The “What beer is made from” series is deep dive into beer’s four main ingredients and their impact on its flavour. New to the series? Start here.
While most beers are made with four ingredients… some brewers don’t quite stop there!
It’s not unusual to find additional ingredients – like fruits, herbs or spices – added into a brew to make its flavours even more unique.
Herbs & Spices
Before hops were regularly added to beer, brewers used to bitter their beer with a mix of herbs and spices, called gruit.
Although the days of gruit are long gone, herbs and spices still play an important role in some classic styles, like the Belgian witbier, which contains orange peel and coriander seed.
But plenty of other herbs and spices can be used…
Sometimes they’ll take a seasonal inspiration, like pumpkin ales in the US that are spiced to taste like a pumpkin pie with hints of cinnamon, nutmeg and allspice or warming holiday ales that have aromas similar to mulled wine or Christmas pudding.
Ingredients like tea, coffee, chocolate and chili peppers have also been included in a variety of styles, from Earl Grey IPAs to chocolate and chili pepper imperial stouts.
Fruits or fruit syrups are commonly found in beer, but their flavour impact changes based on when they’re added
Traditional Belgian styles in the mixed fermentation family, lambic and guezue, often have fruit added during their long aging process. But as these beers are still full of microorganisms that are actively fermenting, any fruit sugars will be consumed. This means the beer won’t taste sweeter, but it will take on colour and flavour from the fruit.
To sweeten up a beer, fruit or fruit syrups can be added after the yeast have been removed. This adds fruit colour, flavour and sweetness. You may see this approach taken with the addition of raspberry or blueberry syrups into American wheat beers, for example. Or the use of fruit purees in sour styles like Berliner weisse and gose to add an extra layer of flavor.
As we mentioned in this article on malt, grains other than barley can be used to brew with to introduce different flavours or textures to beer:
- Wheat has a higher protein content than barley, so it adds a fuller body and slightly hazy appearance to styles like German wheat beer.
- Similarly, oats add a bit of body and a smooth, creamy texture when added into an oatmeal stout.
- Rye also adds body and a hint of spice. It can really complement the hop aromas when added into an IPA, for example.
- Corn and rice are not used to add to but to thin the body of styles like American Lager. They provide a source of sugar without much additional protein, so the beer stays light and crisp.
Finally, brewers may choose to use alternative grains to produce gluten-free beer by brewing with gluten-free grains like sorghum and buckwheat.
A brewer may choose to add sugar directly into a brew. This won’t sweeten up the beer though, as the yeast will ferment it. Instead it increases the alcohol content and helps to lighten the body.
But some sugars may also be added to introduce new flavours, as maple syrup, molasses, honey and Belgian candi sugar all have plenty of rich flavour compounds to contribute, in addition to being a sugar source.
In some cases, sugar may be used to change the mouthfeel of a beer, like with lactose in milk stouts. As yeast can’t ferment this sugar, it remains in the finished beer, making it taste sweeter and feel fuller.
Ever since their invention more than 2,000 years ago, wooden barrels have played a crucial role in the storage, transport and dispense of beer, wine and spirits.
But brewers would often go to great lengths to prevent their barrels from influencing the flavour of their beer and ditched wooden barrels for stainless steel kegs as soon as they could… but that’s certainly not the case now!
Many brewers now intentionally age their beers in wood for one of two reasons:
- either to make a long-aged mixed fermentation beer
- or to flavour a beer with the wine or spirits the barrel previously held
Let’s take a look at barrel aged mixed fermentation beers first.
Wood is a great home for the microorganisms involved in mixed fermentation.
As I mentioned in this article on yeast, mixed fermentation often takes place at ambient temperatures and can take from months to years. And during this time, many of these beers, like lambic, Flanders red or American wild ales, will be aged in wooden barrels.
The wild yeast and bacteria present in the beer will then take up residence in the barrels, meaning these barrels will continue to contribute sour and funky flavours to all future mixed fermentation beers that are aged in them.
But barrels can also be used for aging without souring bacteria being introduced…
Long aging in wooden barrels can be used to impart flavours from the wood itself, like in winemaking, or boozy flavours from the wine or spirits these barrels used to hold.
Bourbon barrels were used first, but now everything from red wine, to tequila, rum and gin barrels have been experimented with. As you can probably tell, brewers like to to get creative!
The key is to choose a beer style that will stand up to the flavour, and alcohol, imparted by these boozy barrels; styles like Imperial Stout or Belgian Dark Strong Ale are common choices
It’s also important to note that each barrel can produce unique flavours – whether it includes wild yeast and bacteria or not! – so most barrel aged beers will be blends from different barrels. When blending, balance is key.
These are just a few of the fun ways for brewers to add even more flavour to their beer – beyond beer’s four main ingredients.
So, we now know what beer is made from…. but how do we actually make it?
That’s what we’ll cover in my next series, “How beer is made”. Check back soon for that!