WORDS: Allan P. Hernandez
Q. WHAT IS BEER MADE OF?
Beer, amazingly, is 90 percent water. It’s still the clear stuff we chug every day for which we feel nothing funny ever happening on the first hit, what drinkers everywhere call the “buzz.” In the early days, the kind of water that can be had around the neighborhood influenced the flavor of the beer. Every brewer in town and the next offered beer with subtly different tastes. Now water can be chemically treated to produce a uniform quality for a consistent taste. Some of the prime beers, though, are still made with natural water. So the alchemy really starts here: The water we drink, mixed with some fine ingredients we shall discuss next, and a brewing process refined over hundreds of years becomes wonderful beer.
Wine comes from grapes. Gin comes from berries. Beer comes from grains, which is why it’s often referred to as liquid bread. Barley is the grain of choice because it yields good malt, although beer can also be made from wheat, rice, oats, rye, and sorghum. Malt is extracted by soaking barley in water, allowing it to ferment (and this is where it shares the same characteristics with bread, which goes through he same process when it rises), then heated. It produces enzymes that break down starch to sugar. The sugar component is important in producing alcohol later on which, it should be pointed out, is the whole point with most beer drinkers. Most importantly, malt is what gives beer its fullness in body and taste. As a rule, darker beers have more malt content.
Hops are what gives the beer its aroma and bitterness, to balance things out with the happy sweetness of malt. You’ve got to hand it to the brewers back in the 17th century who discovered this combination—it sure as hell works. Hops is a vine whose flowers are dried then boiled in order to get the bitter and aromatic essences. There are different varieties of hops, each yielding a distinct smell-taste combo. Interestingly, hops is related to the cannabis plant, source of your humble ganja.
Yeast is fungi—not much different from the microscopic growth between your toes—and is the key to converting the sugars in the mixture to alcohol. You can taste the fungi if you practice, but it’s more the malt and hops that makes beer taste like beer. Two types of yeasts can be used in the brewing process: those that ferment on top of the mixture, and those below. These, in turn determine the types of beer. Beer made from top-fermenting yeasts are ales. They’re mostly the dark beers and are also called stout, porter, among others. Beer made from the bottom ones are lagers, and are lighter in color and crisper.
Every time you pop a bottle, know that it was made through a stringent process to ensure top quality. Now that that’s over with, by all means pop another one…
Barley is soaked in water, allowed to germinate, then heated to produce enzymes that turn starch to sugar. Very far from beer yet.
Where the starch-to-sugar happens. First off, the malted barley is crushed to All that mashing produces, well, mash of porridge-like consistency. Water, malt, and hops mixed together creates a sweet juice called wort. Yeast is then added, then it’s up for fermentation Still very far from beer but quite drinkable if you put your mind to it.
The mash then flows over to a tank called a lauter (say it like this: lorter) tun where the malt-sugar goo is filtered of grain husks. Halfway there. Hmmm….beer…
The wort is transferred here and brought to a boil. You can throw in the hops now (although you can do this on the next step). When the hops lose their juice, they are removed from the brew. It’s smelling like real beer now you almost wish they have taps in the kettle so you can shove your mouth in and drink.
Yeast—the fungi we should all be thankful for—begins work here. It takes the yeast about four to six days to turn all that sugar to alcohol, and when it does, you can really call the brew “happy juice.” But still they wouldn’t allow you to drink this right off—the beer must be stored and matured at cold temperatures.
For a sparkly clear product, beer goes through a strict filtering process using the most effective materials available to man, one of them being—get this—bits of fish bladder. Don’t be scared now, we believe only the traditionalists do this.
You know how it goes, rapid boiling and cooling to kill off bacteria. Some brewers don’t go through this any more, which is just as well because we won’t take any more bull, we want that beer now. And fast!
Hold it, hold it! Still not done. After the loony juice has gone through all this complication, it ends up with the right level of alcohol but with not much carbon dioxide. The big brewers normally shoot carbon dioxide into kegs or bottles before actual bottling. Bottling is where little mechanical hands do all the picking and packing. Now, everybody…beer!
For more beer facts, read the April 2006 issue of FHM