What is Beer?

Tetley's Pale No. 3 at The Tetley

Hello and welcome to my brand new blog! You may have seen my previous blogs over the years, but I thought I would start afresh in 2021 with some regular themed, as well as ad-hoc posts. When I first started writing, my ethos was to keep things simple, informative, fun and positive, and I will be returning to those roots in this new blog. In my first post, I am launching a 'Keeping Beer Simple' series. The idea behind this is to explore what beer is, how it's made, different styles and more, keeping true to my ethos. OK, enough intro, onwards. Let's start with, what you would think, is the most simple question of all… what is beer? An industry professional will likely reel off immediately that it's a (and please read this with your very best nerd scientist voice) "water and malted barley-based, yeast fermented alcoholic beverage, with additional flavour and aroma derived from hops and other adjuncts" or similar. A non-industry professional who has a keen interest in beer is likely to look at you as if "what is beer" is a trick question, but lack confidence in giving an answer. I remember my first foray into beer training and this was exactly the opening question we were asked by Master Beer Sommelier, Alex Barlow. Cue a sudden pretend in-depth reading of the contents page of the training manual, paying close attention to things on the wall, and trying to make eye contact with others, as if encouraging them to answer instead. I'm sure we've all been there at some point in our lives. Then there's the social drinker who may not even care. The one who loudly announces at the bar "I don't like beer, have you got any lager?" This can be a cringe or humour inducing comment for both the beer pro and the keen interest person, but it is easy for both to forget that some people just don't know; lager is a type of beer.

Have you got any lager?

In simple terms, then, what is beer? Think of a family tree and, at the very top, is Beer. Beer is the head of the family of drinks that is made using water, malted barley, hops & yeast, that has origins as far back as the Incan and Egyptian civilisations. I will talk about how beer is made and each ingredient in more detail another time. Top of the family tree, Beer, has three children who I am going to attempt to put in age order. The children are each determined by how and which type of yeast is used, when making the alcohol in beer. This process of producing alcohol using yeast is called Fermentation. The oldest child has been beautifully named Spontaneous Fermentation. Let's call it Sponny for short. Before humanity really understood what yeast was, alcohol in beer was produced by magic. This magic was actually wild yeast in the air, fermenting beer naturally. Beers fermented in this way are still made today, for example Belgian style sour beers. The middle child is called Top Fermentation, or Top for short. Once humanity started to understand yeast, it was possible to produce and manipulate how it was used. Commonly today we would know these type of beers as Ales, for example served through a traditional hand pull on a British bar.

Finally, the youngest is called Bottom Fermentation, or Bottom for short. Fermented and stored at lower temperatures than Sponny and Top, this type of fermentation gives us Lager. Some of the best examples of lagers comes from Germany, where regions are defined by the styles of lager they produce. I'm not sure if Beer, head of the family tree, is an overwhelmed Grandparent, but Sponny, Top and Bottom all have many of their own children too. Their children are named after the type of beer made by which specific type of fermentation. There are literally hundreds of these running around, but here's some examples. The traditional Bitter (for example Doom Bar) is a child of Top, a Pilsner (Becks) is a child of Bottom and Lambic (Lindemans) is a child of Sponny. Believe it or not, these children of Sponny, Top and Bottom also have children of their own, but let's stop the family tree here. So there you have it. Beer is an alcoholic drink made with water, malted barley, hops and yeast, with origins in ancient civilisations and today boasts a family tree the Royals would be envious of, that is determined by how yeast is used to produce the alcohol in beer. Now, go wow your friends and, remember, try not to roll your eyes too noisily when you next overhear someone who doesn't like beer, asking for a lager. In the next instalment of Keeping Beer Simple, I will explore more the four main ingredients used to make beer.

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