What Goes Into Beer?

A soon-to-be harvested hop plant

It's time for the next instalment of the 'Keeping Beer Simple' series. Last time, with the help of some interestingly named fermentation types, I tried to simply answer, What is Beer? This time, I'm going to tell you more about the ingredients that go into beer.

Beer contains four core ingredients, water, malted barley, hops and yeast. Notice how I said "core ingredients." You can make beer that includes other ingredients, for example fruit or coffee. Ingredients that are used that aren't one of the core four ingredients are called Adjuncts, a topic for another day.

Let's talk about water first. Water is the main ingredient and makes up over 90% of your beer. Some breweries are fortunate to have fresh water springs that they can brew from, many use mains water.

Smell testing water

Will any old water do? If you were to make beer at home, you probably don't need to care, but for those who make a living out of beer, then yes, your water type is quite important. Grab yourself a glass and half fill it with tap water. Give it a swirl and sniff. Notice anything? You may pick up chlorine, or other aromas, and it will differ from area to area. Give it a taste. You will probably now be able to taste what you can smell. All those slight flavours and aromas can have a big impact on beer. So, for brewers, they regularly send water samples off for analysis, and then treat it with additional salts and minerals to make it taste how they need it to for making beer. The "perfect" water for making beer is the water in Burton on Trent, the UK's brewing centre (for that very reason). Brewers will treat their water so the chemical make-up is similar to that of the water in Burton. The process is called Burtonisation!

The next ingredient is malted barley (malt for short). This comes from the very barley you see growing in farmer's fields across the country. To get the barley ready for use in brewing, it is harvested, soaked in water for a few days to begin sprouting (germinate) and then laid out in a warm room to stop the sprouting process. This leaves the malt in an ideal state to get to the starch that it holds, an important bit of making alcohol during the brewing process. Malt is also used to colour and flavour beer, so some malts are toasted in a type of oven called a kiln, darkening the colour and changing the flavours.

Harvesting hops

Hops are the next ingredient and, to some, the most rock and roll of all. These grab all the headlines and often have beer fans frothing at the mouth for new types and flavours. A hop is a type of flower, grown in warm regions around the world. When grown, the plant can reach up to 30 feet high and the flowers look like green cones. These rock and roll flowers do lots of things, but the main ones are to add flavour and aroma to beer. Different flavours and aromas come from different hop varieties grown around the world. Hops can be used fresh from harvest, but are more commonly dried, or concentrated into a pellet form, to use later.

The final ingredient is yeast. I wrote about this a little bit in the previous post. Yeast is a type of organism that eats sugar to make alcohol (fermentation). From the last post, before humans understood yeast, it was wild yeast in the air that fermented beer. Now, we know much more and yeast comes in many different varieties and can help with speed of fermentation, amount of alcohol to be made in a beer, flavour and more.

Hopefully that was fairly straight forward and not to science-y. So, the core ingredients are water, malted barley, hops and yeast. But how are they used? Next time I will answer the question, How is Beer Made?

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