Water is the most abundant ingredient in beer, and is not without influence. A treatise about water chemistry is beyond the scope of this web site, but a brief discussion is warranted.
In the old days, before modern chemistry, the mineral content of a region’s water was impossible to alter and had a tremendous influence over the beer styles that could be successfully produced in the area. Some waters are suitable for making dark beers, others for light. Minerals in water can also alter the way we perceive hop flavors. These factors have shaped the evolution of beer styles, and today we can still see that certain geographic regions are famous for certain beer styles.
Stouts are associated with Dublin, Ireland. Untreated, the water there was suitable only for dark beer production. English-style pale ales, made famous at Burton-on-Trent in England, owe their unique hop bite to the high sulfate content of the region’s water. In southern Germany (Bavaria), the high carbonate content of the water demanded that beers be dark and relatively low in hop bitterness.
Albany, New York, is blessed with very soft water that serves as a great foundation for all beer styles. Perfectly suited for pale, hoppy beers, it is easy to adjust its mineral content to make it right for any beer style.
Malt is made from a seed, most usually barley, but malted wheat is also not uncommon. The seed is soaked in water until the embryonic plant starts to grow. Just before the baby plant emerges from the seed it is put in a kiln and dried. Depending on how it is dried, you can make different colors and flavors of malt.
The above process takes a few weeks to perform, and is done by people called maltsters. Samuel Adams, the revolutionary war figure, was actually a maltster, not a brewer as some claim. Maltsters are wonderful people, because they enable the brewer to make beer.
Malt gives beer three important characteristics:
1. Malt flavor and aroma – malt flavors range from gently corn-like to burnt and mocha-like, with many points in between. Toasty, vanilla, caramel, burnt sugar, raisins…all of these (and many more) descriptors are applied to the flavors malt gives to beer. Some trivia for the geeks out there: chemicals called melanoidins are responsible for most malt flavors, and the flavors in many cooked foods.
2. Color – a beer’s color is determined by the types of malt used. All beers are made from a large proportion of light-colored malts, because they have special chemicals, called enzymes, that convert malt starch into sugar. The very darkest malts are very potent flavoring and coloring agents: just 7 pounds of dark malt added to 100 pounds of light malt will make a beer that is almost black!
3. Fermentable material – that means, “food for the yeast.” Sugars derived from the malt provide all of the food that yeast will consume and convert into alcohol and carbon dioxide. This process, called fermentation, is discussed further in the section about yeast.
We use many different types of malt to produce Evans beers. The most abundantly used are pilsner and Munich malts. Candy-like caramel malts are used in small quantities in some of our beers, including the pale and brown ales. Wheat malt is used in our wheat beers and Quackenbush Blonde. Almost all of the malt we use is produced by Weyermann of Bamberg, Germany. Visit their website for more detailed information about malt production.
Hops are the flowers of a perennial vine. (Actually, it’s called a “bine,” with a “b,” but only botanists seem to be concerned about this. Calling a hop plant a vine doesn’t seem to upset it.) The flowers resemble soft, green pine cones, and contain a yellow powder called lupulin. The resins and oils contained in this powder are what the brewer wants.
A hop resin called alpha acid gives beer its bitterness. The hop oils give certain beer styles, like pale ales, their floral, citrusy, hoppy aromas. Depending on how the hops are used, the expression of hop oils and alpha acid can be controlled.
When hops are boiled for around 45 minutes or more, the alpha acid undergoes some chemical changes that allows it to bitter the beer. The less time the hops are boiled, the less bitterness in the beer.
The hop oils are volatile, so boiling purges them from the wort. If a brewer wants to create a beer with a lot of hop aroma, they must be added at the very end of the boil. Hops can also be added to the young, fermented beer. This technique is called dry hopping, and yields a unique, farm-fresh hop aroma that cannot be achieved by adding hops to the hot wort.
There are many different hop varieties, just as there are different kinds of tomatoes. Each variety has a flavor and aroma of its own. A beer aficionado can spend years exploring the different flavors of hops that occur in beer, so get off the internet and get to work!
Kick-Ass Brown ale and Pump Station Pale Ale are both dry-hopped.
Yeast is the last major ingredient in beer, but by no means the least important. It is not an exaggeration to say that brewers make wort, yeast make beer. Yeast are single-celled organisms that are classified as fungi. They eat sugar, converting it into alcohol and carbon dioxide through a metabolic process called fermentation (yeast also produce many other chemicals that are important to the flavor of beer during fermentation). It is the job of the brewer to provide the yeast with a proper environment in which to ferment the wort into beer.
Brewing yeast is divided into two major categories: ale yeast and lager yeast. These are also (somewhat erroneously) referred to as top and bottom fermenting. It is the choice of yeast strain that determines whether a beer is a lager or an ale.
There are hundreds of different yeast strains that fit into one of the above categories. Certain strains are suited to making specific beer styles. Some breweries believe the yeast they use to be the single biggest factor in determining their beer’s character.
Extreme examples of the differences between yeast strains can be seen by comparing our Bavarian-style Hefeweizen to our Quackenbush Blonde. The Hefeweizen has a rich, fruity, banana character and a clove-like spiciness. These attributes are all made by the special strain of ale yeast that is used to ferment the wort. The blonde beer will display few fermentation by-products because the ale yeast used in its production is a relatively “clean fermenter.”
Most yeasts, even other ale yeasts, tend to be more neutral in character than yeast strains used to make Bavarian-style wheat beers. Lager yeasts are the most neutral of all the strains, producing fewer fermentation by-products, thus allowing the malt and hop character of the beer to dominate the palate.
Adjuncts are defined as anything that provides food for the yeast (fermentable material) that is NOT malt. Since brewer’s yeast can only metabolize relatively simple sugars, the simplest adjunct one can use is some form of sugar. Corn sugar, candy sugar, honey, maple syrup and molasses are just a few of the sugary adjuncts available. Since the yeast will convert all of the sugar present in such adjuncts into alcohol and carbon dioxide, they will not sweeten the beer, but make it drier.
Starchy adjuncts can also be used, if they are mixed with the malt during the mash so that their starch is converted to sugar. Rice and corn are two of the most commonly used starchy adjuncts. They will add no flavor, color or body to a beer, but they will provide fermentable material for the yeast to convert to alcohol.
The large U.S. breweries all use large quantities of adjuncts in their flagship beers (40% or more of the total fermentable material). In this way they can brew very light-tasting, light-colored beers that still have the alcoholic strength of most other beers (4.5-5.0% alcohol by volume). Since corn and rice are also cheaper than malt, it makes their beer more profitable.
Some brewers of full-flavored beers use adjuncts, too, but in much smaller amounts than the average U.S. “Megabrewery.” Unmalted barley and wheat are often used to improve the head retention and body of many craft beers, and various forms of sugar are used for different flavor effects. Usually the amount of adjunct in a craft beer will not exceed 15% of the total fermentable material.