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The history of beer goes back thousands of years and, given just how popular it remains today, it’s likely to be around for a long time yet. (There’s even an International Beer Day – on the first Friday in August!)
But in a world of lagers, stouts, pale ales, IPAs and more, have you ever thought to yourself, ‘what’s in my beer?’ It turns out that, while there’s plenty of variety and innovation when it comes to flavours and styles, the main ingredients in beer rarely change. And there’s just four: malt, hops, water and yeast.
Brewers use all manner of natural ingredients including fruit, honey, coffee and spices to great effect in some limited-edition brews but there’s a lot one can do with just water, malt, hops and yeast.
There may be a love affair with hops at the moment but without grain there is no beer. The sugars in grains provide the food for the yeast to convert to alcohol and carbon dioxide. The ‘grain bill’ or ‘malt bill’, the mix of grains used to make a beer, determines its colour and also gives it flavour and mouthfeel.
Other grains, such as wheat, oats, rye, rice or corn can be used, however barley is by far the most common. As its starch isn’t easily converted into alcohol through fermentation, the barley is malted, which converts the starch into the necessary sugars.
Malting involves seeping the barley in water which encourages germination (the sprouting of a root). The sprouting barley is moved to the malting floor or vessel where it is allowed to grow for four or five days while the moisture content and temperature are carefully controlled. This germination process converts the starch in the grain to the simpler sugars needed for fermentation, before germination is stopped by gently drying the grain in a kiln.
Varying the temperature at the kilning stage determines the colour and flavour profile of the malt. Basically, the higher the temperature the darker the malt becomes. This results in more complex sugars that don’t ferment – if you’ve ever tasted a caramel sweetness in a beer, that’s why.
It is down to malt and the time and skill involved in making its many variations that we have such a vast array of beer styles to enjoy today.
While there is evidence of brewing as far back as 9,000 years ago, the first mention of using hops in beer production doesn't appear until 822, courtesy of the abbot of a Benedictine monastery near Amiens in France. And it would be another 300 years before the widespread use of hops, with commercial hop cultivation beginning in Germany in the 12th and 13th century. (Prior to hops, many other plants such as bog myrtle or yarrow were used to flavour and bitter beers, known as gruit.)
The flower of the hop plant, humulus lupulus, hops have waxy lupulin glands that contain the alpha acids responsible for the bitterness used to offset the sweetness of malt sugars in beer, and oils that provide all those wonderful hoppy aromas and flavours. In general, hops are boiled for an hour or more to bring these characters out in the beer.
Hops added at the start of the boil will impart more bitterness while those added at the end will add more flavour and aroma. Different hops varieties produce different results. For example, the traditional ‘noble hops’ of central Europe have a floral and slightly peppery character while new world hops provide intense citrus, pine needle and grapefruit notes.
At the turn of the last century there were perhaps a dozen hop varieties in widespread use, now there are well over a hundred. In the 20th century growers and institutions began experimenting with breeding programmes to create new varieties (the now ubiquitous Cascade hop was first released in 1971) and each year seems to bring with it a new hop.
Water is the predominant ingredient in beer and its quality and chemical makeup has an impact on the quality of the final product. The type of water in certain areas also affected the style of beer that developed there. Some classic beer styles are, in part, the product of a particular water profile, such as with the soft water of Plzeň where pilsner developed or London with its hard water which gave birth to porter.
Yeast, a wonderful microscopic organism, eats up the sugars from the malt and in the process produces alcohol and carbon dioxide. Another helpful by-product of this is the production of flavours and aromas. Different yeasts strains produce different flavours such as esters, an organic compound that can create fruity aromas and flavours such as banana, plum, apple, apricot.
Phenols are chemical compounds that can come from several sources and can be unwelcome in many styles. However, the strains of yeast used for Hefeweizen or some Belgian beers produce desirable phenols with spicy flavours and aromas like clove, and vanilla.
The world of beer is both simple and complex - the next time you pick up your craft beers in O’Briens take a look at the ingredients. You may be be surprised at just how many flavours and aromas can come from only four ingredients!
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