So what IS beer?

By beer, I usually mean English bitters, Pale Ales, Milds and Stouts as well as Barley Wines.

Some claim that “Ale” is a more accurate term, but that is not only historically doubtful, but also contradictory, since the same people who claim “ale” is the correct term also usually claim that “beer” meant a weaker drink, and “Ale” meant a stronger one.  Modern beers (and ales, if you must) are almost always far weaker than in the past, and, indeed, lagers are often stronger than some bitters.   Since first finding out what the stuff is, I’ve used “Ale” and “Beer” almost interchangeably.  If we need to be specific, then we name the drink by its style: Munich Lager, Pilsner, Mild or Stout etc.

ALL commonly made beers are made from, at least, water, hops, malted barley and yeast.   That’s whether they are American pale lagers or Guinness: they’ll all contain those ingredients.

Contrary to popular opinion, beer is not made mostly from hops!   By far the greatest constituent is water.  Then malted barley, and by a considerable minority, hops. Check out the recipes section, and you’ll see!

So, what’s the difference between lagers and English bitters etc?

Not a great deal, in the grand scheme of things.  Recipes are really quite similar, although lagers traditionally have less hops, are served colder and are fermented, traditionally, with a yeast that likes low temperatures and which ferments at the bottom of the fermenting vat.

However, it is critical that British drinkers realise that the stuff they get sold as lager is a very, very, poor, sad, washed out and pathetic example of the worst possible sort.  REAL lager type beers, which vary enormously, are just as good as English beers.  “Lager” is more a method of brewing than just one style. Lagers vary in colour from a pale straw colour, to a deep ruby red and even practically black.

English beers typically use more hops and a top working yeast, and, also, a different type of malted barley, called Pale Malt.  Although Lager malt and Pale Malt look alike, there are important differences.

So, our beer is simply malted barley steeped in water typically around 66 degrees C for around 90 minutes.  The resultant liquid is then drained off and the spent grains rinsed to remove any sugar, then the grains are discarded.  Steeping the malt is called “mashing”, and mashing causes enzymes in the malted barley to convert several starches into a few varieties of fermentable sugar.

The resultant liquid, by now called a “Wort”, is brought to the boil.  Hops, in relatively small quantities, are added and the Wort is boiled for around 2 hours.  At the end, the Wort is drained again and the hops discarded.  The Wort must then be brought down to a lower temperature, (for English beers, around 25 degrees C), and then the yeast can be added.

The beer ferments in open vats, typically for 4- 10 days until vigorous activity of the yeast has abated.  The beer can be barreled at this stage, but it is best to put it somewhere airtight and leave it for a few days, to let the yeast settle out.

Fermentation converts the sugars produced by mashing into alcohol.  Most beer needs a while to mature.  But the entire process is much, much faster than wine making and the process is a very absorbing and inexpensive hobby.

Read more for how to “mash” your own, or how to use a simpler but effective method to create your own beers.  Or even how to get the best from beer kits!

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