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The four basics are:
  • Malt
  • Water
  • Hops
  • Yeast

Let’s have a quick look at what they are and what they contribute to beer.

 

Malt

Malt is the name we give to grains of barley once they’ve been through a process of soaking, drying and kilning that turns complicated starch matter into a range of simple sugars (maltose being the most important – hence the name, malt). These sugars will eventually be fermented by yeast and turned into alcohol. Malt also brings base flavours we associate with beer, such as cereal, bread, biscuit, caramel, chocolate and coffee. Malt adds both acidity and sweetness and contributes vitamins and minerals.

 

Hops

If we didn’t have hops, or another bittering agent, beer would be a sweet, cloying alcoholic drink without much character. The bitterness from hops offsets the sweetness of alcohol and creates a snappy, dry feeling in your mouth which makes you want to take another sip.

Historically hops provided just a basic bitterness, but in recent years they have evolved, through careful breeding programmes and new brewing techniques to become more aromatic and flavoursome. These aroma compounds come from the essential oils found in hops. These offer up scents such as pine, citrus, passionfruit, guava, rosewater, onion and thyme.

To keep these delicate, volatile fragrances from being lost, brewers must add them late in the process so the essential oils aren’t boiled away. As these late additions don’t add much bitterness it’s possible to have a very “hoppy” beer which is actually not that bitter.

Hops grow best in certain latitudes and climates and all New Zealand’s commercial hops are grown in the Motueka region of Nelson. Many carry names associated with the Nelson area such as Motueka, Riwaka, Nelson Sauvin, Kohatu, Wai-iti. One of the most famous New Zealand hops is Green Bullet.

 

Yeast

Yeast, of course, is used in bread to make it rise. It does this by starting to 'eat’ the sugar in the flour and producing a by-product 'carbon dioxide', which creates little bubbles in the damp flour, causing it to rise.

When brewers pitch yeast into raw beer, it does much the same thing…rearranging the sugar’s chemistry to convert it into alcohol, and as a by-product produces carbon dioxide. This is called fermentation.

All of this happens in the presence of water, which by volume is the most important ingredient in beer. Brewery water these days is usually filtered and chemically neutral, but lots of beer styles arose because of regional differences in water, most notably the hardness and chemical make-up.

Adjuncts are names given to other sources of fermentable sugar in beer – these include wheat, rye, oats, rice, corn, honey and starchy vegetables such as pumpkin.

Brewers can also add a variety of ingredients to their beer including fruit, nuts, spices, herbs, tea, coffee, chocolate and even shellfish.

 

How is beer made?

Crushed, malted barley and other grains are steeped in hot water (around 66 – 68°C). This sparks a series of chemical reactions that release sugar from the grain, creating a sticky, malty syrup known as wort (pronounced wert). This process is known as mashing and takes place in a mash tun.

Wort is separated from the grain, which is rinsed to get all the sugary goodness out. This is known as lautering, or sparging, and takes place in a lauter tun.

Wort is then boiled for 60 to 90 minutes with hops added along the way to create bitterness, flavour and aroma. This is boiling and takes place in a kettle.

The wort is cooled as quickly as possible and transferred to a fermenter where yeast is added. This is fermentation.

The alcoholic beverage known as beer is transferred to a conditioning tank. Breweries put “green” beer into a conditioning tank and when it’s ready it’s known as “bright” beer, which is then canned, bottled or kegged.

 

Beer styles

Historically, how brewers put all the different ingredients together varied from country to country and region to region. The types of malt and adjuncts they used, the hops they had access to and how they were added, the strains of yeast and even the chemical make-up of the water became known as beer “styles” – many of which are based on the regions where they evolved in traditional brewing centres such as Ireland, Britain, Belgium, Germany and the Czech Republic.

Modern beer styles have since evolved in countries like the United States, New Zealand and Australia, as brewers tweak historical styles and come up with inventions of their own.

While there are hundreds of recognised beer styles, there is no limit on a brewer’s creativity and the reality is there is an almost infinite number of ways the basic ingredients can be put together.

 

Most beer still conforms to the so-called German purity law of 1516 – or reingheitsgebot – that dictates beer should feature only water, malt, hops and yeast. But that’s not because anyone takes that 500-year rule seriously – it’s more to do with the fact that malt, hops and yeast can be combined into so many (infinite?) flavour combinations it doesn’t seem necessary to go outside those boundaries.

But that’s the thing with beer – it’s always been an evolutionary and revolutionary brew.

The Belgians, not giving a hoot for the German’s strict view on beer, have, for centuries, added spices and fruit to their beer. Lambic – or wild beers – featuring fruit are also part of Belgian brewing history. And the addition of orange peel and coriander seeds to their wheat beer is almost a rule in itself. 

And before hops came into popularity 1000 years ago, brewers around the world used different combination of herbs and spices and flavour their beer. The bittering concoction they added was known as gruit and each brewer had his or her own secret recipe.

In modern times, the addition of different ingredients in beer has been one of necessity and experimentation.

Americans have long used rice and corn in their beer – mainly to supplement the barley grown there which was higher in proteins and had a harsher flavour compared with European barley.

Pumpkin beer is also something of an American tradition and harks back to the day when brewers would use whatever starch they could their hands on to create beer.

And of course, there’s that ancient English beer known as Cock Ale, into which an entire rooster was thrown.

Modern craft brewers looking for an edge have taken these principals and built a veritable Disneyland of flavours on the foundations.

Chili, coffee, cacao, coconut, mint, seaweed, lemongrass, mango, grapefruit, raisins, pineapple, dried fish (yes, dried fish) … anything that can be used to tweak a flavour or take a beer in a tangential direction has been tried, some more successfully than others.