A GUIDE TO BEER
Where it began
Beer has been a mainstay of humanity for thousands of years and its production was hugely boosted by the Agricultural Revolution.
Some 5,000 years ago, the Sumerians in Lower Mesopotamia recorded the oldest written beer recipe known with details on how to make bread they called ‘bappir’. The sugary bread was soaked in water and spontaneously fermented before being strained to produce a beer, or Kas. Around this time, beer was considered more hygienic than water and was favoured as a staple of the daily diet by most.
Indeed, in Ancient Egypt, there were over 14 different types of beer documented, with many designated for religious or ceremonial purposes. With fertile valleys of grain to utilise, Egypt became the first major economy built around beer and it’s believed those who built the Pyramids were actually paid (or fed) up to 4 litres of beer per day.
NO PAIN, NO GRAINS
In 1620, beer production arrived on the American continent, bringing techniques, recipes and ingredients from a flourishing European scene. Breweries were an early and fruitful addition to new colonial cities, with most offering similar styles of beer to those found in England. Many brewed with New World grains (barley malt, wheat, corn, etc.) and, when needed, supplemented malt with other sugars, such as molasses or pumpkin.
Real advances in beer production were consequences of the Industrial Revolution in England (1760) with dark porter fuelling a booming London. Brewed from brown malt, heavily hopped and matured for months, the porter lasted well and could be easily distributed en masse. It was around then an innovative Irishman, Arthur Guinness, took a gamble adopting the new style at his Dublin brewery, St. James’s Gate.
Technological advances of the era, such as the invention of the black patent drum roaster in 1817 (which allowed new textures and flavours by roasting malts) and the introduction of refrigeration (which removed a reliance on ice), enabled much larger-scale breweries to be built and prosper.
Breweries became great empires of commerce throughout the United States and Europe throughout the 1900s, with Britain focusing on ales and Central Europe, North America and Scandinavia mainly exporting lagers. Guinness became one of the biggest breweries in the world, exporting all over the globe, and even hired Guinness Travellers to report back on the quality of the beer where it was sold abroad.
Today, the beer industry is flourishing more than ever before; over the past 30 years, in particular, there has been a marked increase on breweries, production and product experimentation. Global demand has resulted in significant numbers of new breweries and microbreweries being established, particularly in Europe and North America, blending new ingredients and techniques with inspirations from older styles to create new beers.
How Beer is made
Beer is created from four central components: malted barley (or other grains), hops, water and yeast. The production process may vary across brands or styles, but these four components are consistent, as is the intention: extract the sugars from the grains (typically, barley) so that the yeast can convert them to alcohol.
The process begins with harvesting the grains chosen (barley, wheat or rye are the most common), before heating and drying these to mimic germination and isolating the enzymes needed for brewing.
The malted barley is put into large ovens, called kilns, and heated up to various temperatures to create both flavour and colour. Lightly kilned malts are used in lagers and pale ales, more darker kilned malts in red ales, stouts and porters. This is also what gives beer its colour.
In preparation for mashing, the malted kernels are crushed to extract their fermentable sugars, forming a coarse grind called grist. Brewers must aim to achieve a fine balance in this; too fine a grist will cause the malt husks to thicken and cluster, making a starchy by-product difficult to process. Conversely, grist that is too coarse reduces the surface area exposed to the grain enzymes.
To activate the enzymes in the grains that cause them to break down and release their sugars, the grains are steeped in hot water for roughly 1 hour to go through a practice known as mashing. Once the brewer has drained excess water, they are left with a sweet, sugary liquid referred to as wort.
As the wort is boiled (for around 1 hour), spices and hops are added as necessary to develop the desired flavour profile of the beer. Hops act as a natural preservative, adding flavour and balancing the sugary wort with bitterness.
After an hour of boiling, the wort is cooled, strained and filtered before being moved to a fermentation vessel, where yeast is added. The beer is left at room temperature or cooler temperatures (depending on the type of beer) and fermentation begins as the yeast begins to consume the sugars to produce alcohol and CO2.
MATURATION & BOTTLING
After fermentation, the young ‘green’ beer needs to be matured in order to allow both a full development of flavours and deliver a smooth finish. After reaching its full potential, the beer is filtered, carbonated and transferred to a tank where it undergoes a cellaring process that lasts 3-4 weeks. As the flat beer is bottled, it can be artificially carbonated or allowed to carbonate by the CO2 produced by the yeast naturally (‘bottle conditioning’).
WHAT ARE HOPS?
In the long and flavourful history of making beer, hops are a relatively new addition - arriving late to the game and only used prominently for the past 500 years or so. Prior to their introduction, brewers employed a myriad of fruits and spices to balance their sugary beers, but nothing has come close to the value and versatility of hops; so what are they?
Hops are a vine-like plant native to many regions of the world; the female plants produce small hop cones, which contain lupulin – a chemical that contains the acids that balance beer flavour with bitterness and act as a natural preservative.
During the English occupation of India, English brewers overloaded their beers with hops to better preserve them for the long boat journeys. The hop-heavy finish became popular amongst the colonists and a new style was born: the IPA (India Pale Ale). The environment and climate in which the hops are grown has a sizeable bearing on the final flavour of any beer brewed using them, therefore many styles were crafted by geography rather than design.
TYPES OF BEER
Lager – including pilsners, this is the world’s most popular type of beer. Originally hailing from Germany, lagers are generally stored at very cool temperatures for longer periods – instilling a smooth, crisp finish to the beer. Whilst colour and mouthfeel can vary immensely, the vast majority are pale yellow/ golden with high carbonation and a low to medium hop intensity.
Ale – championed by English breweries for many decades, these are generally more robust and complex, offering fruit, nut and malted notes. Brewed with top fermenting yeast at cellar temperature, ales are usually a brown or reddish hue and are full bodied and more flavourful than lagers. Pale Ale and IPAs are also in this category, relying on hops to give piney, fruity aromas and flavour.
Stout or Porter – famously perfected in Dublin by Guinness, stouts are dark in colour and typically rich and creamy in texture. Top fermentation and the use of unmalted, roasted barley deliver cereal and coffee notes and lend to its darker character.
Porter is slightly different, holding more fruit-forward characteristics; top fermentation is also used but a porter will normally have a lighter body and drier finish to a stout.
Lambic – this type of beer uses yeast that is naturally occurring in the air and they generally take much longer to make and can be quite sour in taste. Consistency is very tricky to achieve with blending commonplace and high amounts of hops often used due to their protective properties.
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