“You should write a blog post about the basics of beer”, said Emmet, shortly before I punched him in the face. I’ve been reading and learning about beer myself, and didn’t feel like I was in a position to teach it. I’d feel like a teacher who is trying to stay one lesson ahead of the student. But the more I thought on it, the more I realised he was probably right, a quick overview of some of the basics shouldn’t be beyond me. Hell, not knowing THAT much might even be an advantage, as I can write without going off on tangents or digging deep into the nuances. So here it is: Paddy’s Beer for Beginners.
Caveat Lector – Reader Beware
I want to start this off by saying that there is no good or bad beer. Well, there is bad beer, as in poorly made beer or beer that’s gone off, but in general a good beer is a beer that your enjoy, and that you like drinking. Not everyone is going to want to spend 2 hours sipping on a dark, viscous imperial stout like I do. The large breweries that produce Budweiser, Miller and other mainstream commercial beers, have achieved something incredible in how consistently they’re able to get their brews. Seriously, being able to brew the same beer anywhere in the world is a huge technical feat, and that should be recognised. If you enjoy beers from these breweries, that’s fine. If you don’t like them, that’s fine. Just don’t judge or condescend people who do.
Second, this is a general overview. Yes, there’s more nuance to it than what I’m explaining here. But that’s the point. I’m ignoring nuance to give an introduction, so anyone who has no idea about beer can learn a little. If they want they can then go and dig a little deeper for that nuance.
What is beer?
Beer has a history stretching back over 10,000 years, and there is evidence that shows us that those wily ancient Egyptians in the fertile crescent would make a version of beer. It was probably more like an alcoholic porridge than what we drink today, but damn, it’s a much longer history than you’d expect. But maybe not, when you consider that beer only consists of four ingredients.
The number one ingredient is water. I could just leave it there, but it’s important to know that the water can have a huge impact on the beer it makes. The water around Dublin, which is more acidic, has directly led to Guinness, which is the city’s most famous beer. Other cities, with less acidic water, haven’t developed beers quite like Guinness. I won’t go too far down the rabbit hole on this, but it was pretty important. These days it’s less important as breweries are able to chemically alter the water to achieve the acidity they want.
Next we have grain. The “grain bill” is the mix of grains that will be used in the making of a beer. Grain is the main source of sugar for the yeast to ferment during the beer making process. It adds flavour and aroma to the beer, and mouth feel as well. Raw grains don’t produce that much sugar for the yeast to work with, so grain is malted first. This means it’s activated so the grain begins to sprout. Then it is dried (or kilned) and roasted. At this stage, it’s often called malt, but don’t let that confuse you; malt and grain are almost always interchangeable when talking about beer.
Roasting the grains impacts the colour, aroma and flavour of the beer. The lightest roast gives a slightly sweet flavour and a pale colour. The darkest roast gives an intense bitter flavour, almost like espresso, and will make a beer dark, like the night. The “grain bill” doesn’t necessarily have to use all the same type of grain (or malt, which is often used interchangeably). Different blends of differently roasted grains will give different flavour profiles. In addition, wheat is most often used in beer, but adding different grains can also give different flavour, aroma and colour. Oats, for example, make a beer more creamy, whereas wheat can be used to make a beer more cloudy in appearance.
The third ingredient is spice. Spice is used to stop beer from becoming too sweet. Traditionally, lots of different herbs and spices were used, like juniper berries, elderberries or heather. Brewers would have used whatever was available locally. But over time, hops have come to become the main spice used in beer. Why? Hops not only add bitterness and flavour to the beer, but they also have huge anti-bacterial properties and help preserve the beer, making it easier to transport over longer distances. Pretty important when you want to sell your beer in different places. This explains why IPAs (or Indian Pale Ales) have a very hoppy flavour: in the time of the British Empire, they needed to add extra hops to the beer so it would survive the long trip to India! There are a huge number of hop varieties and they can all add different flavours. Even the same variety of hops grown in two different places can have different tastes. When beer is being brewed, the brewer can use a single type of hop, or multiple types, add them all at the same time, or at different times, use fresh hops or dried hops, and mix and match to get the taste they desire.
Finally, the last ingredient is yeast. Yeast are these tiny, single cell organisms. They gobble up the sugar in the grains and poop out alcohol in a process called fermentation. Simple! Not only that, but yeast produces all kinds of different substances as a side effect of this alcohol pooping process which contribute to the flavour and aroma of the beer. In addition to this different yeasts will consume and poop alcohol in different ways, at different speeds and different temperatures. This can result in sweeter beer, drier beer and is also the main difference between lager and ale.
One more ingredient…
I know, I know, I said the last ingredient is yeast, but that’s not entirely true. Some companies or brews call for adjuncts, or additional ingredients. For example, if you ever see a milk stout, the milk comes from adding lactose (milk sugar), which produces a milky, creamy taste and mouth feel when fermented by the yeast. But there’s no real standard to these adjuncts; some breweries don’t use them at all, some use a few, and others rely heavily on them.
Today I’ve just covered the very basics of how beer is made. You can probably see that how changing each ingredient, be it how your roast the grains, the type and quantity of hops and the type of yeast the brewer uses can hugely affect the beer they make. Next week, I’m going to give an overview of some of the different styles of beer, so that when you walk into a shop you can have an idea of what to expect. If you have any questions, comments or suggestions, please let me know in the comments below!