The Basics of Beer
Making beer requires just four ingredients; barley, hops, water, and yeast. Starting with the same basic materials, brewers around the world create beers as far apart on the flavour spectrum as a Bud Light and a Guinness, with at least a thousand stops in between! What your beer tastes like depends on the brewer’s specific choice of ingredients. On this page, we hope to tell you just enough to help you understand why your beer tastes like it does. We love talking about beer, so if you have questions after reading this, please don’t hesitate to ask.
Perhaps about 10,000 years ago someone left a bowl of barley gruel out in the sun, and later enjoyed the effect of a spontaneous fermentation. Historians believe that barley was the first crop ever farmed and beer may have been the reason, and some of the oldest clay tablets ever discovered in the Middle East document the making of beer. It is certainly a beverage with a history!
To turn harvested barley into a form useful for brewing, the grain is first malted. Germinating grain is heated, and varying the kilning temperature and time allows the brewer to produce malts that range from the very light ones used to make that Bud Light, to the charred grain used for Guinness. The malt is then mashed to extract the fermentable sugar, colour and flavour from the grain, and the result is the sweet liquid, called wort, that is then boiled to make beer. Wort, which is then concentrated is called malt extract.
Other grains can be malted and mashed, but barley is the easiest to work with and is the grain of choice. Brewers may also add wheat, oats, rye, flax, and other grains to specific beers.
Beer made from barley alone would be bland, and throughout the history of brewing people have added flavouring agents. Herbs, spices, and fruits have all been used to give a little zest to the beer, but the brewer’s favourite is now the flower of the hop vine. Hops have the additional benefit of being a natural preservative, and were used to help beers last longer in the days before refrigeration.
Hops contribute bitterness, aroma, and aftertaste to the beer, and the choice of hop variety, the quantity used, and the timing of their addition to the kettle, are all critical in creating a beer.
All beers have some hop bitterness to balance the sweetness of the malt, but levels vary significantly. Most popular domestic beers will have 10 to 20 units of bitterness (IBU’s), while international brands may have 20 to 30. For styles meant to emphasize the hops the brewer may go to 40 IBU’s and above, and a few very hoppy brews may exceed 60.
Some beers have little aftertaste, while other styles have a more assertive finish. The brewer adds hops to the brew kettle late in the boil, or even later in a process called dry-hopping, to achieve the desired finish.
Other Flavours In Your Beer
During the fermentation process, yeast breaks down the malt sugars to produce alcohol and carbon dioxide. In doing so, the yeast may contribute flavour to the beer. Our standard yeast is a dried yeast that is fairly neutral.
The first source of sugar for fermentation is the malt, but the brewer may add other (usually cheaper) sugars. We use corn sugar (liquid or powder) for a lighter flavour in most of our basic beers. Adjunct sugars may also contribute flavour to the beer, and we use a dark brown sugar or honey.
Spices & Fruits
Hops are now the standard flavouring agent in beer, but some beers still use the traditional non-hop agents. We add spices and various fruits to a number of our beers, including raspberries or spices to a Wheat beer, pure bananas to our Banana Pale Ale, lime to our Mexican Lime Lager and mulling spices to our Winter Ale and Pumpkin Ale.
CO2 results from the fermentation process, and more is usually added to give the beer its bubbles. CO2 also adds a sharpness to the beer and, because it is cheap, in some very light beers may be the dominant flavour. (To see what CO2 adds to your beer, taste a just-opened beer beside one that has been open for a while. In that Bud Light there will be a big difference, but the Guinness won’t change much.)