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The Four Main Ingredients in Beer

July 26, 2014 by Rick Morris

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 beer.

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 brewing process.

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 viscosity.

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.

Beer Hops

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.


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