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Beer has been around for nearly as long as humanity has graced this planet with our presence. And this planet continues to give us an endless bounty of ingredients that produce beer. You might think that beer is made of the stuff of dreams, but that’s not entirely true. Beer is indeed heavenly; the ingredients, however, have a more humble and earthy background. Ever wonder what beer is made of?
Let’s find out.
The Definition of Beer
Beer can be complicated. Any aisle of beer is going to be confusing to decode these days, what with all the craft blends and fancy beer combinations happening. But, the simplest definition of beer still stands: Beer is an alcoholic beverage “produced by extracting raw materials with water, boiling (hops), and fermenting.” Most of the time, that process involves only four or five ingredients.
There are even some countries, like Germany, who have stringent laws that dictate exactly which ingredients go into which style of beer. And yes, those base ingredients carry over to any kind of beer, wherever beer is found.
The Ingredients of Beer
Look at a beer label and you might wonder what’s really inside. All those “notes of orange” or “Scotch barrel fermentation” or “toasted aromas” always add up to the same thing—the four base ingredients of beer and a plus one or two. Brewing beer doesn’t have to be a complicated process.
Knowing the ingredients of beer makes understanding exactly how it tastes the way it does easier, too. The video below does a great job at explaining.
So, what is beer made of exactly? Grain, yeast, hops, and water. Here are some in-depth details:
The traditional grain for beer is barley, a kind of cereal grain that is grown predominantly in Canada, US, Germany, Russia, and Turkey. Even though barley is a cereal, it’s not the best for making flour or baking. However, it works magic when used for beer.
Barley has a husk that is perfect for making wort. Furthermore, barley has enzymes that enhance fermentation. It’s like barley was made for beer.
Now, there are several kinds of barley, and each is suited for one beer style or another. You might hear brewers talking about two-row or six-row barley. For example, European brewers tend to favor two-row barley, because the kernels produce the best malt.
Oats are also sometimes incorporated to make a beverage more full-bodied. Think stouts. If a brewer wants a dryer brew, they might toss in some rice. Hoping for more foam? Get some wheat. Meanwhile, rye lends a chocolate or caramel note to beer, as well as crispness.
Regardless of the grain you choose, there are five things beer gets from it:
- Coloring. The color of the grain will directly affect the color of the beer.
- Flavor. The quality of the grain—and its natural flavors—are imparted on the beer during the brewing process. Hops and yeast also play a role in this, but the grains have the key role.
- Proteins. These give you a foamy and long-lasting head (that’s what she said).
- Maltose. This means “fermentable sugars” and are extracted from the grain—as malt.
- Dextrins. Want a nice mouthfeel? Pay attention to the dextrins, which affect a beer’s viscosity.
Beer isn’t beer without yeast. At least, if you want to drink the alcoholic kind. In order to get the alcohol, you need to ferment the sugars; to do that, you need yeast. There are some places in the world, like Belgium, where brewers will use a wild strain of yeast to encourage spontaneous fermentation. In other places, like New Zealand, yeast is carefully cultured to produces the cleanest results.
Obviously, this means that yeast comes in many forms, but it all does the same thing. Yeast will eat the sugars in the wort and produce alcohol and carbon dioxide.
For brewing purposes, yeast is split into ale yeast and lager yeast. These are also known as top-fermenting yeast and bottom-fermenting yeast.
Ale yeast, or top-fermenting yeast, rises to the surface of the wort and creates a thick head during fermentation. This kind of yeast favors temperatures between 50-77°F (10-25°C). The higher temperatures produce more ester, which is needed in wheat beers, stouts, and porters.
The other option is bottom-fermenting or lager yeast. Temperatures for lager yeast have to be between 44-59°F (7-15°C). The strain is often used with pilsners, Dortmunders, and malt liquors.
If malts give beer sweetness, then hops do the exact opposite. Interestingly, hops were not always the MVP of beer brewing. They are a new addition, having been incorporated into beer recipes 8,000 years after the first brew was chugged. It is believed that hops, though used medicinally for centuries, were added to beer in 822 AD in Picardy, France.
It took Germans another 300 years before they decided that the French were right. Then they made Noble hops and totally changed the game of beer brewing forever.
The 13th century was when hops became more popular. Shortly after, there were few beers produced that didn’t have hops. By the 1600s, Americans were producing their own hops for beer.
There is an insane amount of hops out there, and new ones are always being cultivated and used experimentally. Hops are mainly used for the following purposes:
- Bitterness. Ever hear of bittering hops? Such hops are used for their bitterness to balance out the malty sweetness. Some beers, like IPAs, use so much hops that the bitterness overrides everything else.
- Aroma. Some hops—known as aromatic hops—are grown for their floral or herbal scents. The aroma comes from essential oils and often mirrors the flavors these hops impart on a brew.
- Flavor. The distinct chemical makeup of a hop will alter the flavors of a beer dramatically. By using a certain variety of hops, you can make it taste fruity or spicy or earthy.
- Stability. The beta acids in hops give beer a longer shelf life and wards off contamination.
One thing you will become absolutely fascinated with as a homebrewer is the quality of water you have for making beer. Water makes up about 80-90% of beer, and it can heavily influence how good your beer turns out. The greatest example of this would be the origin of pilsners, which require the soft waters of Pilsen. The alkalinity of water in Dublin, on the other hand, makes it ideal for stouts.
It’s no wonder that some of the highest quality beers are brewed with only the purest water on earth.
But that doesn’t tell you everything you need to know. See, what brewers are concerned with is the mineral content. Water carries many dissolved minerals and, in some cases, heavy metals and pollutants. When water is foul, the brew is foul. There’s no way around that.
Certain minerals also alter the flavor of beer. Calcium, for instance, adds hardness to water. When you use water with calcium in it, the beer ends up with more clarity and stability. The calcium gives the wort some acid, and the overall pH content of the beer is reduced.
Then you have chloride, which can give beer more sweetness. However, it could have negative effects on the fermentation process.
Magnesium gets enzymes moving during fermentation. Carbonate and bicarbonate can alter the pH during mashing. If the mash is too acidic, it becomes less suitable for brewing.
That is why some breweries spend months and loads of money on testing the quality of the water before they settle with the location of their facility.
What About Malt?
So we briefly mentioned malt while talking about grains. The truth is that malt—despite coming from grains—requires its own explanation. Malt is a critical component to beer, and you need to understand exactly how to acquire the right kind of malt to get the beer type you want.
Malting grains requires a long soak in the water to start germination. As soon as that happens, the brewer takes the grains and dries them out. Barley, for instance, is often placed inside a kiln and roasted. During this period, the grain malts, or releases enzymes that transform the starches present into sugar.
Malt comes in a variety of colors that are determined by how long the grains are roasted. Additionally, the temperature matters. Some beers are darker or lighter because the grains were roasted for longer or at a higher temperature.
The darker the malt, the darker the beer.
Fortunately, a lot of the mystery behind malt has been resolved for homebrewers. You now have access to all kinds of malt extracts, so you don’t have to worry about the entire all grain brewing process (unless you’re up for the challenge).
Is Sugar an Ingredient in Beer?
In most cases, sugar is a byproduct of the malting process and is all-natural. Sugar is rarely added directly to beer, but it is necessary. Sugar also plays a role in the gravity of the beer and how much fermentation will happen later on.
That said, many brewers these days will incorporate ingredients that also have sugar, such as fruit. You won’t see these ingredients listed on the beer labels, so it is sometimes difficult to determine just how much sugar is truly in the beer you drink.
Other Beer Ingredients
People like to innovate, and while traditional beer is perfect, brewers are always ready to try new things. That is why the list of beer ingredients always includes a plus one (or one hundred), because you can add an infinite amount of flavorings.
Common additional beer ingredients include:
- Citrus fruits. You can find a lot of pale ales imbued with citrus fruits of all kind. Some, like Hazy IPAs, include fruit juice blends.
- Cherries. You cannot have Kriek-Lambic and Gueuze beers without cherries. This is considered an essential ingredient for those recipes.
- Coffee. Porter and stout beers commonly include coffee in the brewing process.
- Coriander seeds. Belgian white beers get their spiciness from coriander.
- Bitter orange zest. Many Belgian white beers also use orange zest to flavor their brews. This is becoming a popular flavor among beer-drinkers.
Of course, these popular add-ins are not where the list ends. Beers can contain any number of flavors, including pepper, cinnamon, cocoa, and vanilla. If you find yourself hankering for an unusual beer, you might be interested in Gose beer, Italian grape ales, sweet stouts, or oyster beer (no oysters involved).
How All The Ingredients Come Together
So we have water, yeast, malting grains, and hops. How does that all come together to create the beverage humans know and love?
The brewing process is simple at first glance. You malt the grain, mash, strain, boil, add in some hops, strain a second time, add in some yeast, and let the beer ferment for a couple of weeks. Easy as pie, right? Well, baking pie isn’t easy, and neither is brewing beer.
You have to keep track of everything and treat brewing beer like a science—right down to sterilizing anything your beer could potentially touch.
The amount of grain and wort produced, the temperatures at which you malt and brew, and the yeast you use all change how a beer will taste in the end. The brewing and mashing processes require temperature and time tracking, as well. You aren’t simply dropping hops into boiling wort and crossing your fingers! The timing of the hops can change everything.
Fortunately, there are tools and online calculators to help you become a master brewer.
Hopefully, you now know the answer to “what is beer made of?” Although beer is made from only four ingredients—grain, water, yeast, and hops—it is highly customizable and complex. You can add-in flavorings, mix up the hops, and choose different yeasts for various results. In the end, you get one of the many types of beer to enjoy.
FAQs About Beer Ingredients
Beer only has 4 essential ingredients: grains, hops, yeast, and water. Some people count the sugars or add-ins as the fifth ingredient (called finings), but you only need the main four ingredients to create a high-quality beer.
Beer is traditionally made from barley, but any grain can be used for beer. This includes wheat, rice, oats, and rye.
No, beer does not come from potatoes. Beer is made from malted grains, yeast, hops, and water. Vodka is one alcohol that is produced from fermented potatoes.