Beer Ingredients: How 4 Simple Ingredients Create Complex Flavors

Still life with a keg of beer and hops.Would you believe that most beers you drink have a base of only four simple ingredients? How can that be, with so many different varieties of beer available? You’d be surprised how much of a difference a slight adjustment makes in the brewing process. Add to that the myriad of ingredients available for flavoring and you’ll begin to understand how so many breweries continue to create unique flavors.

So what exactly are the four different beer ingredients and how do they all contribute to the overall outcome?  You’re about to find out. And if you’re interested in coming up with some unique brews of your own, Udemy has a wonderful class that will help you get started.

The four main ingredients in beer are malt, yeast, hops and water. Each of them play an important role in the brewing process, and small variations in the amounts of them make a huge difference in the overall flavor of the final product.

Malt

The most common source of malt in beer is malted barley, but there are many brewers who use oats, wheat, rye, rice or corn. Malted barley is simply barley grains that are soaked in water until they begin to sprout. They are then used as the source of fermentable sugar, which is very important food for the yeast. This sugar also provides a bit of sweetness in the final product, and using different sources of malt creates different flavors. While barley is the most commonly used grain in this process, smaller brewing companies will use oats, wheat or rye in order to create different complex flavors. Many larger brewing companies use rice or corn as a much cheaper alternative. Think about the last time you drank a delicious craft beer, and then think of the last beer you drank for free at a frat party (if you’ve never been to a frat party, I promise you are not missing out). You can certainly tell the difference between the two, and one of the main differences is the price of the malt that was used in the brewing process. Cheap malt = cheap (flavorless) beer. Wheat and oats provide a creamier overall texture – for instance, have you ever tried an oatmeal stout? Or the unique taste of an ale with rye that has a unique spicy flavor?

Yeast

Yeast is really what makes beer beer. Without yeast, there would be no alcohol. And without alcohol, you’d just have a strange, semi-sweet brown liquid.  The yeast eats the fermented sugar and turns it into alcohol. See how important the malted barley is now? A byproduct of yeast converting sugar into alcohol is carbonation, so really, yeast is the main ingredient behind two of the most important factors of beer: alcohol and carbonation. If you’re imagining the yeast that you use to make bread, think again. There are particular types of yeast that are meant for brewing beer, and you’ll need to look for a beer yeast if you want good results with your brew. There are two main types of beer yeast: ale yeast and lager yeast. What about creating stout beers and hefeweizens, you ask? They’re actually a type of ale. What about pilsners? They’re a type of lager!

Hops

Have you ever heard anyone describe a beer as “hoppy”? Did you ever ask yourself what on earth they could be referring to? Well, hops are the culprit. The sweetness of the malt needs to be counteracted by something, which is why bitter hops are added into the mix. Before brewers began to use hops, many used a variety of different herbs and spices to counteract the sweetness of the malt. Hops were introduced to the mix to act as a natural preservative, since they have antibacterial qualities. Brewers have ultimate control over the overall bitterness, flavor, and aroma of their beers by the way they introduce their hops. There are over fifty different varieties of these cone-shaped flowers, so the type of hops chosen and the point of the process in which the hops are added all create wildly different beers. If you want all of the bitter flavor and nothing else, add bitter hops in at the beginning of the boiling process; boiling gets rid of the aromatic and flavorful qualities of the hops. If you want a small bit of bitter flavor and some other complex undertones, add in aromatic hops in the middle of the boiling process. And if you simply want a beautiful aroma, add in aromatic hops right at the end.

Water

Yep, beer is actually over 90% water. That’s why it’s extremely important to be sure that you’re using good water when brewing beers. A good rule to live by? If the water is good enough to drink, it’s good enough to brew with. The water should be free of any chlorine or other harmful chemicals, but it should still contain traces of minerals. These minerals are important for the fermentation process and help feed the yeast. Filtered or bottled water is fine, but distilled water doesn’t include the important minerals. Depending on the quality of water where you live, you may be better suited to create a particular type of beer. Whether your water is soft or hard determines the final outcome of your beer just as much as any other ingredient. This may sound complicated, but many breweries adjust the hardness of their water as well as the mineral content in order to create the most desirable brews.

Other Ingredients

Have you ever drank a beer that had a distinct peach flavor? What about a seasonal brew that had notes of coriander, cinnamon, or clove? Fruits, spices, and herbs are all added to the four main ingredients to create even more unique flavors and aromas. While the short list of ingredients may make beer seem like a very simple drink, that is far from the truth. Though the process seems complicated, you’d be surprised what you can do with these four ingredients if you give beer brewing a shot.