One of the world’s oldest foods has stood the test of time. From accidental beginnings (presumably), perhaps a mistake from leaving bread uncovered in a rain storm a few thousand years ago, to a widely consumed incredibly diverse beverage enjoyed today.
The ingredients are simple, a source of carbohydrate/sugar, water, hops, and yeast. But each of the ingredients can be modified prior to production thereby having multiple influences on flavour.
Carbohydrate is usually malted barley (can be wheat, sorghum, but other grains may not have appropriate enzymes to help carbohydrate and protein breakdown sugars and amino acids which yeast use during fermentation), which is roasted to various levels of colour, and adding one or more varieties of colours of malts is the basis behind a light golden beer such as American style lagers versus black beers like Guinness. As you go from light to darker colours, flavours change, with straw-like grainy flavours, converting to caramel/malt, going to caramel/burnt flavours.
Water is water, but throughout history the good brewing regions are associated with good sources of water. Burton-on-Trent brewing region was founded on medicinal spring water we now know as ‘hard water’ (alkaline and mineralised), that has been shown to produce higher quality darker style of ales traditionally produced there. Water is added to the malted barley to make a sugary solution, pretty much the base for the beer, but at this stage it does not taste like beer.
The next ingredient is hops which are used for bitterness and aroma, and there are many varieties of hops. The brewer decides what level of bitterness is required, what level of hop aroma and adds the appropriate hops at the appropriate time of wort boiling. For bitterness, the hops must be added early in the boil to help conversion to the bitter form, while aroma hops must be added late to ensure the volatile aromas do not evaporate during the boiling. The flavour at this stage would still not resemble beer, but would have distinct bitterness, and depending on the type of aroma hops may be aromatic, fruity and floral.
The last ingredient, yeast is also vitally important. The yeast is added to the liquid wort, a mix of sugars, amino acids, hop compounds and given the right temperature yeast will happily grow, and in doing so turn the sugars into alcohol and other compounds that add to the flavour of the beer. The type of yeast is important, lager yeast work well at low temperatures and produce less fruity flavours, but more sulphur flavours. Ale yeasts ferment at higher temperatures and produce a more fruity/floral and alcoholic type aromas. If you taste the product at the end of fermentation it will taste like beer, but the final product still requires maturation to settle the yeast and mellow some of the flavours.
I find it remarkable that four primary ingredients cover such a wide spectrum of flavours. But if four ingredients isn’t enough there are others that are added to beers, for example wheat beers with added fruit (raspberry), or around Halloween Pumpkin Ales are available. The limit to what ingredients can be added to beer is equivalent to the limits of imagination of the brewer.
There is certainly science and a good deal of art in brewing, but the successful brewer must understand the consumer, whether that is the mass-market consumer who consistently purchases Budweiser, or the beer enthusiast who loves discovering a rare oak aged Porter. If the final product meets expectations of the consumer, then the ingredients and brewer have accomplished their mission.
The title to a country song sung by Tom T Hall is appropriate to finish this blog 'I like beer'.