Four magic ingredients. They’re in every single quality beer. Of course, it’s not about the number of ingredients – it’s how you use them that counts.
It all begins with malted grains (normally barley), which has been soaked until it sprouts. The malted grain is the source of fermentable sugars, which the yeast feeds on to create ethanol (drinking alcohol). It also adds a sweetness to the final product.
The quality of the grain is essential to the final product – if the grain is poor, the flavour will be too. Many larger brewing companies use rice or corn as a cost-saving alternative. Sure, they churn out more beer, but the flavour is compromised – blasphemy! On the other hand, some craft breweries choose to use wheat, rye or oats to create more complex flavours in their brew.
Yeast is responsible for two very important things in beer; the alcohol and the carbonation. As the yeast eats the fermented sugars from the malted barley, it produces ethanol and carbon dioxide (bubbles). There are two types of yeast used in beer: bottom-fermenting – used in lagers and pilsners and top-fermenting – used in ales and stouts.
To counteract the sweetness of the malt, bitter hops are added to the brew. This is where craft brewers get creative. There are over 50 different kinds of hops and depending on which ones are chosen and at which stage they’re added to the brew, they will alter the flavour drastically. Boiling hops reduces their aromatic qualities, so if a brewer wants a more bitter taste, they will add the hops earlier in the process. On the flip side, if they want a really aromatic brew, they’ll add them right at the end.
Making up over 90% of the final brew, the used water used makes a huge difference. Generally speaking, if you can drink it then you can make beer with it, but how hard or soft it is will have a big impact. It’s important that it doesn’t contain chlorine or harmful chemicals. That said, distilled water is a no-go as it doesn’t include the minerals needed to help feed the yeast. As with all elements of a quality craft beer, it’s a balancing act.