Humans are 60% water. The Earth is 71% water. Beer is 95% water.
Just like everything we know and love, beer is made up of stuff (mostly water). We’ve explored some of the individual components of beer in the past, including the four ingredients needed to make a “pure” beer (by Germany’s standards).
Today, let’s learn about the five main ingredients in beer!
I almost decided to just copy+paste the intro for this article and reuse it here, but you can always scroll back up to reread that brilliance.
Anyway, water is a pretty important component in beer. Aside from making up a huge portion of the brew, the water’s quality is going to significantly impact the beer’s quality. At the very least, water in beer should be clean and odorless — you know, like water you would want to drink.
Low quality water would show through in the final product. I’m sure you can already imagine this in your head, but I’ll use an example anyway: imagine using a super acidic, slimy water for coffee or tea. Yup, think about it. Now think about that but beer.
So, while overlooked, the quality of water in beer is pretty important.
A lot of the flavor you get in beer comes from hops. These are the green, flowery-looking plants you see everywhere — including in my logo!
There isn’t much to say about hops that I haven’t covered in other articles, so I’ll hit the main points:
- Hops are added at different points throughout the brewing process.
- Fresh hops are fresh off the vine, while dry hopped is a technique of hopping.
- Hops can make beers bitter, but bitter and hoppy don’t mean the same thing. Hops also produce the juicy flavors you find in ales.
- Beer scientists are creating new hops every day! Well not every day, but often.
I always like to imagine malt and hops as the sort of yin-yang of beer. I haven’t covered them yet, but malts provide that rich, caramelly flavor you find in lagers and some ales. So, beers with lots of bitterness or juiciness are more hop-forward, whereas beers with a toasty flavor — like a Vienna Lager or a stout — are more malt-forward.
The term “malt” just means malted, as in malted barley, wheat, rice, oats…whatever grain brewers decide to use. For example, a rice lager will have malted barley and rice. A wheat lager (think Blue Moon) will have, wait for it, malted wheat and barley. If you’ve picked up that barley is a common malt, then you’d be spot on.
Malts provide a lot of the sugars in the brewing process, and that sugar is what turns into alcohol through fermentation. This is a wonderful scientific interaction caused by yeast, which is also an important ingredient of beer!
To turn that malty, hoppy, water brew into something with alcohol, brewers add yeast. Yeast does pretty much everything from making bread to eating sugars and turning those sugars into booze.
There are different types of yeasts used in brews depending on the brewer’s goals, but here’s one yeast tidbit to note:
- Top-fermenting yeast is used primarily for ales.
- Bottom-fermenting yeast is used primarily for lagers.
Once upon a time, yeast was a relative unknown — but people still made beer, and it had all types of yeast in it. This made beers particularly sour.
Today, brewers can get clean strains of yeast to intentionally make delicious beer. Some brewers still use what’s called “spontaneous fermentation,” meaning the beer ferments with wild yeasts (spoiler alert: brewers still know what yeasts they’re getting with spontaneous fermentation). You can always check out my yeast article to learn more if you want.
The critical fifth ingredient in beer is…everything else! Like seriously, anything else that brewers add to the brew to make their beer. This can be anything from spices to fruit purees to ground up Samoa cookies.
While some places *cough Germany cough* would consider beer with Samoa cookies to be “unpure,” I disagree. Sure, we’re probably flying too close to the sun by putting Samoa cookies in a pastry stout, but why not push the limits? Why stop experimenting now?
Adding this Fifth Element to beer makes the future of beer wildly unpredictable and entirely enticing. Beer purists will be disgusted. The layman won’t understand. But brewery patrons? They’ll give it a try.