What’s in Beer: The Basics of Brews and Brewing

What is beer? (baby don’t hurt me)

Now that that’s out of the way, let’s dive into the world of beer with an overview of what, exactly, beer is. I’ll be breaking down the four main ingredients of beer, what they do, why they matter, and how this knowledge can actually help you enjoy your beer more and identify other beer you might like. I also promise I won’t make any more Haddaway references.

bruery aut maple
Pictured: beer (and corn)

What’s in Beer? The Ingredients:

Mmm, beer. Many different people drink many different beers for many different reasons, but there are some things that all beers have in common. Four things, to be precise: hops, water, yeast, and malt (or barley or grain, depending on your preferred terminology). That’s not to say those are the only ingredients in any given beer. Many brewers add fruit, spices, honey, coffee, sugar, lactose, and other fun ingredients to impart the flavor they want in their brew. But every single beer on the planet that calls itself “beer” must have hops, water, malt, and yeast to be classified as such. That’s it. Pretty simple, ya?

It’s especially simple if you are reading this from Germany, as your centuries-old Reinheitsgebot law, also known as the German Beer Purity Law, does not allow for the use of any ingredients beyond the aforementioned foursome of water, yeast, hops, and malt. Nothing more. Nada. That means Germans do not enjoy any domestically produced fruited sours, coffee stouts, or milkshake IPAs. I imagine that gets pretty monotonous, but hey, if it works then it works.

Each of the big four are used for a variety of purposes in a variety of styles, but here’s what each of them bring to party:

#1. Water:

Well, we had to start somewhere. Clever as you are, you’ve likely deduced that water is the main ingredient in beer (by volume, anyway), as it is in basically everything that’s both liquid and potable, from juice to Joose (and yes, somehow they still make this stuff). In beer, water is more of a silent partner that does the heavy lifting quietly while the flashy “actual” ingredients take all the credit.

That’s not to say that water is unimportant to the brewing process: quite the opposite. Not all water is created equal, as we have learned to our horror in places like Flint. But beyond the necessity of using water that’s actually safe, brewers must factor in things like mineral content and density when deciding what water to use. Think about times that you have traveled to other cities or countries: when you shower (you are showering, right?) the water can feel more “hard” or grainy in your hair, or the drinking water from the tap can be more cloudy, harsh, silky, light, sweet, metallic, and so on. There are, of course, other factors that influence water flavor and “feel,” but these are primarily influenced by mineral content. Minerals can be removed relatively easily through modern water purification methods, but that doesn’t mean that breweries aren’t proud of where their water comes from, or that they wouldn’t rather pump good stuff from a local source (which is cheaper) than paying for it to be shipped in or having to purify what’s locally available.

Arthur Guinness (do you really need me to tell you what brewery he started?) very famously signed a ~9,000 year lease in 1784 that guaranteed him not only the land he built his Dublin facility on, but also rights to local water sources. Using this same water from the same source, as with other breweries, is considered essential to keeping the flavor and profile of a beer consistent from batch to batch, year to year, and generation to generation.

#2. Yeast (sorry, but you’re drinking poo):

Did you drink a frightening amount of beer in college? If so, you also drank a metric ton of crap, and I’m not using that as an expression to throw shade at Natty Lite or AB InBev. Yeast is a miraculous living thing, and its waste by-product (commonly known as poo) is what makes beer alcoholic.

While that is certainly a colorful analogy and I don’t want any readers to be grossed out by beer, yeast is indeed a living organism, albeit a single-celled and tiny one. And without it and its amazing excrement we don’t get to have beer. Like, ever.

Yeast gives us beer through fairly simple means: it hungrily looks for sugars and eats them, converting them to alcohol and carbon dioxide (fizz!) in the process. So you can think of yeast as a machine in which sugar goes in and alcohol and carbonation comes out. I’ll be damned if that wouldn’t be Nobel Prize-worthy were it invented by a human rather than Mother Nature. There are many types of yeast and we won’t cover them all here, but the important ones are ale yeast, lager yeast, and brett.

Ale Yeast, aka Saccharomyces Cerevisiae

I think ale yeast will suffice for our terminology rather than the scientific name (and on that note, are we really surprised that a language that spits out words like “saccharomyces cerevisiae” is now extinct?), and it is the most common type of yeast along with lager yeast (see below).

In short, beer is divided into two categories: ales and lagers. Everything can be classified as one or the other. Ales distinguish themselves by using a “top-fermenting” brewing method, and the aforementioned strain of yeast that supports that. Top-fermenting means that the yeast hangs out at the top of/near the surface of the beer as it’s being brewed, and also allows for brewing at warmer temperatures. This process allows for ales to be brewed faster than their lager counterparts, making them popular amongst brewers (faster production time means more product, more product means more sales, more sales mean more money).

The flavors produced as by-products of top-fermenting or ale yeast are also typically stronger and more complex, with distinctive fruitiness or spices that result naturally from the brewing.

Lager Yeast, aka Saccharomyces Uvarum

Lagers, unlike ales, are “bottom-fermenting” beers. This means that the strains of yeast used in lagers hangs out in the bottom of the brewing device, and operates better in cold temperatures (also known as cold-fermenting). These often produce “cleaner” tasting beers with simpler flavor profiles, but they also take much longer to produce: as with most things in nature, colder means slower, and hotter means faster.

Brett, aka Brettanomyces

I included this strain of yeast not necessarily for its liberal and ubiquitous use in the world of beer (which it isn’t), but because it’s delicious (when used appropriately) and is one you may have heard of as it gains a cult following among brewers.

Brett is historically important in Lambics, Gueuzes, and certain farmhouse style beers. These styles will be covered in the next edition. It provides a funky, yeasty, and unique flavor profile when used, and can easily be made to sour a beer, and thus is commonly found in sours and sour styles. It can be difficult to use properly due to volatility, but a competent brewer can make it shine in a variety of styles. If you see something labeled “with brett” on the shelf, don’t shy away, give it a try.

#3. Hops:

The rock star of beer ingredients is definitely hops. Brewers tout the amount of hops they use as well as the diversity of hop species included when advertising their brews. Ask anyone who professes themselves to be an IPA-lover and they will rattle off a list of their favorite hop varieties (I’m partial to Mosaic, myself), some of which will give you an idea of what they bring to the beer by their name, like Citra, while others are experimental and exist only as strings of numbers and letters, like R2-D2 (not an actual hop, Disney would shit themselves over the copyright infringement, I’m sure).

So what do hops do and what’s so great about them?

(photo credit: Fort George Brewery, from bonappetit.com)

Fun(?) fact: You may notice that hops look and smell more than a little bit like weed, and that’s because both of these recreationally-used green buds are related plant species, which will doubtless lead to potent and intriguing marriages in your beer glass in the not-so-distant future (and if you think that brewmasters in parts of the world where pot is legal haven’t already noticed this, or that it’s only small hippie breweries, you are sorely mistaken).

But besides being the slightly-less-scruffy cousin to marijuana, hops are fantastic little plants in their own right, and bring tons of essential flavoring and balancing qualities to the table during the brewing process. Hops are prized for several things: flavor, balance, aroma, bitterness, and as a preservative tool.

Here’s a quick breakdown of what hops do for beer:

Preservative Qualities of Hops

Hops provide stability to the beer and naturally increase shelf life, which is still relevant and important even in the age of refrigeration. Beers that aren’t described as “hoppy” still rely on the little green plants to work behind the scenes, especially when it comes to preserving your product. Whether it’s hopping (see what I did there?) on a plane and crossing an ocean to slake international thirsts, or just going down the block to the local grocery store, beer needs hops to stay fresh and tasty.

Doubtless you have heard the oft-repeated barroom trivia about IPAs and how they got their name: back when the sun never actually set on the British Empire, essential goods such as beer were shipped to the soldiers, citizens, and diplomats stationed around the world, including India. To use the technical term, sailing by wooden ship to India from England takes a long fucking time. And beer is perishable, especially pale ales, which lose their flavor and quality relatively quickly compared to other styles. Hops were a known preservative, so the Brits loaded up their pale ales with a shitload of hops to help them survive the journey. When the Imperials received the long-awaited kegs and gratefully cracked them open, they found that the beer, while well-preserved and delicious, was also bitter. Very bitter. But in a tasty way. And thus a new style was born: the India Pale Ale, or IPA. Which brings us nicely to the next quality that hops brings to beer.


As long as we’re talking about beer and not attitudes, bitterness is a wonderful thing. It provides a pleasant bite, almost tangy at times, and can be used in a wide range of levels in any beer, measured as IBUs (International Bittering Units). You can usually find IBUs as a numeral value on your beer, often near or next to the ABV% (alcohol by volume), showing how crucial and informative this measurement can be. Yet while strong bitterness and robust IBU values are prized in styles such as IPAs and Coffee Stouts, bitterness is not always pleasant or appropriate. Lager beers in particular are prized more for their smooth and drinkable qualities, which often leave little room for any detectable hop bittering presence. I emphasize detectable because even in beers that barely register on the IBU scale, bitterness is still a vital component. Bitterness serves to balance out big malty sweetness, and does not have to be detectable to achieve this (see “bittering hops” below). Brewers know which hop will provide which desired quality based on the acid levels found in hops.

Hops provide two key types of acids, alpha acids and beta acids, that are used in different ways. Hops with high alpha acids are the really bitter ones and the really bold flavored ones: think your hoppy IPAs and pale ales. Hops high in beta acids are usually much more low-key and balanced, and are mostly used in lager beers and other varieties that want to use hops for balance but don’t want to taste them while they do it. The higher the alpha acid content (the “big” ones are 10-20%) the more bitter it is, and the higher the beta acid level the more “hop” we get – but without the bitterness. Hop varieties such as noble hops that have equal or nearly equal alpha to beta acid ratio are often used in lagers and other beers that want the balance and subtle flavor without the bitterness or dominant hoppy flavors. Simply put? More hops does not automatically mean more bitterness. It completely depends on what kind of hops you are using.

Aroma and Flavor: Hop Varieties

Hops are oily, aromatic, floral little buggers, and those qualities come through in spades in the smell and taste departments. Some hops are classified as “aroma” hops, whose presence exclusively benefits the (you guessed it) aroma and flavor of the beer. Ever sniffed a beer and gotten notes of fresh cut grass or pine or citrus? That’s an aromatic hop doing its job. And with smell and taste having a very close relationships, what you whiff in the glass usually follows on the tongue. Flavors often run the gamut of bitter citrus (grapefruit, orange, lemon, etc) into floral spice or grassy sweetness, and everything in between.

Hops can also be categorized as “bittering” hops, which means they primarily affect the bitterness level of the beer, and are used for balance. Even in “malty” beers or lagers where hops are to be seen and not tasted, these hops are absolutely essential to providing a balanced beer. Beers that rely on malt for their flavor can easily become too sweet from the sugars created by brewing, and without a healthy dose of bittering hops to counterbalance this many beers would be no more than boozy sodas (see: Joose). Of course, they are also used heavily in IPAs and other brews that like to emphasize that strong bitter taste in their flavor profiles.

Many hops are also classified as “dual purpose,” meaning the hop provides a significant aromatic/flavoring and bittering properties. These are particularly prized in IPAs, where both flavor and bitterness is wanted, as they can achieve two purposes with one hop. A real money-saver!

If you want to get a sense of what kinds of hops you like, start checking the ingredients on the beer you like: smart breweries will include the hop (and malt) varieties they used right on the can/packaging, but many do not include this info. It can almost always be found on the brewer’s website, though, and can be quite helpful in identifying what you like and give you a better idea of what to try and/or seek out in the future when you see a new brew heavily features one of your favorite hops!

There are scores and scores of hop varieties in commercial use by breweries around the world, with more being created all the time, so there’s no way to cover them all. This is a handy and informative site that goes over most of the prevalent hop varieties used in beer brewing, and is layman-friendly.


#4. Malt (aka grains, barley, malted barley, malt bill, breaker of chains (of hydrocarbons))


(photo credit: Randy Mosher’s book Tasting Beer which is probably the best book on beer that I’ve ever come across. It’s an industry standard and if you have any interest in beer, it’s well worth the $15)

Malt! It may have a string of other titles and names behind it that would make Daenerys Targaryen proud, but this is the other big hitter in brewing and does not get nearly the respect it deserves.

Why the plethora of pseudonyms? First you have to understand what the malt is. Malting simply refers to any grain (such as rice, barley, rye, oats, corn, and so on) that is dried and germinated. This is done by soaking the grain in water and then drying it through application of heat (aka roasting), which allows the grain to be fermented and for its starches/sugars to convert to alcohol during the brewing process.

It’s important to note that brewers often use more than one type of grain in their malt, though most beers utilize barley as the primary malt (51% or more of the grains used in the malt). The malt bill can be a combination of barley and other grains, or it can be exclusively barley. Again, “malt” is simply any malted grain, though in the vast majority of beer this means malted barley (non-barley malts are generally considered inferior for a variety of reasons, though this is hotly debated in the beer world, and varies greatly by style). Barley, like hops, also comes in many different varieties that vary in characteristics and qualities.

There are several exceptions to the “malt = malted barley” rule of course, the most notable being wheat beers. There’s a name for this style, coined by its German inventors (who else?): hefeweizen, or weizenbier, which means “wheat beer.” Wheat, being lighter than barley in both color and density, allows for the brewing of more light, sweet, and drinkable beers. Even in the “weizen” family, though, the malt bill is still about half barley, half wheat, demonstrating that barley still plays a huge role even when it’s not flying solo.

Another common exception comes from American macro-breweries (think Bud, Miller, Coors), who will utilize grains such as rice or corn for their Light beers, as those grains can provide lighter color and body (and fewer calories). This is another reason why you may hear people call this ingredient “grain” rather than malt, because grain is an all-encompassing term that allows for the use of any grain, not just barley, and wheat-based or wheat-exclusive malt has its own terminology.

“Malt” as a term pretty much covers the same ground for the same reasons: it can refer to any grain or combination of grains that has gone through the malting process. But it all boils down to the same thing: wort. Sorry, that’s both a bad joke and one that I didn’t provide any context for. You can Google wort if you want to roll your eyes at me. I will wait.

Now, the grain of choice can be malted in a variety of ways. The type of malting device (kilns, ovens, chambers, kettles, etc), the material the malting device is made of (steel, copper, iron, etc), and temperature. Essentially, the amount of time spent heating and the level/temperature the heat is set to can affect the color and flavor of the malt, and thus the beer. Think of it as coffee: dark roast and light roast, espresso grind and course grind, and so on. The more you “cook” the malt, the darker and roastier it becomes, leading to bigger, bolder, richer flavors and a dark body. The less you “cook” the malt the lighter it is, allowing for more crisp, drinkable beer. See the picture above from Randy Mosher’s awesome book for an idea of the range of colors.

Anywho, despite what IPA lovers and hop-heads might tell you, malt is probably the single most important ingredient in the brewing of beer. Any beer. The malts might be a bit harder to detect and identify as individual “types” or strains, being generally less distinctive and bold than hops, but malts are absolutely vital to: appearance, flavor, feel or texture, and alcohol content.


Beer is sexy. Don’t tell me there isn’t something innately appealing about seeing a perfectly poured bit of golden goodness, bubbling in a pint glass crowned in foam.

Pictured: raw sex appeal, apparently

Where does that “beer” look come from, you might ask? Malt is your answer. Darker malts are malts that are heated/cooked for longer periods of time and/or at higher temperatures, and darker malt color creates darker beer color. Similarly, malts that have been heated for less time or at lower temperatures will be lighter in color, and thus create a lighter beer. Ambery-red malts make ambery-red beers, and so on. Pretty straightforward, right?

That’s not to say that malt is the only contributor to a beer’s color. It’s worth mentioning that certain additional ingredients, such as fruit, can obviously change the color of the brew. But short of these kinds of additions, the color you are seeing in your glass is derived almost exclusively from the malt bill and how dark or light it is.

Beyond the color, though, is the other pretty part of beer: the creamy, foamy head. Which to be sure is not always creamy and foamy. The malt is the beer’s provider of protein, which is what allows the foamy head to form on your glass and to stay there. Less protein in your malt means less head on your beer, or a quickly disappearing head. This may sound nice to the cheapskates out there who want a glass filled to the brim, but foam actually helps us enjoy beer more by improving perceived texture, magnifying aroma (and thus flavor), and transmitting flavors that come across as sensations, such as cool mint or spicy warmth. Which brings us, nicely, to flavor.

Flavor Provided by Malt

I mentioned earlier that malts can be a little harder to identify than hop varietals when tasting beer, thus why hops are the showboats of the beer world and malts are sweating in the back doing the hard work, muttering resentfully under their breath about those flashy hops.

This is not entirely true, as many beers (particularly lagers) derive most of their identifiable flavoring from the malts, which can include: Pilsner malt, Vienna malt, and Munich malt. If those sound familiar, it’s not just because they are named for cities that you vaguely recall from Band of Brothers, they’re also the namesake of several styles of beer. Pilsner-style beers, for example, use…you guessed it…Pilsner malt. Go home, Scooby Doo, the mystery is solved.

This is a great (and simple) breakdown of many common malts and their qualities, but for our purposes we will keep it simple. The lighter malts will typically produce, lighter, more subtle flavors (think: crisp, dry, light sweetness, light toasted/toastiness). The darker malts will produce bigger, sweeter, roastier flavors (think biscuity, chocolatey, coffee, caramel). This is why color so often (but not always!) corresponds to flavor in the world of beer: dark colored beer, dark flavors. Again, this is not a universal truth, but a solid rule of thumb. Think of it like baseball: a guy with a higher average is more likely to get a hit, but your superstar slugger with a .350 AVG can come up and strike out 5 times in a row while your bench-jockey, journeyman batting .215 on the year could go 5-5 on any given day. We can’t predict exact results based on a player’s average, but it gives us a good idea. Same principle for color of beer and flavor.

Feel or Texture (Mouthfeel)

Am I…am I supposed to touch my beer? Is this some kind of new-agey pseudo-scientific beer-emotion? What the hell is the “feel” of a beer? My preferred terminology is “mouthfeel,” because it captures the spirit of what is trying to be described while sounding only vaguely sexual (c’mon now, grow up). As you’ve probably realized by now, no one ingredient is solely responsible for any one part of beer. Each of the big four of water, hops, malt, and yeast will impact the flavor. Each will have an affect on the alcohol content. Each will also change or affect the mouthfeel. But the impact that water, hops, malt, and yeast have on the various qualities possessed by beer is not equal. And while the water quality, the hop varieties, and the yeast will have their own interaction with how the beer feels in your mouth, malt is the king of mouthfeel, and is the greatest single contributor to this make-or-break attribute of the brew.

Terms like pillowy, soft, clean, crisp, hazy, thick, watery, creamy, light, drinkable, viscous, smooth, thin, bubbly, carbonated, flat, and robust can all be used to describe how the beer feels in your mouth. Hence, mouthfeel. None of these are inherently good or bad: it all depends on what is stylistically appropriate. The mouthfeel must match the beer. This may sound silly but it’s actually quite important. Beyond the personal preferences of each individual, mouthfeel and texture of beer should match the style, or else it’s off-putting. Cracking open a pale pilsner lager should never yield a thick, viscous, creamy beer. That would be as weird and uncomfortable as going to make a peanut butter & jelly sandwich to find watery, thin peanut butter that sloshes right out of the jar. Ewww.

The type of grain used and how it is roasted/malted will invariably, and significantly, impact the viscosity and texture of the beer itself. Click the link above in the “Flavor Provided by Malt” section for specific examples of how malt varieties impact the mouthfeel of the beer. Fear not: any decent brewer has already done all this homework for you, and will match their batch to the malt that fits best with what they are trying to accomplish (which should be a kickass beer. If not, you might want to consider drinking elsewhere).

Alcohol Content

This is the fun part, right? At the end of the day, we don’t drink beer just because it tastes good. We drink beer because it tastes good and it has alcohol in it. If we wanted to taste interesting flavors in our beverages we’d drink soda or tea (nothing wrong with tea! But it sure ain’t beer).

Now, you know from reading the yeast section above that yeast, one of the vital four ingredients in any beer, is what makes the alcohol. Yeast does this by “eating” the sugars in beer and “pooping” out alcohol and carbonation. But where do these sugars come from? The malt, of course! (you are reading the malt section, after all)

Malts produce sugars during the brewing process. More malt typically means more sugar, and thus more alcohol. Though it’s important to note that more malt or darker malt does not always mean more alcohol. The way that grain becomes malted, remember, is by soaking it in water and germinating it then adding heat. Once the heat is added, the grain you are malting stops germinating, and will not produce any more sugar. So you can have a lot of grain that’s “lightly” malted and thus have less alcohol than a beer with less grain but that has been malted more “heavily.”

So thank you, malt, for producing sugar (which is already delicious) and allowing beer to have what we want: alcohol.



A look ahead: style guide

That’s pretty much it, folks! Hopefully this helps give you a better grasp on what you’re drinking and how it was made.

So how do we get from the quadruplets of hops, water, yeast, and malt to the dozens of beer styles and tens of thousands of different-tasting brews all over the world? How do we differentiate between an ale and a lager? A stout and a porter?

Look for a breakdown of (most) of the popular styles in the next edition.













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