What's in My Beer?
The four main beer ingredients are water, malted grains, hops and yeast. These four basic ingredients in beer make for a tremendous amount of variety - delicious and otherwise. Let's take a closer look at some of these basic ingredients in beer.
The majority of beer is made of water, and its mineral composition varies greatly by location and distribution methods. The main differences lie in whether there is a high metal cations content such as calcium and magnesium creating what is referred to as hard water, or soft water which has significantly fewer of these metal cations and general minerals. Spring water may contain minerals and carbon dioxide depending on its surrounding geology, and varieties of bottled water may also be carbon filtered or even distilled using methods such as reverse osmosis.
More focus is being placed on water by brewmasters as they study all beer ingredients, and many differ in philosophies and preferences. Some local brewmasters here in the Poconos love to brew with well water, but I find it too filling and hard even alone and after some light carbon filtration. I've been using a soft Spring water for homebrewing so far, but have had the pleasure of drinking some really good water in beer such as Mendocino's Red Tail Lager and will be looking to replicate that structure in the future.
Most waters can be used as ingredients in beer, but they must be clean, free from pollution and have some mineral content to aid in the sustenance of yeast life and activity. Distillation and purification through reverse osmosis aim to purify water completely, thereby removing any mineral content favored by yeast cultures.
There are several fermentable beer ingredients that can be used as the starch source in beer, but the best and most common is barley. The highest quality available is Two-row barley and comes in many varieties to suit particular beer styles. Other fermentable cereal grains may be used as the fermentable beer ingredients and may include wheat, oats, corn and rice. Specialty beers are sometimes brewed with wheat and oats and usually combine malted barley as part of their recipe. Corn and rice on the other hand are poor quality selections that are generally referred to as adjuncts. Rice adds fermentable material for a higher alcohol content without adding any flavor or body and is used as a cost cutting measure because of its availability. Corn is also another cost cutting adjunct and besides chemical preservatives, is my most hated ingredient in beer.
I enjoy natural corn as a food, especially fresh cooked and bought from a farmer's market - I even enjoy corn chips such as the ones shaped like little scoops for dip. But I hate ethanol derived from corn. It adds a thin and greasy body to the beer, has a "high" flavor pitch and a strong fragrance of cheapness. It's alcohol signature is displeasurable and easily recognizable - it first provides a rapid rush that sticks around briefly, then quickly dissipates leaving behind a general feeling of sickness and intoxication.
Certain countries such as Germany ban the use of adjuncts by law, and there is even a movement in Canada to list ingredients in beer on the label or completely abolish corn from beer.
Malted grains are created by soaking the grains in water and letting it begin germination. After the right amount of germination, it can be air dried or dried in a kiln and even roasted to produce darker beers and richer flavors. Good quality barley provides a rich amount of the digestive enzyme amylase important in turning starch into sugar, which is ultimately the preferred food source for yeast.
To date, I've found that one of the best examples of a good malt base to be in Stone IPA's recipe which includes Crystal and Pale Malts. It's foundation is clean, is of excellent quality, and appears to be minimally heated during drying creating a smooth body and a light color while maintaining its robust character necessary for carrying a powerful hop profile.
Beer was brewed for thousands of years before hops became an important element of beer ingredients. Cultivation and some light use in beer range in history from the 700's to 1300's, though it wasn't until the fifteenth century that hops were considered an important beer ingredient, finally spreading throughout the world and into the United States into the seventeenth century. Now, hops are considered elementary and crucial in the brewing of beer.
Hops are the coned flowers of the Humulus Lupulus bine plant. They are herbaceous perennials and share lineage with the marijuana plant in the cannabaceae family (without the THC). A vast variety of hops are grown including the traditional European noble selections such as Saaz and Hallertau, as well as more recent American breeds such as Warrior and Centennial hops.
Important purposes of the hops in beer include the addition of aromatic qualities as well as offering a bittering balance to the sweetness of the malt. The two main acids responsible for these activities are alpha and beta acids. Beta acids provide aromatic qualities after the boiling of the wort, and alpha acids provide the bitterness during the boil. Further bittering may be accomplished during the fermentation or conditioning period called "dry-hopping."
Alpha and Beta acids are measured in percentage and can range from three percent to upwards of 20 and beyond. The resultant bitterness in the beer is measured by the use of International Bitterness Units, or IBUs. Some light ambers can have as low as 5 International Bitterness Units, while some modern monsters are being built with over 100 IBU's such as Stone Ruination or Dogfish Head 120 Minute IPA . Fans of these beers are considered "hop heads."
Alpha acids are also helpful in aiding natural preservation of beer with its antibiotic qualities. These preservative qualities are what ultimately created the birth of the India Pale Ale in the 1860's. Beer's long voyage from England to India to reach their thirsty soldiers required a brew with a higher alcohol content and generous amounts of hops. Now, IPAs are sought after for their ever evolving, highly complex, aromatic and bitter hop profile.
Yeast is an eukaryotic microorganism in the fungi kingdom that metabolises sugars in the wort. Alcohol and carbon dioxide are the biproducts of its metabolization of the sugars. Many species of yeast exist, but the two main brewer's yeasts are Saccharomyces cerevisiae and Saccharomyces uvarum. Saccharomyces cerevisiae are top fermenting yeasts used in the brewing of ales at warmer temperatures, while Saccharomyces uvarum yeasts ferment at colder temperatures at the bottom of the fermenting vessels.
A large variety of yeast types exist within these two main brewing species as beer ingredients, and many are specifically used for their influence in the flavoring and effects on texture and dryness. Though it's difficult to find many beer makers specifying the types of yeasts used, I get attempts at answers when visiting local breweries. For example, when asked about the Belgian yeast used for Brooklyn Brewery's Local 1 and Local 2 labels, I get a description that it is a champagne like yeast.
I'm inspired to experiment with several yeast species and styles while gathering my beer ingredients, and some preliminary search shows several vendors doing a good job at creating charts matching their yeast selections for various styles of beers. They also come available in liquid and dried into miniature pellets.
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