Which ingredients are used in beer?

To know where all the flavours in beer come from, we need to explain the way beer is brewed. We won’t go into too much detail, so here we go:

Just take these three ingredients:

  • water
  • grains
  • yeast

And we hear you thinking: 'but what about hops?' And in a way you're absolutely right to think hop is a main ingredient of beer. Nowadays it is almost impossible to find a beer brewed without hops, but it isn't necessary to us it! It does give the beer more flavour and makes sure you can conserve it longer. Next to hops breweries our experimenting more and more with the addition of other ingredients like herbs, fruits, honey and even additions like pepper or marshmallows are nothing to frown up upon. But let's start at the beginning:

Water

Originally breweries were build there were they had easy access to water. That's why there are many breweries situated next to rivers and natural springs like Bavaria and Alfa. There was a big difference in the beers you could brew with 'hard' water with lots of minerals and 'soft' water that's really crisp. It's no wonder that pilsners originate from the Czech Republic, where the water is perfect for brewing delicious crisp pilsners.

Nowadays breweries can bend the water to their will and add or abstract minerals and salts from the water. Some breweries use water that's naturally rich in iron, which you consequently can taste in the beers.

Hop

Like we said before, hop isn't required for brewing beer. But in the Netherlands it is required to put herbs in your beer, and hop is the most commonly used, because of different qualities it has. When they first started to use hops in beer in the 14th century, they used it primarily for preservative effect it had on the beer. Hop has a certain acidic component that makes beers less likely to spoil. You don't have to use fresh hops for this effect, so the bitter flavours weren't as present at that time.

That changed big time when in the 19th century the big pilsbreweries like Heineken, Amstel and Bavaria took over almost the complete beermarket in the Netherlands. The fresh and bitter character, had become typical for Dutch pilsners. On the downside: if you didn't like those bitter flavours, beer from that time, wasn't for you.

But this changed as well the past 20 years. Especially at the beginning of the '80s when a few English and American breweries started experimenting with different hops and adding the hops at different moments in the breweing proces. The brewers where inspired by the ancient story that the beer the English brewed and shipped to India to provide the troops over there with quality beer, had more hop in them. And the IPA was born! Ten years ago nobody in the Netherlands heard of this style, but right now there everywhere: from supermarkets to your local pub. Every year there are 100+ new hopvarieties to use and the best ones are developed for use in IPA's.

Right now we distinguish three types of hop:

  • bitterhops: are added during the boiling of the wort and add, who would have guessed, bitter flavours to the beer as wel as the acidics for the preservational use of hop.
  • aromahops: are added during the end of the cooking process and during the storage of the beer and add aromatic, fruity and herbal notes to the beer.
  • dual purpose-hop: just like you guessed, these hop varieties can be used as bitter- and as aromahop.

Depending on the moment of addition of the hops, hop isn't only used for its bitter flavours, like in pilsners, but to add a variety of flavours and aromas to your beer. This varies from tropical fruits and citrus, to coconut, herbal tones like flowers, resin and even weeds.

Not only are they developing new hopvarieties, but also new ways of adding hop to your beer. Back in the days they just threw the whole hopflower in the kettle, but nowadays the aromatic parts are pushed into rabbitfood-like pallets and taste extremely bitter. The newest development in hopland is hopoil which gives the beer an even more pure hopprofile.

Nobody knows what the next step in hopland will be, but we probably won't have to wait long on the answer...

Yeast

I think it'll come as no surprise when we tell you that yeast is our favourite part of beer. Why? Because yeast is the magic ingredient of beer. For thousand of years people have been brewing beers and of course people knew there was something happening inside the beer, because the flavours changed, but they never knew what exactly. We now know that wild yeasts floating around in the air feasted on the sugary wort and went to work, giving them their precious beer. Note that wild yeasts always produce a sour or funky beer, so you can imagine how beer until the end of the 19th century must have tasted!

What is it that yeast does exactly?

Only since 1876 we know about yeast and the way it works. And this was all thanks to a French inventor Louis Pasteur who wrote the book 'Studies about Fermentation'. He studied the fermentation process of beer and found that beeryeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae) is a unicellular organism that loves sugar (who doesn't though). It doesn't care whether there's oxygen or not, when it gets in contact with sugar it starts eating. In turn they convert the sugars in alcohol, carbonic acid and warmth (and some other extra additional things which depend on what you're brewing, temperature during fermentation and some more variables). Yeast can't eat all of the sugars in beer. And just like most of us, it can't handle its alcohol that well. As soon as the brew gets to 16% vol. alcohol, the yeastcells die. But then again, maybe 16% vol. alcohol is enough for beer.

Nowadays there are many different yeast strains that are cultured by breweries. We'll mention the three most important here:

  • Bottom yeast. This yeast works better on lower temperatures and stays on the bottom of the tank during fermentation, hence the name. In England almost all beers are made with this yeast strain, as well as most pilsners. Is that why they call their beers 'lager'?

  • Top yeast. You've probably guessed it, but this yeast floats on top of the wort as a frothy and creamy blanket. Almost any craft beer nowadays is made with this yeast.

  • Mixed fermentation. This is not a combination of bottom and top yeast, but a beer that's partly fermentated with wild, as well as controlable yeast strains. One of the most famous beers is Orval, in which they us Brettanamyces as well as Sacchoromyces. More and more breweries try brewing with wild yeast strains, but it will always be a flavour that you'll need to get used to.

Herbs and other additions

There's nothing crazy enough to put in your beer. Traditionally people used fruits, zests and herbs in beer. Some brewers use honey which are then fermented together with the sugars in the beer.

Some beerstyles almost exclusively use additions. There's almost always some sort of zest and corianderseeds in Belgian wheatbeer, as well as Belgian triples. But onowadays almost anything is fair game. From apfelstrudel to pine needles, from woodchips to seasalt. And almost anything you can buy at Jamin, people already put in beers.

Barrel Aging

Letting your beer age in wooden barrels deserves some special attention as well. Back in the days wooden barrels where the way for transporting and preserving beer. And some of those barrels were really, really big. October 17th 1814 something went wrong in a brewery in London, where to used barrels that were 6,7 metres high. The pressure became to big for the barrel and became a tidal wave of 4,5 metres. The loss in litres is estimated between 600.000 and 1.500.000!

Nowadays beer is preserved in steel tanks, which is a lot safer. But aging your beer on wooden barrels hasn't gone away, it even made a big comeback! Just like wine, letting your beer age on wooden barrels adds depth and complexity from the wood into your beer. But most of the time, there's been some other form of alcoholic drink on those barrels, which adds flavour as well.

Brewers buy used barrels from booze distillers. Mostly from bourbon or whiskey distilleries, but you can also use used port, wine, sherry, rum and even tequila barrels. The booze mixes with you're beer and adds another layer to it. The degree of influence depends not only on the booze, but on the time it spent in the barrel as well.

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