What is Beer?
Beer is made up of four main components; put these things all together, and you have the nectar of the gods…
Malt is a grain, that is taken partially through the germination process in order to convert its starches into sugars, which is then ready to be fermented and turned into alcohol. Different soaking and roasting times will create different colors of malt, and be used for different colors and styles of beer. Also, the malt can create body, and flavors such as bready, caramely, roasty, chocolatey…. all of those are characteristics that malt can add to a beer. (sidenote: most beers primarily use barley malt, although wheat, rice, oat, and rye can be used too.)
Hops are not just for bittering and making IPAs as crazy as you can make them. They also add aromatics and other floral and herbal flavor components to the beer and balance out some of the sweet flavors of the malt.
Arguably, the most important aspect of the beer. It creates the alcohol by a process called fermentation, essentially metabolizing the sugars from the malt, and also creating some CO2 in the process.
Depending on where a beer is brewed, and how the beer is made, the water can add body and subtle flavor itself with its trace minerals. Breweries who have more than one base can search for years or employ teams of water technicians in order to try and maintain consistency with the water used at their original location, and in their original beer recipes.
From here, brewers may or may not add further ingredients in order to produce certain flavors, but ALL brews will have these four components in some ration, in order to become a beer.
Styles of Beer
The result of The Brewing Process is one of two styles of beer: Ale or Lager. Each of these begins with a different type of yeast, and the major difference during the brewing process is the temperature at which it ferments: ales use top-fermenting yeast, and ferments at higher temperatures, while lagers use bottom-fermenting yeast which goes to work more slowly and at lower temperatures. For the beer drinker, these different temperatures and brewing times create the distinctions in flavor and complexity.
Generally, more crisp and lighter in color. Best consumed cold, although anything below ~38F will be too cold to taste the subtle flavors.
Usually have a more complex taste and are best consumed cool rather than cold; 45F – 50F is a good ballpark for many of these styles.
From the above two types of beer there are several main beer styles that you should know about, and these will serve as great pointers to steer you towards a certain flavor profile that you are looking for. Obviously, there are many sub-styles all over the world, but these are the fundamental styles of beer that they are all based upon.
A lager style beer, which was first created in Plzen in the Czech Republic in 1842. This is the most popular style of beer, dominating more than half of the beer market worldwide. Golden in color, the flavor is simple with light grain and hops, and a clean finish.
Originating in Bavaria around the 16th century, this lager style gets its name from both the month in which it is traditionally brewed (March), and the festival where the beer is first tapped (Oktoberfest). It can vary in color from pale and golden to amber and dark brown, but recent trends have preferred the golden variety. A hint of malts is present, but not too prominent.
A strong lager style from Germany, with many sub-styles such as maibock and doppelbock. A darker, copper color, while still being clear, Bock beer typically has a maltier sweetness and very light hop essence to help balance the flavor.
A Wheat beer is defined by having a significant amount of wheat in the mash, together with standard barley. The wheat has a lot more protein in it, which causes both the hazy, cloudy look of wheat beers, and also a thicker head, both typical characteristics of a great wheat beer.
One of the widest beer varieties, Belgian ale styles includes Abbey Ale, Dubbel, Tripel, Quadrupel, Farmhouse Ale, Saision, Fruit beers, Sours, and Belgian Strong Ales. Their attributes vary wildly, but they often share an origin story revolving around local cultures and geography. To dive into Belgian ales completely, I recommend this extended guide at Serious Eats.
Pale Ale / IPA
The USA’s most popular style in recent years, Pale Ales have a larger amount of pale malts in the mash which keep their pale color intact. The amount of hops and alcohol content can increase dramatically with the India Pale Ale (and, the Double IPA), which was first done so in olde England in order to help preserve the beer on its long journey to colonial India.
Stout / Porter
The word Stout comes from being used to describe the stronger variants (7-8% abv) of classic Porters. In modern times, the two terms are still very closely related, but are almost exclusively used to describe dark beers, made with roasted malt or roasted barley. The dark colors and roasted ingredients are often accompanied with flavors such as chocolate, coffee, and smoke.