Pilsner Urquell in its original glass (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
A Brief History
Thousands of years ago, an urn of water was sitting under a table being used to process grain. Some of that grain fell into the urn and, over the course of several weeks (housekeeping was not a top priority in those days), the water slowly transformed into an early form of what we now call beer. About that time, a thirsty wanderer came along and, seeing the urn of liquid, decided to drink it. He (or she) was surprised by the sweet taste of the concoction. The beverage was definitely not water, but it tasted so good they continued to drink. After drinking a while, they noticed that they felt strangely euphoric and slightly out of control. With a full belly, they decided to sleep off the strange feelings and awoke the next morning with a splitting headache. Thus, the first hangover was suffered.
Since then beer has been used for everything from currency to sponsor of beach volleyball. During its long history it helped to save the human race, assisted monks to survive 40 days of fasting at Lent, and was instrumental in founding our country.
Ingredients: The Early Years
If you were paying attention to the story I just told, you heard two of the ingredients of beer; water and grain. And, in the beginning, that I all that the simple people of that time knew about. But, as the process of brewing beer was refined, more ingredients made it into the brew pot.
Archeologists agree that the Vikings that first conquered and settled northern Great Britain used to flavor their beer with heather flowers. The ancient Chinese are known to have used hawthorn fruit in beer over 9,000 years ago and ancient Hondurans used cocoa, chilies and honey in their brew.
Delaware brewery Dogfish Head has made several brews based on ancient recipes that used such ingredients as chamomile, oregano and palm fruit. But, apart from specialty brews such as Midas Touch or Ta Henket – both brews based on ancient recipes – beer is traditionally made from a just a few base ingredients.
Ingredients: The Law
Beer as we know it today owes a debt to the Bavarian Duke Wilhelm IV who, in the town of Ingolstadt decreed in 1516 that beer could be made of only certain ingredients. Those ingredients were: barley, hops, and water. The fourth ingredient, yeast, had not been discovered yet and this was not included in the law until it was understood to be a part of the fermentation process as explained by Louis Pastuer in 1857. The law was known as the Reinheitgebot or more simply, the German Purity Law.
It is from these basic ingredients that beer as we know it today is crafted.
Over the next hour we will discuss each and how it affects the finished product. We will also taste examples of beer styles that highlight each ingredient.
Seemingly the simplest of the four ingredients in beer, water is surprisingly a very complex part of the final product. Water comprises more than 95 percent of beer and, depending on its mineral content, can lend distinct flavors to the beer that is made with it. Water hardness or softness is something to which every good brewer pays very close attention.
Some of the world’s oldest and most well-known breweries have been using water from the same source to brew their distinctive beers for hundreds of years. And, when the brands go global, some of the flavor characteristics simply cannot be reproduced. An example of this is the debate that rages on in beer circles of whether Guinness tastes better in Ireland than anywhere else. Detractors say that it is simply romanticism that makes the beer taste better on the Emerald Isle while proponents insist that differences in the water used at contract breweries simply is not the same and thus the flavor of the beer is off because of this. In fact, a serious study was undertaken to put this argument to rest. The result: Guinness brewed in Ireland did taste better to a panel of experts in a blind taste test.
Another famous example of water playing a pivotal role in the flavor of beer is that of Pilsners brewed in Pilzen, Czechoslovakia. Bohemian Pilsners are more malt forward despite the fact that they are hopped more heavily than other Pilsner styles. This is due to the incredible softness of the naturally occurring waters used in brewing. Pilsner Urquell is an excellent example of how water affects the final taste of a beer.
Traditionally, and according to the German Purity Law, malt is made from barley grain. This was part of the law in part to ensure bakers had enough wheat and rye to make bread. Today, however, beer is brewed with a variety of grains including wheat, rye, oats, even quinoa. The mega brewers use other, cheaper grains such as rice and corn as well.
Malt is made by soaking the grain in water until it begins to sprout. At that point the grain is converting its starches into the simple sugars that are needed for fermentation to take place. The grain is removed from the water and halted from further germination by drying with hot air in a kiln.
Beers styles that are traditionally malt-forward include Scottish ale, doppelbock, Vienna lager, and English barleywine. These beers are typically sweeter with a deeper color and rich maltiness. But, other styles that are influenced heavily by malt include stouts and porters that are made with malt that is roasted longer in the kiln until almost black in color. This process lends the chocolate and coffee flavors that are so prized in these styles. Still another style of beer – hefeweizen – is light, slightly sweet and yeasty in flavor. This style gets its characteristic golden color and hazy appearance from wheat grain. An excellent example of this style is the original Blue Moon.
The flower of the plant that bares their name, hops provides the bitterness in beer that offsets the sweetness of the malt. Also known as cones, the hops flowers contain chemical compounds known as Alpha Acids that provide their bitter punch. But, hops were originally used for another reason in addition to as a flavoring; hops kills off bacteria and has preservative properties. In fact, it is these properties that may have contributed to beer saving humanity. Water in Medieval Europe was often swarming with microbes that caused sickness and disease. But, beer was found to be safe in part because of the anti-bacterial effects of the hops used in the brewing process. The preservative properties of hops lead to the discovery that beer that was highly hopped could last longer on long sea journeys and arrive in far-flung locales such as India still drinkable if a bit more bitter than the average ale. Indeed, this is the origins of the beer style known as India Pale Ale or IPA.
There are over 50 recognized styles of hops that provide flavors that range from extreme bitterness like that of a grapefruit or pine needle to milder citrus flavors that are just right for cutting the sweetness of malts.
Beers that truly showcase the flavors possible due to hops are the afore mentioned IPAs. Decidedly hop-forward, IPAs have evolved from monstrous hop bombs that lead full-on assaults of your senses to well-rounded and carefully crafted beers that employ skillful blends and additions of hops at different stages of the brewing process to produce complex brews that challenge the palate as well as the mind of the taster.
In ancient times, brewers did not understand that the process of beer brewing would be incomplete without the contributions of yeast. It is likely that ancient brews were spontaneously fermented due to the addition of wild yeasts suspended in the air. Today, however, the true function of yeast is understood and, with the exception of lambics, most beers are intentionally infected with specific strains of yeast that are known to impart certain flavors.
Yeast is separated into two types for the purpose of brewing beer – ale and lager. Ale yeasts typically ferment at warmer temperatures and impart a frutier and fuller flavor to the beer. On the other hand, lager yeasts prefer cooler temperatures and produce crisper, cleaner beers that taste best when served ice cold.
Examples of flavors you may detect due to yeast include banana, crackers, cloves or tartness. In some cases, brettanomyces and Lactic Acid bacteria are used to produce extreme beers that present sour or extremely funky flavors. Another example of a sour beer is a lambic. These beers are made in a specific area of Belgium near Brussels and uses naturally occurring yeasts in the air to ferment the beer spontaneously.
Four Ingredients, Infinite Possibilities
Though beer is traditionally comprised of just the four ingredients we have discussed today, there are infinite combinations that can affect the flavor and character of the final product. Through skillful manipulation of these ingredients hundreds of styles of beer have been produced. Toss in a few other ingredients like fruits, flowers or even Rocky Mountain Oysters and you expand the possible flavors that can be extracted from beer exponentially. Regardless of the reputation beer has had as an inferior drink, it can be affirmatively argued that it is actually much more complex than any other alcoholic beverage.
Beer has been the drink of Pharos and the wage that helped build the pyramids, it has been used in ancient rituals and as sustenance during the most holy of times, it is a staple at sporting events and backyard barbecues. In short, it is one of the most popular beverages in the world behind water and tea. If that is not deserving of a hearty toast, nothing is!