Instead of reviewing beer this week, I’m going to take a step back and explain some of the basics of beer. I think understanding what you are drinking and the process involved is critical to fully enjoying the beverage.
There are four main ingredients in beer: water, malt, hops and yeast. Beer is produced when the yeast converts the sugar in the malt into alcohol in a process called fermentation. All four ingredients, however, play major roles in the final product. Since beer is mostly water, the chemistry of the water plays an important role.
As mentioned above, malts provide the sugar necessary for the production of alcohol. Malts do more than just provide the booze, and are responsible for the sweetness in a beer. There are different kinds of malts (pilsner, Vienna, amber, crystal, caramel and chocolate, to name a few) that all provide unique flavors and characteristics to the beer. Anything from crackers, biscuits, chocolate and coffee flavors can be attributed to malt.
Hops provide the necessary bitter balance with the sweet malt. Hops refer to the flower cluster of the Humulus Iupulus, a viney plant that is in the same generus as Cannabis. There is a plethora of different kinds of hops and each posses their own flavor and bitterness. The three main flavors hops contribute are piney-earthy, citrus and spicy flavors.
Finally, the yeast is like the cook that brings everything together. As you can give the same ingredients to two different cooks and end up with two different meals, the type of yeast can dramatically change a beer. Like the other ingredients, there are different types of yeast that influence the ingredients in different ways to create a unique beer. Although there is not typically a “yeast flavor,” yeast can be responsible for slight fruitiness, breadiness, dryness and even mouth-puckering sourness with some wild yeasts.
Although these are the four main ingredients, basically anything can be used in beer. Anything that has sugar can be fermented along with the malt. Some of the more common additions include corn, rice, honey and fruit. Some of the more unique additions include oysters, bacon, doughnuts and pizza. Personally, I can’t wait for someone to make beer with chicken strips.
As you might imagine, there are many different combinations of these four ingredients that produce all different flavors of beer. Thankfully, there are different styles to aid in categorizing beer. There are two main families of beer: lagers and ales. Lagers use a bottom-fermenting yeast at a cooler temperature, while ales use a top-fermenting yeast at a warmer temperature. Under these two families are many different styles differentiated by origin, color, strength (alcohol by volume, or ABV), bitterness, types of hops and malts used and an overall flavor. Just about all the mass-produced beer (Keystone, Miller, Bud, PBR etc) are American adjunct lager (they are called adjunct lagers because a significant amount of malt is replaced with corn or rice, which is cheaper and produces a light beer). There are far too many styles to explain here, but if you are interested in learning more, I would recommend “Tasting Beer” by Randy Mosher or the Beer Styles section at BeerAdvocate.com. Especially with the rise of more creative brewers in America, the lines of these styles have been blurred so it is not as cleanly divided as most of us would like.