The Four Main Ingredients in Beer
July 26, 2014 by
What's in a Home Brew?
Beer has been called the nectar of the
gods and liquid bread. While both are excellent
metaphors for the drink, the term "liquid bread" comes
pretty close to describing beer in a nutshell. Bread
is made with a grain and water. It utilizes yeast for
fermentation. And, it sometimes contains preservatives
and spices for flavoring. Likewise, beer is
essentially a grain (usually malted barley) that uses yeast
and ferments in a watery solution. It also usually
contains hops for spicing (bittering) and preserving the
And, that's about the jist of it - beer
can be made from just four common ingredients... water,
malted barley, hops, and yeast. Let's take a look at
each of them, and their roles in the beer brewing process.
Water Used in Beer
Most beers are about 90 - 95% water.
So, one would expect water to be the most important
ingredient in beer. And, it should. Where it
comes from and its mineral content play major roles in some
of the world's top beers. Essentially, we aren't
tasting the water in the beer - on the contrary, we are
tasting the minerals. Nonetheless, without water,
there would be no beer.
Home brewers have tried emulating the
style of the beers by adding certain chemicals to their
brewing water. For example, after obtaining an
accurate report on their local water supply, the home brewer
will add carefully calculated amounts of minerals to achieve
the taste of water in Dortmund, Germany or Ghent, Belgium.
While significant in home brewing circles,
adjusting water flavor and mineral content isn't the most
common tool in the home brewer's shed. Usually, the
types of grains used are the primary ingredients for which
brewers select with care.
Malted Barley for Beer
Although there are several grains that can
be used for brewing beer - such as wheat, rice, oats, corn,
and rye - it's the reliable malted barley from which most
beers are fabricated. Barley is a grain found
throughout the world. It wasn't available to early
English settlers on the American continent so they used
fruits such as pumpkin. Fortunately, barley is
available in plenty to just about anyone in the world today.
"Malted" barley is barley that has been
germinated by soaking in hot water. Said germination
is halted at just the right time by drying with warm air.
As a result, the barley develops enzymes that eventually
become the sugars that are fermented into alcohol during the
There are two types of malts: base and
specialty. Base malts are the primary grains used in
brewing, as they contain plenty of diastic sugars.
Specialty malts are used for adding color, flavor and/or
body to the beer. By "body" we mean "thickness" or
Beer Brewing Yeast
Yeast are the billions of tiny creatures
that basically eat the sugars in the wort, and poop alcohol
and CO2. Yeah, that's right. Yeast poop alcohol.
They are pretty much domesticated living organisms which
evolved from brewing beer through the ages.
There are two types of yeast -
top-fermenting (ale), and bottom-fermenting (lager).
Neither require the aid of sun light to survive.
Varying yeast strands impart different
flavors and aromas to beer. For example, Belgium yeast
tends to favor fermentation temperatures in the mid 70's
(F.) and produce wonderful esters and flowery aromas.
Without hops, beer would simply be a sweet
flavored ale. Hops serve several purposes.
Mainly, hops impart a bittering effect on the brew,
balancing the sweetness and making the beer more drinkable.
And, it's this balancing - or lack thereof - that beer
brewers are working towards when concocting their wares.
Some beers are lightly hopped, producing a "smooth" drink,
while others are hopped so high the drinker better have some
experience as a "hop-head" before partaking!
Hops also serve as a preservative.
The English would heavily hop their brews being delivered by
boat to their countrymen in India during the 16th, 17th, and
18th centuries. They realized the beer was going stale
during the several month voyage from the island, down around
the southern tip of Africa, and up and over to India.
An extra helping of hops added to the barrel helped solve
the problem. The result? India Pale Ale - a
style of beer enjoyed by millions of Americans (and others
around the world).
Hops also provide key aromas and flavors
to beer. Some produce a piney, fragrant, and citrusy
smell and taste. Others give off cherry, grapefruit,
peppery and spicy sensations. The type of beer usually
determines the types of hops that are added. But, hops
can be adjusted in any fashion, allowing for a virtually
unlimited amount of creativity in brewing beer.