Beer is, fundamentally, simply Water, Malt, Hops and Yeast.
Luckily for us the end product is not quite as straightforward as that little list there and certainly cannot be summarised into 4 words.
Craft brewers will go to great lengths to source the very best malts, hops and yeast they can to allow them to maximise the flavours in their beers. Think of it like cooking a great meal. To get great results you need to put in the best ingredients. Industrial brewers on the other hand, use all kinds of junk in their beer. To cut corners and keep costs down they use rice, corn, maize, extract oils, adjuncts, preservatives and chemicals. This is fundamentally against everything that the breweries we love are about, and it is this fundamental difference that sets an industrial brewery apart from a craft brewery.
May sound like a silly ingredient to kick this off with; water is just water, right? The water source can have a huge effect on the final flavour of the beer, and is one of things that can make a great brewery have a very distinct flavour. Water has different ph levels, and salt and mineral contents which all impact hugely the final product. Breweries always have a very tough time when they are forced to either move premises, or have someone else brew their beers for them (contract brewing) as they need to try to recreate the water conditions at their originalbrewery. It has been known for water to be piped from source to a new premises to avoid a variance in the beer.
One of the most impactful ingredients in beer. Beer has been around for thousands of years (some think originating in ancient Egypt) but only in the last couple of hundred years has the brewing world been introducing hops. Hops are part of the same family of plant as cannabis, and are the female flowers of the Humulus Lupulus plant. Hops are today used as a bittering and aroma agent, and there are over 60 different types of hops from around the world which produce different levels of bitterness and various different aromas. Much like introducing herbs into the cooking process, the brewer balances flavours by introducing different hops to produce the desired flavour. It is no coincidence that ‘balance’ is one of the most commonly usedterms in beer circles, as a balanced beer is a thing of beauty (an unbalanced beer can also be, but is a much harder challenge) and a badly balanced beer can be undrinkable. There are over 60 varieties of hops used around the world. British hops tend to be earthy & spicy in flavour, American hops tend to be citrusy & resinous whilst New Zealand hops are loaded with tropical fruit notes.
A term that you should remember to do with hops (or bitterness, ultimately the same thing) is IBU. This stands for International Bittering Unit. It is a measurement of the bitterness of a beer and can be used to give an indication of how bitter the beer is going to taste. It is not entirely accurate however, as a beer with big sweetness will mask to a large extent a big bitterness, whereas a beer with low residual sugars (the unfermented sugar left in the beer) will taste extremely bitter with very low hop levels. So you could have a beer with an IBU level of 40, but with low levels of residual sugars which is very bitter to taste, and a beer with an IBU of 100 with large amounts of residual sugars which balances perfectly and tastes great.
Malts are germinated cereal grains (in beer, usually barley), which are used to introduce the sugars into beer which will later be either converted into alcohol, or left in the beer to impair sweetness and body.
There are a multitude of different types of malt which can be used which impart different flavours, aromas and body into a beer. Primarily malts are introduced into the brew to access the sugars contained within them. The sugars are then food for the yeast to do its job in many cases, however dependent on the types of malts and the temperature of the water the malt is mashed in at there will be different types of sugars that will react in different ways during fermentation and in the final product. The creation of a malt bill (the list of malts to be used in the brew recipe) for the brew and the execution of that to create the beer that the brewer is trying too is one of the most underrated skills in the Brewhouse. All great brewers pay huge attention to their mash, monitoring the temperature and the consistency to ensure the results they are after.
The mix of malts in the brew will also hugely affect the colour of the final beer. A dark beer is dark because the brewer has introduced dark malts to the malt bill (the list of malts to be used in the brew recipe). The malts will either have been naturally dark, like chocolate malts (as tasty as they sound!) or the malt will have been roasted (similar to coffee beans) which gives a dark colour and (not surprisingly) a roasty flavour.
The magic ingredient… Yeast is a tiny organism that lives in the air around us. Originally beer was produced by letting a sugary liquid stand in the open air. The airborne yeast would be attracted to the sugary liquid, would eat the sugars and convert them to alcohol. What would be left is an alcoholic drink that would be fairly far removed to what we know as beer now. In this day and age we are very lucky that laboratories the world over produce strains of yeast, and a brewer can have exactly the same strain to introduce into his beer each and every time, ensuring that the final product will taste the same each time. Breweries are very protective over the cleanliness of their equipment as the yeast is a living organism and can easily become infected, ruining the beer. The exception to this are sour beers. The Belgians are best known for this type of beer, but it is produced the world over. Essentially the beer is left to ferment in open tanks (though wild yeast can be bought from the aforementioned laboratories, or harvested from the bottom of another bottle of sour beer), the airborne yeast infects the sugary liquid and hey presto, we have beer…….but sour. Tastes like nothing else on the planet, and for my part is my favourite style of beer!!