Water, malt, hops, and yeast are the four main ingredients required to call a beer a beer. The German Purity Law (also known as the Reinheitsgebot) of 1516 stated that beer could only be made from these ingredients, and today many brewers still adhere to these guidelines. Of course, many brewers experiment with additional ingredients, but when it comes to beer basics, this is typically the place they’ll start.
Beers main ingredient is water; in fact water makes up 90% of your beer. The composition of the water used in the beer can impact the final product in numerous ways. Very soft, low mineral water is perfect for brewing a smooth, clean beer, whereas a hard, mineral-rich water is helpful at making hop bitters stand out in a beer. As you may have noticed, the minerality is of particular importance when it comes to the flavors and feeling you get from a beer. The quantity, composition, and proportion of minerals in the water require attention and can have a big effect on a brew. Thankfully brewers have the technology to adjust their brewing water and determine the hardness or softness themselves, so they know exactly what they are adding to their beer.
Although water is the most abundant ingredient, malt is likely the most important and impactful ingredient in a beer recipe. Malts are what determine a large part of the color, smell, taste, and head of the beer. Malt comes in many forms, including: Barely, Wheat, Oats, Rye, Corn, and Rice.
Barely is the most commonly used due to its favorable starch to protein ratio that provides the enzymes needed during mashing. Also, the barley husks are adequately durable, allowing them to function as a natural filter during cleaning. Wheat is a soft, bready tasting malt with a slightly sour touch. Wheat contains more proteins that can provide a haze and thicker head in the beer. Oats are velvety, smooth, and provide a fuller mouthfeel. Traditionally oats are used in Stouts, but are now being experimented with in Pale Ales. Rye is a spicy, earthy malt that can create a syrupy mouthfeel. Lastly, is corn and rice, which are the cheapest source of starch often used by big name beer brands.
Next up we have the most expensive ingredient, hops. Thankfully, only a small amount is needed in most batches of beer. Of course, there are some styles that require a heafty dose of hops like every hopheads favorite, IPAs. Hops are what provide bitterness and aromas to beer and on top of this have a preservative effect due to its antibacterial qualities. With hundreds of types of hops out there, they are roughly divided into three categories that indicate their purpose.
These three categories are Bitter hops, Aroma hops, and Double Target hops. Bitter hops have a high content of alpha acids, which during the brewing process are transformed into substances with a rather bitter taste. Common Bitter hop examples are: Apollo, Brewers Gold, Columbus, and Nugget. Aroma hops have volatile oils, which can produce fruity, spicy, flowery, or resiny aromas depending on the composition of the hop. Some key Aroma hop varieties are: Cascade hops, Centennial hops, Hersbrucker hops, and Saaz hops. Double target hops have both a large amount of alpha acids and hop aromas, with common examples being: Amarillo, Mosaic, Citra, and Northern Brewer.
Yeast is a living organism that comes in hundreds of species. In general, brewers use isolated or cultivated yeasts, meaning that all of the yeast cells will be the same, which then allows brewers to have more control during fermentation. Three beer yeast types dominate the industry, and they are: top, bottom, and wild yeast.
Bottom fermented yeast (Saccharomyces Pastorianus or lager yeast) prefers working at lower temperatures and sinks to the bottom of the yeast tank during the fermentation process. This yeast produces a cleaner profile in the beer in which you can taste more malt and hop notes. This occurs because a lower yeast releases less flavors resulting in this beer which is commonly known as a lager. Top yeast (Saccharomyces Cerevisiae) works best at higher temperatures and produce more esters and fruity aromas in beer. Top fermented beers are referred to as ales. Finally, wild or spontaneous yeast (Brettanomyces) were deemed greatly undesirable for a long while until brewers started to learn their advantages. This yeast is not actively added by the brewer, but forms on its own when exposed to open air. These often result in sour beers, with tart, earthy flavors.
Of course these main four (water, malt, hops, and yeast) are required to make a beer, but brewers have the freedom to experiment with so many more ingredients. Beer brewed today can incorporate fruits, spices, herbs, flowers, coffee, chocolate, and so much more to give their beers a unique flavor, aroma, and appearance.
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