Drink, Drank, Drunk…The Basics of Beer

As you’ve probably been able to tell by our podcast being titled Dungeons and Flagons (which you should check out if you aren’t listening to it already), we sometimes enjoy a drink or two or four. It is one area that I particularly enjoy being nerdy about. The different flavor profiles of beers, wines, and liquors makes an amazing combination of ingredients to experiment with. I’ve only recently begun to learn more about wine and different liquors and how the different blends of alcohol can be turned into amazing drinks.

But my real first passion is with beer. I love hoppy beers, light saisons, dark porters and stouts, and basically everything in between. The variety is something that has really increased my interest, as well as taking up the hobby of brewing beer. What flavor can I get from different combinations of grains? How can I make the beer stronger? What types of hops will give the beer a different profile than before?

So I’m going to start with some basic stuff about beer.

Image Credit: Davis Beer Week
Image Credit: Davis Beer Week

There are two overarching classifications of beers: Ale and Lager. The difference between these two types of beers is the yeast.

So let’s back up a little bit further and talk about yeast. We know it from making bread or pizza dough — to name a few. It’s what allows the dough to rise and poof up. Why does it do that? Yeast eats sugar, turning it into two separate parts: alcohol and carbon dioxide. When you bake bread, the yeast eats the sugars in the bread and causes it to puff up, but when you brew a batch of beer and the yeast eats the sugars in the mixture, the carbon dioxide is expelled, leaving the alcohol behind.

So, to create ales and lagers, different types of yeast are used. An ale yeast will eat the sugars at a higher temperature and will ferment the beer faster. Lager yeast is a colder-temperature yeast, which means it takes longer to get the same amount of fermentation. The most common beers in the world, Budweiser, Coors, and Miller, are all lagers.

But what about the other differences in beers? Some are hoppy, some are stronger, some are bitter, and some are vastly different colors. What causes those differences?

Image Credit: Leeners
Image Credit: Leeners

Hops: Hops are one of the other ingredients that can make beers very different from each other. Hops, depending on when you add them while brewing, will influence the flavor in different ways, and different types of hops will make a difference in the flavor as well. Some hops can be very earthy in flavor, while other hops have a citrus flavor, and depending on which ones you use and when, it will influence the beer’s flavor. The earlier you add hops in the brewing process, the hoppier a beer will smell. But the longer you wait until the end, the hoppier the beer will taste. Think about cooking — the earlier you add an ingredient, the more everything else in the dish will take on its flavor; this will also cause it to blend into the overall flavor more than it would if you put it in at the end. The same holds true for beer.

Hops also can influence the IBU (International Bitterness Units) of a beer. The higher the number, the more bitter a beer will be. There is a misconception, though, that any beer with hops is going to be a bitter beer. The Apollo hop has an Alpha Acid (read: bitterness) of 19%, where as Saaz hops have a mere 4%, so depending on which ones you use, it can really influence how bitter the beer is.

Color: A beer changes color depending on the malts that are used in it. A toasted malt grain is going to give the beer a darker color, as will different types of grain. If you were to make a rye beer, it will end up having a very red color. If you use primarily wheat, the beer will have a much lighter color. Most beers will have primarily barley as the base to get most of the malts, but depending on what you add to that, you influence the color and the flavor of the beer. The malt itself you can get one of two ways — you can purchase malt that has already been extracted, or you can soak your own grains in hot water until the sugars have been leached from them.

Strength: And why are some beers 3.2% alcohol, and others 12%? This comes down to two things that we have talked about above: the grains and the yeast. The more grains you use, the more sugar you’ll get out. The more sugar you get out, the more there is for the yeast to eat; the more the yeast eats, the more alcohol is converted. So the stronger beers will often have a maltier flavor to them, no matter the color of the beer. If you want to keep the maltier flavor down, you can also add sugar directly into the beer, which I’ve done before with a Maple Stout, or you can use rock sugar.

So that is just a little bit on the basics of beer and what makes different beers taste the way they do. With beer, it can be at times an acquired taste, but most people will have some type of beer that they like, if they can find the right one. So I  recommend going around and trying different beers. With the small brewery boom that is happening in the United States, there are many ways to get your hands on a lot of different types of beer to try.


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