What do you really know about beer anyway?
For the vast majority of consumers, beer is supposed to be fizzy, yellow, and cold. At the liquor store or in the bar, most drinkers reflexively reach for the same bland brand time-after-time. While many people enjoy a range of domestic, foreign and ethnic foods on a weekly basis, sometimes accompanied by an array of wines, beer is often a careless afterthought to our American preference for diverse gustatory experiences. These individuals simply do not know what they are missing. For those people who have been lucky enough to have an eye-opening beer experience, they know beer can express almost any imaginable flavor, from deep, roasted coffee to light, flowery citrus to intensely sour and acidic zings.
While it is certainly not necessary for someone to understand the brewing process in order to enjoy a pint or two, a little bit of knowledge certainly enhances the experience. Any novice spectator can sit in the bleachers at Fenway Park and enjoy a Red Sox game, but understanding how the game works adds a new dimension of appreciation and enjoyment to the experience. With beer, a little knowledge goes a long way to explaining the flavors and aromas in your pint and preparing you to distinguish between different styles of beer. After all, making yourself a smarter consumer helps you better understand what beers you enjoy more than others. Also, the insight offers you the opportunity to impress your friends with a previously unknown fact or two. Or if you are afraid your friends will make fun of you, you can just keep the wisdom for your own usage.
Start at the Beginning
At its core, beer is an alcoholic beverage made from water and malted cereal grain, such as barley and wheat, flavored with hops, and then fermented with yeast. Of course, innovative, modern brewers refuse the constraints of brewing tradition and have greatly expanded the list of possible ingredients. This new age of brewing includes many new offerings, ranging from esoteric beers made from beets or garlic to powerful flavor enhancements to traditional stouts and pale ales. While craft brewers continue to push the boundaries of brewing, mass-market brewers have long relied upon the use of adjuncts such as rice and corn to lighten the bodies and flavor profiles of their beers.
How the Ingredients Interact
Understanding how the ingredients in beer interact is crucial to telling the difference between different styles of beer. Malt is the soul of the beer, while hops are the spice. Malt replaces grapes as the primary fermentable in beer. To create brewers malt, malsters, including Paul Revere in his time, dampen barley until it germinates, then dry it at controlled temperatures, causing the conversion of the barley’s starches to sugar. Maltsters create different types of malt based upon the length of the kilning process: longer periods create darker colored malts, which produce deep roasted flavors.
The brewer designing a beer recipe carefully selects between different types malt to control the flavor and color of the final product. Brewers use specialty malts, including chocolate and black malts, to create dark beers such as stouts and porters, while using paler malts in amber and pale ales.
To add a balance of bitterness and earthy aromas, brewers use pellet or whole leaf hops, a close relative of Cannabis. Hops used at the beginning of the boil add bitterness to the beer, hops added towards the end of the boil contribute to flavor and aroma. Hops also act as a natural preservative.
While malt, yeast, and hops each significantly influence the character of the final product, the particular qualities of the water used in the brewing process also imparts its indelible mark. As water makes up more than 90 percent of the finished product, the mineral content of a brewer’s water supply will provide an important contribution. In Burton-on-Trent, the high calcium and sulfate content of the brewing water provides the qualities needed for strong flavored pale ales. In contrast, the soft water of Pilsen in the Czech Republic helped give birth to the world-famous pale, crisp lagers.
The Brewing Process
After the brewer has racked his brain, generated and tested a recipe, and the materials have arrived at the brewhouse, the actual brewing process finally begins. The brewer takes the malted barley and runs it through a mill to finely crush it into a ‘grist.’ The brewer does this in order to extract the sugars that the yeast will use in fermentation. The brewers then take the grist and mix it with water in a large brewing vessel, called a Mash Tun. The mix is gradually heated to a set temperature and the process converts the starches of the malted barley into sugars. This process is crucial to the final characteristics of head retention and providing body to the beer.
The brewer next transfers the mix to another large brewing vessel called a Lauter Tun. The brewer then adds a flush of hot water into the vessel to extract the sugars from the malt. The process results in a thicker, sweet liquid called ‘wort.’ A false bottom in the Lauter Tun strains the spent grain and allows the wort to transfer to the Brew Kettle. In a spirit of environmental soundness, many breweries provide their spent grain to local farmers for livestock feed.
In the Brew Kettle, the wort is brought to a rolling boil and the brewer adds hops at different intervals to achieve different flavor profiles. Much like creating a fine stew, the art of adding hops rests in deciding which hops to use and at what point during the process. Hops added early in the boiling process impart bitterness, in the middle are for flavoring, and at the end are primarily for aroma.
After the boil is finished, the wort is transferred to the fermentation tanks, where the brewer adds, or “pitches”, the yeast to start fermentation. During the fermentation process, the yeast feed on the sugars in the wort and create alcohol and as a wonderful byproduct. This is where wort becomes beer through the magic of fermentation.
For thousands of years, brewers had no idea what added that little extra kick to their beverages. During this time, brewers relied upon airborne yeast strains to innoculate their brews. The several thousand year-old tradition continued until a well-known French scientist started tinkering around with beer cells under a microscope. In his 1876 “Etudes sur la Biere” (“Studies Concerning Beer”), Louis Pasteur found that yeast microorganisms created the magic of fermentation. By establishing the existence of yeast cells, Pasteur allowed brewers greater control over the fermentation process and thus the end result.
The yeast play a defining role in the life of a beer. Depending on the yeast strain employed by the brewer, a beer will either become an ale or a lager. Ales are beers whose yeast ferment at the top of the vessel and that are fermented at warmer temperatures. While no short description can hope to capture the essence of such a broad category (try classifying an art style in a word or two), ales are generally fruity, robust beers. Lagers are beers whose yeast ferment at the bottom of the vessel and that are fermented at cooler temperatures. The cool lagering process produces smoother beers with less aggressive estery aromas and flavors. The length of the aging process is also influenced by the type of yeast used. Ales generally age for three weeks, while lagers age for six to eight weeks. Certain high-powered ale and lager styles can age for a year or longer in order to mellow or fully develop their flavor profiles.