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.
Ever wondered what beer is actually made from?
Unlike other fermented alcoholic beverages like wine and cider, whose origins are a bit more obvious – grapes and apples, respectively – beer is a little more complex. But, this is what helps to make it so unique!
To put things in context, we’re going to stick to wine and cider for just a moment.
As I mentioned, wine is made from grapes and cider comes from apples. Both fruits are pressed, producing a juice that’s then fermented by yeast. But with beer, there’s no single fruit or vegetable to press or juice.
In fact, there’s no one single ingredient responsible for beer!
Beer is typically made with four different ingredients, which, together, give it an incredible range of colours, flavours, and styles.
Before we get to those four ingredients though, I think it’ll be helpful if we first say a few words on fermentation.
Thinking back to wine and cider – both start with fruit juice. And what does that juice contain? Sugar and liquid. Simply add yeast… and that gives us an alcoholic beverage!
Yeast, a single-celled microorganism, ferments sugar into alcohol and carbon dioxide, the booze and bubbles in our beer, cider, and sparkling wine. (The gas is allowed to escape when producing still wines.)
So, to make a fermented alcoholic beverage, we need three things:
- a source of sugar
- yeast to ferment that sugar
- a liquid environment for that reaction to happen in
With wine and cider, grapes and apples provide the sugar and liquid in the form of juice. And bonus, the fruit skins are a natural habitat for yeast! So those single ingredients have it all.
With beer, however, we need to introduce each component individually.
So, get ready to meet: malt, water, yeast and hops…
Our main source of sugar in brewing is malt, shorthand for malted barley. (It also gives beer much of its colour and flavour, too.)
Barley is a grain that contains starches, which are long chains of sugars, but yeast can only ferment simple sugars, or short chains. So, the barley kernels are put through a process called malting, so that their starches can later be converted into sugars during the brew.
We’ll explain the full malting process in a separate video, but for now, the main takeaway is that at the end of malting, barley grains are exposed to heat.
And it’s the length of time and temperature of that heat exposure that determines not only how much sugar malt contributes to the brew, but its influence on beer’s colour and flavour, too.
Beyond barley, additional grains, like wheat and oats, can also be used to brew with, giving styles that contain them a unique appearance, flavour and texture.
Of beer’s four main ingredients, the one used in the highest volume by far is water. In fact, water makes up just over 90% of an average pint of beer!
It doesn’t just serve as an environment for fermentation though… it can have a significant impact on beer’s flavour in its own right. Primarily because of the minerals it contains and effect these minerals have on the brewing process.
Some areas of the world are said to have hard, or mineral-rich, water, while others have soft water that’s mineral free. And this is why certain beer styles developed in certain places – like the Irish stout in Dublin and the Czech pilsner in Pilsen – the local water profiles there determined which styles were best suited to brew.
These days, brewers can adjust the mineral content of their brewing water so they can brew any beer style they like, no matter their location.
Yeast is a single-celled microorganism that ferments malt’s sugars into alcohol and carbon dioxide, the booze and bubbles in our beer.
Brewers select a yeast strain to brew with, which determines the beer’s style and influences its flavour.
Broadly speaking, there are 3 families of beer, determined by the type of yeast used: lager, ale, and mixed fermentation.
Lager yeast prefers cool fermentation temperatures, so the fermentation process takes place slowly and produces booze and bubbles only, no additional flavour compounds. This is why lagers – like the Munich helles and Czech pilsner – are often described as having a “clean” fermentation profile.
Ale yeast functions at warmer fermentation temperatures, speeding up the process. It produces booze, bubbles, and fruity and spicy flavours. There are also over 1500 different ale yeast strains, giving rise to styles as diverse as American IPA, saison and German wheat beer.
Finally, mixed fermentation uses a combination of brewer’s yeast, plus wild yeast and bacteria, giving sour or funky flavours to styles like Berliner Weisse or lambic.
But wait, there’s more…
That covers our 3 key components – sugar, liquid, and yeast – but I mentioned that beer typically has four ingredients.
Let’s go back to wine and cider for a moment. Not only do the fruits they’re sourced from provide sugar, they also provide acid, a sour taste that helps to balance out some of the beverage’s sweetness.
While some beers use acidity for balance, namely those in the mixed fermentation family, the sweetness of most beers is balanced, not by acidity, but by bitterness, which comes from beer’s fourth ingredient – hops.
Also known as the “spice” of beer, hops give beer bitterness, aroma, and flavour.
Hops have been used in beer for more than a thousand years. Initially introduced for their preservative properties, they’re now prized for other reasons… primarily their aroma and flavour impact in styles like pale ales and IPAs.
Where hops grow influences the flavors they introduce, with British hops described as having earthy or herbal flavours, compared to the citrus, pine and resin notes found in American hops, for example.
Additionally, when and how hops are used in the brew also has a significant flavour impact.
So, there you have it! Beer’s four main ingredients are malt, water, yeast, and hops.
Malt provides sugar, that yeast ferments into alcohol and carbon dioxide, in a liquid environment provided by water and hops bring the bitterness to balance out malt’s sweetness.
It’s certainly not as simple as saying grapes or apples, but by using four different ingredients, beer has an incredible range of possibilities when it comes to colour, flavour & style.
Which is why there’s so much to discover when it comes to beer. If you can believe it, by varying these 4 ingredients, we can produce over 100 different beer styles!
So when people say they don’t like beer – I say it’s only because they haven’t found the beer for them yet!
Next, let’s start our deep dive with ingredient #1: malt.