, rice, or rye. But without question, the undisputed king of brewing grains is barley, specifically malted barley.
Why is barley the brewing grain of choice? Well, as brewing Jedi Master Randy Mosher puts it, “Barley is the perfect brewing grain.” That’s because it naturally contains almost everything needed to make beer: high starch content, the enzymes needed to convert the starch to sugar, and proteins to aid in yeast health. Barley’s husks are even perfectly suited to act as a filter during the brewing process – which is crucial, as anyone who has ever had their brewing system gummed up with wheat or rye can tell you. Barley is so perfectly designed for making beer that anthropologists have suggested that the reason it was domesticated in the first place, roughly 10,000 years ago, was so that people could brew beer.
Six-Row vs. Two-Row Barley
There are two primary types of barley grown for brewing beer: two-row barley and six-row barley, each with their own set of distinct characteristics suited for different beer styles. Six-row barley contains a higher enzyme count than two-row, making it the ideal barley type for American-style adjunct lagers since most adjunct grains do not contain enzymes themselves and require the added enzyme levels to help release their sugars.
Two-row barley contains plumper kernels, with higher starch levels for conversion to fermentable sugars. Two-row also has thinner husks and lower protein levels; it is the choice barley type for all-malt beers.
You may have noted that when people talk about the ingredients of beer they always refer to malted barley instead of just saying ‘barley’. This is because without the malting process the grain would be filled with complex sugars (starches) that are not digestible by brewers yeast. The malting process allows enzymes within the grain to form. These enzymes, when activated during the brewing process, will break down the grain’s long chains of complex sugars into more yeast-friendly simple sugars, such as maltose.
The actual process of malting is a series of several events. First, the person overseeing the process, called a maltster, soaks the grains in water to hydrate them. After a day or two, the maltster removes the grains and aerates them to induce germination. It’s at this time that the barley grains begin to sprout. The first sign of this germination is a small rootlet that appears out one end of the grain. The length of this root has a direct relationship to what’s going on within the barley kernel, so the maltster keeps a close eye on its progress. When the rootlet has reached a length equal to that of the kernel, the malt is said to be fully modified, meaning that the enzymes are now present in the barley, and all the starch has begun to be broken down to simpler sugars. Once this occurs, the maltster quickly heats the grains to kill them and stop the germination process. If the maltster stops this process too soon, there will still be starches in the barley that could have been converted to sugars, creating what is called undermodified malt. If the maltster does not act quickly enough, then the barley may begin consuming some of its own sugars as part of the growth process. This is called overmodified malt. It’s a very fine line for sure, and the timing must be perfect in order to make the highest quality malt.
Once the maltster has dried the kernels to stop seed growth, they continue to apply heat to toast the grain. It is this toasting process that provides the color and malty taste to beer. The lighter the toast, the lighter the color and malt profile it will lend to the finished beer. The heavier the toast, the darker and more full-bodied the grain will make the beer.
The lightest malts are called base malts and they make up majority of the grain bill for most beers. Even the darkest most flavorful Imperial Stouts will contain something in the neighborhood of 75% base malt. Base malts are typically dried quickly and at lower temperatures than darker malts. Pale, Pilsner, Vienna, and Munich are all example of base malts.
Darker malts, often called specialty malts, are darker and more flavorful than base malt. These malts start out the same as base malts, but are placed in a roaster after kilning. Barley roasted for short periods of time are said to be toasted and provide beers with rich, biscuity flavors and aromas. Malts roasted for longer periods are referred to as roasted malts and can take on intense coffee and chocolate-like flavors.
A little of these malts go a long way. Just a few percentages of a heavily roasted malt, such as black malt, can dominate the flavor of a beer. At extremely low quantities, they can also be used to dial in the desired color of a lighter brew. In fact, I’ve heard rumors that even Budweiser uses some black malt to help give an inkling of color to it.
The third major type of malts are crystal malts. Unlike other specialty malt types, crystal malts are not kilned prior to roasting. Instead, they are added directly to the roaster while wet and continually sprayed with water to be kept moist during cooking. The result is an intensely caramel like flavor. As a result of their unique roasting process, they also contain a portion of caramelized sugars which are no longer fermentable, thus lending a level of sweetness to the final beer.
While barley is the overwhelming favorite grain for brewers, it’s not their only choice. Beers brewed with Wheat, Oats, Rye, Rice, Corn, and sorghum can all be found without needing to look much further than your local beer store (with a decent selection).
These grains, and others, are collectively referred to as adjuncts when used in brewing beer. Adjuncts are never used exclusively in modern day commercial beers. Instead, they are as a supplement to the barley, lending texture, head retention, aroma and taste.
After barley, the most well known brewing grain is wheat. Wheat has been used in brewing for about as long as barley; to this day, it is still central to many popular styles such as Hefeweizen, Belgian Wit, and American Wheat ales. Wheat beers are known for their creamy textures and huge fluffy heads of foam, both of which are hallmarks of wheat. In fact, many “non-wheat” beers use a small portion of wheat in their grain bills to help with head stability.
Using rye as an adjunct can lend beers a fantastic, spicy flavor and aroma. Though once quite popular as a brewing grain in Germany and various northern European countries such as Russia and Finland, rye has fallen out of favor in modern times. This could easily be at least in part due to rye’s notorious reputation as being difficult to brew with, turning an otherwise perfectly good brewing mash into gummy cement. For this reason, rye is usually used in moderate amounts and often accompanied with wheat. Even so, a little rye goes a long way and just a small amount can lend a huge punch of spicy flavor to beer. Like wheat, rye is also great for helping keep a fluffy head of foam on beers. Very recently, rye has begun to make something of a comeback in American craft breweries, who often pair the grain’s peppery flavor with hop bitterness.
Another grain with a checkered brewing history is oats. Once commonly used across Europe, the use of oats in brewing beer seemed all but extinct a hundred years ago. Then, around the early part of the 20th century, oats experienced a resurgence as brewers began marketing the nutritious qualities of oatmeal stout. Seen as a bit of a medical cure-all, British doctors were prescribing the beer to everyone from invalids to nursing mothers. Before long, the British government put an end to brewers advertising their beers as medicine, but by then people had gotten a taste for the rich, creamy taste of oatmeal stout, and it’s been around ever since.
Like wheat and rye, oats help aid with head stability in beer. Oats also lend a slick ‘oily’ mouthfeel to beers.
Rice and Corn
The next two adjuncts, rice, and corn are both the most widely used and the most looked down upon by beer connoisseurs. This is because rice and corn are the adjuncts of choice for many of the macro lagers around the world, as they try to lend alcohol to a beer while having it remain light and drinkable (and as detractors would argue, tasteless!). This does not always need to be the case, however. Some crafts brewers use these adjuncts as well. In particular, beers brewed with wild rice can be wonderfully flavorful and worth searching out. But for the most part, you won’t even know these adjuncts are in your beer at all, which is just what the brewers want!
While grains form the backbone of all beers, if left unchecked, they can cause a beer to become undrinkably sweet. That is why brewers add other ingredients, usually something bitter, to counterbalance the malt. In the distant past, a variety of herbs were used to pair with the malt in beer. But for the last thousand years or so, it’s pretty much been a one-plant show: hops. The bitter acids contained in the cone of the hop were perfectly suited to smoothing out the malty flavors in beer, making them easier to drink. As an added bonus, these same acids also acted as a natural antibacterial, slowing beer spoilage. This effect was greatly relied upon in the days before pasteurization, and it is one of the key reasons that hops became the primary bittering agent in beer.
In addition to bittering the beer, the essential oils in hops lend beer a huge variety of flavors and aromas, ranging from earthy to herbaceous, or even tropical. And what’s really cool about hops is that the process for extracting their bitterness and the process for extracting their flavors and aromas are mutually exclusive. While the bittering alpha acids in hops are only released at boiling temperatures, these same temperatures will quickly dissipate the extremely volatile aroma and flavoring oils contained in the hop cone. Likewise, the cooler temperatures used to coax the aromatics out of hops are not nearly hot enough to dissolve (isomerize, technically) the bitter alpha acids. As a result, brewers have a huge amount of control over the hop character of their beer. If they prefer their beer to be malt driven, with just enough of a clean bitterness to balance out the brew, they will add the hops early on during the boil. Conversely, if a brewer wants to really highlight the aromatics of a beer without it being face-puckeringly bitter, they will add the hops just at the end of the brewing process. Usually it’s a combination of the two, with some hops added at the beginning and others at the end.
In many cases, brewers that want to get the absolute most hop flavor and aroma they possibly can will actually continue to add hops after brewing. This process, known as dry-hopping, is usually done during or just after fermentation, but it can be known to occur right up to the point of packing. I know of at least one brewery that actually adds whole hope cones to bottles of their IPA. I’m not sure if that’s the most effective way to extract hop flavor, but it certainly looks cool!
If you’ve ever looked closely at the label of an American craft beer, you may have noticed some reference to IBUs. IBU, or International Bitterness Units is a measure of how bitter a beer is. One IBU is equal to 1mg of isomerized alpha acid in beer. The higher the IBU, the more bitterness you can expect to taste. For example, most hefeweizens are in the range of 15 IBUs, while hoppy IPAs can easily reach 50 or 60 IBUs. Though useful to know, a beer’s IBU level should only be used as a general guideline, since just as the hops in beer counteract the malty sweetness, the malt also balances against the bitterness. A good example of this can be found in some of the huge Russian Imperial Stouts, which can easily have higher IBU counts than a hoppy pale ale. But due to the huge difference in sweetness from the stout, it won’t actually taste as bitter.
To really know what to expect from a beer, you need to understand the ratio of sugars in the beer to its IBUs. Since this isn’t always easy to find out, I suggest not worrying too much about IBUs unless the brewer is making it a point to highlight it, in which case all they’re really saying is “this beer is going to be bitter.”
Fading Hop Flavor
An important note about hops is that their flavor is prone to diminish over time as it sits in the bottle (or can, or keg). The first characteristic to go is the aromatics, followed by the hop flavor. Eventually, the bitterness will also start to fade, although at a considerably slower rate. In some beers, age is a good thing, but for anything hoppy, fresh is the way to go. That’s why it’s so important to check the bottle to make sure it’s still fresh. For most beers that’s about 6 months. For a super hopped-up double IPA that’s been dry hopped to hell, I’d personally look for 4 months or less.
Regional Hop Characteristics
More than grains, hops are known to represent their region of origin. British hops, for example, are often described as earthy or spicy. Some good examples of English hops are Fuggle, Kent, and Brewers Gold.
German and Czech hops, by contrast, are much more likely to display herbal or floral characteristics. They are also often described as having a very “clean” taste to them. The most famous hop varieties from Germany and the Czech Republic are the vaunted ‘Noble Hops’ Hallertau, Saaz, Tettnang, and Spalt.
American hops, on the other hand, are about as far from clean as you can get. U.S. hops are known for huge pine, resin, citrus, and even tropical flavors. If you consider yourself a hop-head, there’s little need to look beyond the good ol’ U.S. of A.
Many people completely forget about water when listing the components of beer, even though it usually represents over 95% of the final product! More than a simple vehicle for holding the other ingredients, water lends many essential, if overlooked, characteristics to beer. The presence (or lack of) minerals in an areas water supply can have huge impacts on how a beer will taste. In fact, for most of beer’s history, certain styles were associated to a specific region for this reason. Long before anyone knew to measure the mineral content of well water, people realized that the English town of Burton on Trent made some of the best bitter beers on earth. Only later was it discovered that the unique qualities of Burton beer were due to the high sulfate levels of the water there, which accentuated the bitter flavors of their beer.
In Munich, the water had hardly any sulfates but instead was rich in carbonate. As a result, any hoppy beer the local brewers tried to make (and they certainly did try!) would turn out harsh and unpalatable. But that same local water’s rich calcium content helped to promote the soft, full mouthfeel of more malt-prominent beers such as dunkel.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, the Czech town of Plzen has water with almost no mineral content to speak of. This amazingly soft water allowed the bright, clean-tasting lagers of their namesake to dominate the world!
Today, modern brewing technology has given brewers from anywhere in the world the ability to analyze their own water source and adjust it as needed. In fact, it is now common practice in larger breweries to strip out all mineral content totally, only to add them back in precise measurements. Nowadays adjusting water levels is an ordinary step for any brew day.
If you asked a random person on the street to describe beer, the first two things they would likely say is “alcohol” and “carbonated”. What that person may not know is that both of those traits are entirely the responsibility of yeast.
Once introduced into unfermented beer (wort), yeast will immediately begin to consume the sugars from the malt. Yeast convert this sugar to alcohol, with an added byproduct being carbonation. To put it more crudely, yeast eat sugar, pee alcohol and fart carbonation!
Once the yeast have consumed all the available sugars in the beer, they will go dormant and slowly settle at the bottom of the tank, leaving clear beer above. This process is called “dropping bright, and is usually sped up by the brewer though the use of fining agents or mechanical filtering before packaging into bottles, cans, or kegs. This allows for a clear, bright final product.
Some beers are intentionally left in contact with the yeast, either to add flavor or to allow the beer to continue to condition after bottling. If you even see the term “bottle conditioned” on a beer, that means there was active yeast left or added to the bottle. Bottle conditioned beers can often be cellared for long periods of time to gradually evolve in flavor.
Ale vs. Lager
Yeast can be categorized into two main families: ale yeast and lager yeast. As a result, all beers are either ales or lagers. (Of course, as with everything, there are exceptions here, but I’m talking 99.99% of all beer made is either an ale or a lager. Stout? Ale. Pilsner? Lager. Wheat beers? Ale. Octoberfest? Lager.)
There are many different types of ales, much more than lager, but all share at least one thing in common: they use top-fermenting yeast, also known as ale yeast. Ale yeasts tend to collect at the top of the fermenting beer in thick, pillowy clumps.
Ale yeasts are happiest at moderately high temperatures, around 60-70 degrees, although some farmhouse beers can go as high as 85 degrees. At these warmer temperatures, the rate of fermentation speeds up, one of the reasons ales typically take less time to make than lagers (the other reason being reduced maturation time). As the yeast ferment faster and faster, they also tend to ferment less efficiently. That means in addition to alcohol and carbon dioxide, ale yeast also release large amounts of flavorful esters and phenols into the beer. This is where the fruity, spicy qualities of many ales come from. It’s actually quite amazing how strongly these yeasts can flavor a beer. It’s hard to believe when tasting the immense banana and clove flavors of a German hefeweizen that there aren’t actually any fruit or spices added to the beer. It’s all the yeast!
Lager yeast on the other hand, wouldn’t do so well at these high ale temperatures. They require cooler temperatures, in the neighborhood of 50 degrees or so. There, the yeast can slowly and efficiently do their work, without letting off any of the byproducts found in ales. The result is a much cleaner tasting beer, where flavors provided by the yeast take a back seat to the malt and hops. Lager yeasts also tend to do their work lower down in the fermentation vessel, which is why they are referred to as being bottom-fermenting.
In addition to the big four ingredients of malt, water, hops and yeast, brewers can further modify their recipes with a variety of other substances. The Belgians are especially adept at this, adding spices such as coriander or the flavorful peel of the curacao orange to their Wit Biers, fermentable sugars to their strong golden and dark ales to boost a brew’s strength while keeping it drinkable, or fermenting with fruits such as cherries or raspberries as is done with the wonderfully tart lambics of Brussels. In recent decades, American brewers have taken a lesson from this historically Belgian practice of using adjuncts, which has resulted in some of the most interesting and innovative beers ever brewed.