Beer Basics: Part One


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Beer is great, and I will be the first to tell you that. It has existed since mankind has been on the earth. Civilizations have prized it, poets have praised it, and joyful friends have partaken of it. Many of us drink it daily, with or without meals, and others enjoy it at special events or on the weekends. Beer is so versatile that almost anyone can find some beer somewhere that is pleasant to drink. From sweet to bitter, thick to thin, heady to light, fruity to earthy, great beers await you.

But what is beer, really? Wheat juice? Corn soda? Hops stew? Like with wine, there is much more to the beer-making process than letting some wheat spoil in the sun. From the earliest style of beer known to archaeology — mead made from honey and wheat — to modern IPA powerhouses, making beer is both a science and an art. Let us examine how beer works — what it is, how it is made, and what styles exist.

1. What Is Beer Exactly?

Ah, good question! Beer, by definition, is an alcoholic beverage made by the fermentation of malted cereal grains. Let us look at each part of that definition in more detail. First, alcoholic means that beer contains ethyl alcohol, which is the ingredient that makes us feel good when we drink it. Beverage, as you already know, means that it is a liquid to be drunk. But unlike water, which is drunk to sustain life, people often drink beer for enjoyment. Fermentation is the process whereby yeast convert sugar to ethyl alcohol. Fermentation is a complex, biochemical process, in fact. Cereal grains are those grains related to grass, whose grains are edible to human beings, things like wheat and barley. Finally, malting is a process by which cereal grains are heated to quicken germination, then once germinated, cooled down for gastronomical use.

2. The Process of Fermentation.

Yeast is a microorganism, technically a fungus. The yeast that is used to brew beer is called Saccharomyces. The second half of its name depends on the specific strain, such as Saccharomyces pastorianus. Yeast eat sugar to stay alive. And when they do, their tiny bodies convert the sugar into two waste products: carbon dioxide, and ethyl alcohol. The carbon dioxide part is why beer fizzes when you open it, and has a bubbly mouthfeel (like Champagne). And, of course, the ethyl alcohol part is what makes you feel good when you drink beer, and get drunk if you drink too much. Ethyl alcohol in moderate amounts, and even in heavy amounts, has been shown to extend human life. But in excessive amounts, it can cause disease and lead to mortality. And, as anyone with a hangover can tell you, when you consume too much at one time, it makes you sick!

3. The Process of Making Beer.

Beer-making is called brewing, and is a complicated process that begins with choice barley (in most cases). All plants have natural sugar in them, and this sugar is made available to yeast by adding hot water to the grains to make what is known as mash or liquor. This is then boiled and concentrated to increase the percent of sugar by volume. Hops are then added to increase the flavor of the beer. This mixture is allowed to cool. Because the boiling has killed any undesirable microorganisms, the desirable brewer’s yeast is added to the mixture and allowed to ferment, producing — beer! There is much more to it than this, of course, but those are the basics of making beer.

In Part Two of this three-part series, we will explore the many different worldwide regions of beer-making, and the typical styles that those regions produce. Look for Part Two tomorrow!

Tags: Beer Beer Basics Brewing Fermentation Mash Mead Yeast