“If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”
Beer is living, drinkable, attainable art. But, unlike some masterpieces, it isn’t meant to be appreciated for its unattainable mystique. In fact, the more you understand about this particular craft, the more enjoyable it becomes. While there is always something new to learn, it’s pretty easy to cover the basics. We’ll save the details for later. But, for now, I’ll give you my version of beer Cliffsnotes.
The four main ingredients in any beer:
- Bittering agent
Just like in humans, the majority of beer composition and the beer making process is water. While this seems pretty basic, the kind of water used can dramatically change the outcome of the beer. Think, for example, how tap water can vary from city to city. The chemical and mineral make up, additions or subtractions to the water, even place of origin can make all the difference. In fact, if you brew the same exact recipe using two different water samples, the taste is still going to vary.
Not to be outdone by water, grain also makes itself essential to any recipe. Most of the time, before brewing, this grain must go through a process known as “malting,” which causes it to become fermentable whereas it was not before. For this reason, most brewers refer to the grain part of the recipe as the “malt.” There is a wide variety of different malts (which I will explore in depth at a later time) and, depending on what is used, this changes the flavor, as well as several other characteristics. Rarely is a single type of malt used (there are exceptions) and the collection of malts, referred to as the “grain bill,” gives a beer depth of flavor and complexity.
Using only malt, however, would make the beer unbearably sweet and that is where the bittering agent comes in. Usually this is in the form of hops, although some varieties and most early beers used different sources. Hops are the flowering part of the plant Humulus lupulus and, besides sounding like a spell straight out of Harry Potter, they are responsible for balancing out the sweetness of the malt. They also add their own notes of flavor and aroma, which changes depending on kind(s).
The unsung hero of the brew, however, is yeast. This wonderful concoction we know as beer would not be possible without it. Yeast does the hard work of changing the sugars found in the malt (Yay buzz word!) into that wonderful thing we know as drinkable alcohol. While there are countless forms of yeast, only a couple are suitable to apply to the brew process.
These four elements are all widely accepted as being essential to the beer making process. So much so that, in the 1500s when Germany began to limit what could be used in brewing, these were the only four included. (To be historically accurate, it was only three elements originally but when yeast and its function in beer became better understood, the law was revised to add the fourth.) This was known as the German Purity Law(s) and, while it was not primarily put into place for quality but more for economical purposes, it does illustrate the importance of each component.
Thankfully, now however, there are far fewer limitations on what brewers can add to the process which opens up a world of possibilities. While these four elements are still necessary, there are so many options within each category and brewers are coming up with more every day. Beyond that, even, there is almost no restriction to what can be added. I have tasted beers made with donuts, bacon, even tree bark.
So let your creativity and imagination run wild.