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Beer 101 the Basics

Updated on May 16, 2011

Beer 101 The Basics

Here’s the thing, beer is fun and according to the venerable and oh-so quoted Ben Franklin it’s “proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.” Thankfully both established beer geeks and newcomers to the craft brew movement are now getting tons of opportunities to experience good beer more readily, due to the domestic craft beer renaissance that is steadily gaining momentum in the US. It’s an exciting time to work in the industry, as beer stores and restaurants are making more room on their shelves and their tap lineups for local breweries due to consumer’s increasing demand and willingness to try new things.

So let’s start with the basics, beer typically has four ingredients. Water, hops, yeast, and malt. Germans even made a law in 1516, the Reinheitsgebot or “purity law” allowed Bavarian brewers to only use three ingredients to produce beer: water, barley, and hops. It was eventually repealed, but some diehard traditionalist brewers still obey the German purity law brewing standards. Brewers manipulate the four main ingredients of beer and can add extras to produce unique flavors and styles of beer. One of my favorite breweries, Dogfish Head is known for adding all kinds of crazy things to their beer sourced from all over the world, but I’m getting a little ahead of myself. (Can you tell I really dig beer?)

It's not the size of the beer that counts....
It's not the size of the beer that counts....

Water, Hops, Yeast, and Malt

There is a lot of chemistry involved for large scale brewers regarding their water sourcing, and they have staff tasked with monitoring every stage of production for quality assurance.  They make sure the ph of the water they use is appropriate and consistent, that the mineral content is acceptable, and depending on how many barrels they’re brewing, they may even have concerns that their municipality’s water source can handle their demand.  For home brewers, most kits and guidebooks recommend testing the tap water available to see what’s going on, or they recommend buying bottled water to guarantee consistency throughout the brewing process.  A fun fact about beer:  In ancient times, fermented beverages were often safer to drink than water, and anthropologists go back on forth on which came first, beer or bread.

Hops do a lot of heavy lifting in beer making.  They have preservative qualities, and they impart rocking aromatics which help to balance a beer’s flavor.  Hops add a necessary bittering quality, and flavor, which helps to make beer more palpable.  Without hops beer would be sickeningly sweet and super bready.  New hop varieties are being developed every day to meet the demands of discerning brewers.  Hops can punch you in the face with grapefruit and pine aromas and flavors, or they can be far more subtle. Hopheads love super-aggressive, resiny hopped beers which are typically made with hop varieties that contain super high levels of alpha-acids.  A lot of hop varieties grown in the Pacific Northwest contain higher levels of alpha-acids which many brewers select for their aromatic and flavor qualities. There is a bitterness scale (IBU) which is very helpful for consumers.  Low IBU beers are less bitter, and higher IBU beers indicate an assertive hop bitterness.  Brewers also follow specific hop schedules to manipulate the role the hops play in the beer being brewed.   This may mean a specific amount of time the hops are heated with the wort, or dry hopping which occurs after primary fermentation. 

Many brewers joke that the yeast are the hardest working things in their breweries and I’m inclined to agree.  When yeast consumes sugar (aka fermentables) they produce carbon dioxide and alcohol as byproducts.  Different yeast strains work best under different conditions.  Ales are made with yeast that happily ferment at warmer temperatures at higher levels in the beer.  Lagers are made with yeast strains that do their thing at cooler temperatures at lower levels in the beer, over a longer period of time.  The majority of beers made are ales since the fermentation process is a little quicker and the temperature the yeast requires to get down to business is easier to maintain.  The primary difference between ales and lagers are the yeast strains used.  So, if you’re at a bar (or a booze store) with a large craft beer selection do yourself a favor and don’t say with a degree of haughtiness “Oh, yes I suppose you can help me. I’m looking for an ale.” This will most likely warrant suppressed giggles from the person trying to help you, and depending on the kind of day they’ve had, maybe a discreet eye roll.  Since yeast is the crucial ingredient in beer, many breweries employ chemists to monitor and keep their yeasties happy and healthy.  Fun fact:  Yeast can mutate after sixteen generations, so many large scale breweries toss their yeast before mutant yeast strains go crazy and attempt total world domination. 

And lastly, we’ve got the malted grain.  Sweet, sweet malted grain.  When grains are roasted to various levels they adopt different flavors and subsequently produce different styles/colors in beer.  Dark beers are made with grains that are roasted at higher temperatures for longer periods of time.  Many dark malted grains are associated with chocolate or coffee flavors, but this is not all they can do.  One of the coolest styles of beer gaining popularity now is the black IPA.  Dark malts add a flavor complexity, and amazing mouth feel to an aggressively hopped beer for a combination which seems crazy but works incredibly well.  Legend has it this style of beer was discovered by a mistake when a brewer accidentally added dark malt to a working batch of India Pale Ale. Lighter beers are made with lighter malted grains.  It’s a common misconception that darker beers are inherently heavier than lighter beers.  Typically the higher alcohol by volume a beer has, the higher caloric load the beer with contain.  There are some positively beastly barleywines out there, which while amber red in color, definitely out-heavy the darkest of stouts.  Barley is one of the most common grains used, but many of the big beer companies (read big buyers of Superbowl advertisement slots) use cheaper grains like rice for fermentable sugars.  These cheaper grains are often referred to as adjuncts.  The way I see it, since the yeast are working so hard, the least we can do is give them the best fermentable sugars to work with, but yeast are highly industrious critters and they make do.

So there you have it.  Like I said before beer is fun.  There are some nasty beer snobs out there who put others down for not knowing subtle nuances between beer styles and breweries, but don’t let their snootiness drag you down.  It’s definitely cool to like what you like, but since there are so many creative and passionate people out their doing really innovative and cool things I think it’s a good move to try new things and support your local breweries/brewpubs.  I’m by far no expert, but I learn a little more every day for sure, and one thing I’m certain of is that life is too short not to drink good beer.  

Some good reference books and supplies for home brewers


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