Written By Chef Peter Martin
Beer is often taken for granted. It is the everyman's beverage, while wine is noble, but beer has a wonderful complexity; a complexity that rivals that of wine. It comes in hundreds, if not thousands of styles, each one unique, from light and effervescent to dark, creamy and rich. With such diversity, there is a beer out there for everyone. The key is understanding the role that each ingredient plays in the making of beer and how each of those ingredients effect the end result.
Beer in its simplest form is pretty straightforward, with only three ingredients; barley, yeast and water. Barley is the traditional grain used for beer though other cultures have used other grains for brewing beer-like beverages, and wheat is often used in conjunction with barley in weisse, wit, and wheat beers. Corn and rice are often used by large scale producers, but they don't add much to the flavor and often result in light-bodied, sweeter beers. To be of any use to brewers the barley must first be malted. In this process the barley is allowed to germinate then is quickly kiln dried. This causes the starches in the barley (not fermentable by yeasts) to be converted into sugar which the yeasts then eat, creating alcohol. By roasting the barley, the brewmaster can give the finished beers different colors and flavors, but as the roasts get darker and darker there is less sugar for the yeasts to consume, so oftentimes the brewer will combine 3,4 or 5 even different malts to create their beer. In lighter beers, lightly roasted malts are used with very few of the darker roasted malts resulting in lighter tasting beers with flavors of dried grains. With the addition of medium roasted malts nutty flavors start to appear along with other flavors such as caramel, toffee, brown sugar and toasted grains. As the malts get darker you might experience flavors like coffee, chocolate and licorice. These darker roasts also add their own bitterness to a beer.
Yeast is probably the single most important ingredient to affect a beer's flavor. In ancient times open vats of wort (the unfermented beer) were left to spontaneously ferment by yeasts in the air. This was unpredictable and sometimes lead to wonderful beers, but more often than not lead to beers of rather dubious quality. In the Middle Ages monks "discovered" yeast, and though they didn't really understand what it was or exactly what it did, they understood what it created. They started to develop strains of yeasts, local to their area, that produced high quality beers. It was the development of these local strains that help to give beer its endless variety. All these different yeast strains affect the beer in different ways, creating different flavors and aromas. It was also in the monasteries that one of the most important discoveries, in brewing, was made; the discovery of yeasts that could ferment beer at lower temperatures. Up until this point all beers where ales, meaning that the yeasts that produced them worked at room temperature, producing beers within 1-2 weeks. These beers tended to be fruitier, richer, and contained many more esters (aromas). The use of the cold loving yeasts allowed the monks to lager, or store, and to ferment their beers at lower temperatures. These lagers tended to be more crisp, light, smoother, and more subtle than their ale counterparts. These beers could be fermented slowly, sometimes over 2-3 months, ensuring a steady supply of beer all year long.
With these three ingredients, beer was produced for thousands of years, but again, in the Middle Ages, there was another breakthrough, the discovery of hops as a brewing aid. Hops had been around for centuries and were a part of any herbalist's garden, but had not been used in the brewing process until this point. Hops did two important things. First off the bitter resins in hops help to offset the sweet maltiness of beer and these same bitter resins helped preserve the beer, giving it a "shelf life" of months rather than weeks. Hops are the flowers of a vine that are shaped like little green pinecones. They contain a bitter resin, that when boiled with the unfermented beer, add a characteristic bitter flavor. Besides the bitterness, hops impart a number of aromas and flavors, ranging from pine, to citrus, to floral notes. There are hundreds of varieties of hops, each one with it's own characteristic flavor and aroma.
From these four basic ingredients, grains, water, yeast, and hops, beer in all its endless variety is created. Of course brewers haven't stopped there, they have gone on to add fruits, herbs and spices, and even vegetables to create new and unique beers. There are beers out there to please everyone, so next time you are out, don't just ask for one of the old standbys, be adventurous and try something new. There is a whole world of great beers out there just waiting for you to try.