What is Beer?

Since I’m jumping into brewing in a rather manic fashion, it seems only natural to take a moment to reflect upon what it is that I am making.

I brew beer. Lots of beer.

But what is beer?

Beer has three required ingredients. Leave one out, and you no longer have beer.

1) Malt – AKA Fermentable sugar. Most of this comes from grains, specifically from barley. But you can get malt from lots of other types of grains like wheat and rye. Corn is sometimes an ingredient. Or you can go with exotic malts from sorghum or amaranth. But barley is the most important source of malt in beers. Barley has been a staple in the diets of humans for thousands of years, and its use in fermented beverages has probably spanned the same period.

2) Hops – Hops are are the flower, or cones, of a bine, a vine-like plant. Hops are used to make the beer more bitter, as well as offering some preservative properties. Without bittering, the beer would be overwhelmingly sweet. Hops being used for bittering is a rather new advent, only in the last thousand years or so. Prior to that, other herbs were used for bittering and preservation. These drinks, though beer-like in taste and brewing, are referred to as gruits or gruit ales, although you will see them called unhopped beers as well.

3) Yeast – This is what ferments the sugars into carbon dioxide and alcohol. The discovery of this chemical reaction might have been accidental – wild yeast settling into some water that had just drained through some grains – but the result was probably pleasant. With control, the flavor was improved. Boiling effectively sterilized the water, and hops and other gruit ingredients preserved it, making for a potable water supply that could be stored for long periods.

So there you have it: Beer = Malt + Hops + Yeast (+ Time)

With the vast variety of styles of malts available today, or the 20 or so common types of hops, or the ridiculous number of yeast strains available, it would be possible to make a career of brewing different beers using only these three main ingredients.

These days all sorts of other things are added to beer. Adjuncts, they’re called. Small quantities of other grains. Or herbs and spices. Or vegetables, like pumpkins (much to the chagrin to some of my friends out there).

Lots of things to try. Not enough days to try them all.

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