Beer 101

What is Beer?

Beer is a fermented alcoholic beverage made from malted grains, usually barley, but other grains are routinely used.

What are beer’s basic ingredients?

There are four basic ingredients – water, malted grain, hops and yeast. Other ingredients, such as fruits, herbs and spices, may be added for their flavors.

What is a malted grain and what does it do for beer?

Malting occurs when a grain is encouraged to “sprout” simply by soaking it in water for a bit and allowing it to germinate in a cool place. Then it is dried and roasted. Malted grains impart color, aroma, sweetness, mouth-feel and of course, flavor

Why are hops used to make beer?

While malt gives beer its sweetness, hops balance that sweetness with spice, aroma and some bitterness. Without hops, beer would be too sweet to drink. Hops also act as a preservative. There was a time when beer was safer to drink than water.

What role does yeast play in making beer?

Brewers have an old saying: brewers make wort (the liquid made when hot water is added to the malt), but yeast makes beer. Yeast consumes the sugar in the wort creating carbon dioxide and ethanol (alcohol) among other things. Yeast is the reason why beer is called a fermented beverage. Yeast also adds to beer’s bready aroma.

Is water important?

Beer can be as much as 95% water so the quality of the water and its mineral composition is very important. Lagers taste better with low-mineral water and ales taste better if made with water with higher minerality.

What are the basic categories of beer?

There are hundreds of styles, but all beers are either ales or lagers.

What’s the difference between ales and lagers?

Ales and lagers use different yeasts. Ale yeasts float to the top that is why they are described as top-fermented. Ale yeasts ferment very quickly and at higher temperatures.

Lager yeasts sink to the bottom fermenting slowly at low temperatures hence the term bottom-fermented. It takes longer to brew lagers than ales.

What do ales and lagers taste like?

There are many different kinds of ales and lagers, but generally speaking, ales are described as fruity with complex layers of flavor, while lagers are said to be crisp and dry.

How can you tell if your beer has “gone bad”.

You will know that your beer has “gone bad” if you see small particles floating in the liquid and/or the smell is skunky. That’s the general rule of thumb. If you are drinking a bottle-conditioned beer, it is not unusual to see some yeast floating around, but of course, it shouldn’t be skunky.

How long can beer be stored?

Generally speaking, most beers are made to be consumed as soon as they leave the brewery so you get all the flavor that the brewer intended for you to enjoy. This is especially true for lagers and ales with an ABV of about 6% or less. Always check the expiration date on the package. Beer that has exceeded that date may still be perfectly fine for you to consume. The expiration date reflects the brewer’s estimation of how long the beer can stay in its container as still taste “brewery fresh”. The date is a guide, not an absolute.

How is beer made?

Beer is made from four basic ingredients: Barley, water, hops and yeast. The basic idea is to extract the sugars from grains (usually barley) so that the yeast can eat it up and spit out alcohol and CO2 thus making beer.
Click here to see the beer-making process.

Storing Beer

How you store beer actually matters. Heat, light and age affect beer’s taste and shelf-life. Store beer away from sunlight in a location where the temperature is consistently cool hovering around 55º F. Temperature swings in the range of 20º F from cool to hot will degrade very beer quickly, as will light. You will know that your beer has “gone bad” if you see small particles floating in the liquid and/or the smell is skunky. (Once again, those “small particles floating” can be bits of protein, if the beer is bad, or yeast, if it has been bottle-conditioned.) Your cellar as opposed to your garage is a great place to store beer – as long as it’s not overly damp.

Store your beer in the upright position so any sediment sinks to the bottom of the bottle. It is different than wine which is typically on its side.

Low alcohol beers taste best when young. Most beers with a low ABV (alcohol by volume) like lagers, pale ales and IPAs (India Pale Ales) are meant to be consumed soon after they are brewed when they are at their freshest. Check the packaging for an expiration date.

Beers with a higher ABV can be stored for longer periods of time under the right conditions as outlined above.

“Cellaring” beer is different than storing beer. What’s the difference?

You can store beer anywhere, as long as the conditions are right, until you want to drink them. When a beer is cellared, it is intentionally aged to develop different flavors, just like wine. Beers are typically cellared from 8 to 10 years. Time, combined with yeast and bacteria, can soften a beer’s rough edges unlocking its full flavor potential. But as with wine, if it’s aged too long, you run the risk that it will be past its prime and undrinkable!

Which beers benefit from “cellaring”?

Belgian strong ales, barleywines, imperial stouts and sour Belgians, such as lambics and Flanders red ales are good choices. But with aging beer, there are always exceptions to the rule. Tripels, saisons and blonde ales can be aged for 10 or 15 years developing beautiful flavors and aromas. The thing to keep in mind is that beers with higher ABVs that are not too hoppy tend to age the best. Most beers are aged, on average, 8 years.

How should I taste beer?

Buy the beer and drink it. That’s what everyone does, but there is actually an art to tasting beer. Did you know that beers can be as complex as wines? Not all beers taste the same and it is worth training your nose and palate to recognize the different components that make beer taste great.

Most of us never really think about what we’re actually tasting. We just say its “Good,” “Spicy,” or “Delicious.” But every one of us could be blindfolded and easily identify the scent of a banana, or roast chicken, or pine needles just by the smell. The knowledge is there, but we don’t use it.

Beer tasting isn’t some black art you have to go to school to learn; it’s just like tasting food. You smell, you taste, and think: what else smells and tastes like this? Just gather a few clean glasses, and follow the four guidelines that many beer enthusiasts use to taste their favorite beverage.

Appearance: First consume your beer with your eyes. Pay attention to its clarity, color, carbonation, cloudiness and head retention. This also foreshadows what the beer will be like when you do finally taste it.

Aroma: The smell is very important. Many of the flavors you taste are actually picked up by your sense of smell. Is it sweet, spicy, floral, spicy? The aroma of the beer often lets us know what kind of malts, hops and yeasts were used in brewing the beer.

Taste: Now take a sip. Let the beer gently swirl over your tongue from the front, down the sides and to the back. Sweet flavors like malt can be detected on the tip of the tongue, bitter flavors can be best distinguished at the back of the tongue, while the sides of the tongue detect sour flavors. The mouth-feel is also an important part of the taste sensation.

Finish: (Also called aftertaste.) This is the lingering sensation that occurs. Depending on the style, a beer may have a lingering bitter finish from the hops or it may completely disappear without a trace.


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