Beer is made of some rather common, everyday ingredients, and out of these few items literally thousands of styles and flavor profiles are possible. But do you really know of what your favorite beer is made? Could you explain and describe—on a fundamental level—each of the simple elements in the brewing process? Let’s try to do just that.
Brewing begins with malt, the primary taste component and flavor backbone of every beer ever made. But what is malt, besides an additive for milkshakes or a creamy breakfast cereal? Essentially, malt is cereal grain that has been malted, a process that renders the grain suitable for fermentation and a few other applications.
Remember that all cereal grains are grasses, the same type of plant that grows in your yard. The “grain” that is harvested from the whole plant is a seed kernel, whether that comes from wheat or oats or corn. Like all seeds, these small bits contain the genetic material of the plant and are used for reproduction. Put it in the soil, add a little water and sunshine, and you have a whole new plant.
Seeds are a complex little package in and of themselves. By nature’s requirement, they must be self-sustaining, meaning they should be able to sprout and grow wherever they land. To this end, included along with the genetic material of the plant is a fair amount of starch to be used as “starter” fuel once the seed germinates. This starch is intended to last long enough until sprouting leaves and roots can provide food of its own.
Malting is the process by which humans are able to take advantage of the seed’s starch reserve. It involves steeping the grains in water at a temperature just hot enough to activate (germinate) the enzymes in the seed without cooking it. Once these enzymes are activated, they set about their designed task of converting the starch present to sugars for use by the nascent plant. Ultimately, it is these grain sugars that brewers are after, and detailed recipes and parameters have been worked out for proper starch conversion.
These seedlings are well on their way to becoming plants, and would eventually bud leaves and consume all the available sugars if allowed to continue. However, at this point the grain is dried in ovens to stop the germination process and preserve what sugars are present. It is these sugars that will eventually provide nutrients for the yeast to consume later in the brewing process.
A specialty type of malt exists named crystal malt that consists of sugars converted to starches without the benefit of enzymes. Crystal malt relies solely on the heat of the ovens to caramelize the starches, and as such the resulting sugars are left unusable by yeasts. The addition of crystal malts in a recipe lends a sugary sweetness to the final beer, as the caramelized sugars persist through the fermentation process.
The brewer is left with usable malt at this stage but there may still be several options available, depending on the desired qualities of the final beer. Malt may continue to be roasted in ovens far past its dry stage to caramelize the sugars, adding a depth of flavor and color by heat and oxidation. Desired color, taste and aroma components can be developed by further roasting, in a similar fashion to that of processing coffee beans.
What is available to the brewer today is a wide array of malts from dozens of different base grains, each with its own character and fermentable sugar content and each with an additional flavor and color process. In particular, barley has been the favorite of brewers for thousands of years because of its superior enzymatic power of producing usable sugars, and almost all beers contain some amount of barley.
However, wheat, rye and oats also remain popular grains used for brewing. In theory, anything from maize to millet, sorghum to rice can be used for brewing, with each bringing its own elements of flavor and body to the palate. A skilled brewer with a notebook of proven recipes can produce a wide range of final beer styles by no more than combining the qualities and quantities of various malts.