Beer has been around for a long time. There is evidence of brewing beer in ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt. The Babylonians even wrote a hymn to Ninkasi, the goddess of brewing. The hymn is actually a recipe for creating beer. The Greeks and Romans seemed to prefer wine as their poison, leaving beer to the Northern European barbarians.

But by the Middle Ages, helped in part due to the lack of good drinking water, beer became a staple in Europe. Each region developed its own style and methods of production. The 14th and 15th centuries saw monasteries taking the lead in artisan beers.

Today brewing is a huge global industry featuring large multi-national companies and small local micro-breweries. After all, there are still those awkward moments to fill.

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There are only four ingredients to beer. The three as mandated by the Bavarian Purity Law of 1516 are barley, hops, and water. By this law it is not legal to sell beer brewed with additional ingredients or additives in order to ensure quality and a certain level of craftsmanship to the consumer. Of course in modern brewing, just as then, yeast is the forth ingredient but it was not known when the law was drafted. At that point beer was fermented by wild yeast in the air.

All alcoholic beverages start with some form of sugar. In the case of wine it is the grape, in spirits the sugar can vary. From grain to corn, cane to potato, you can distill spirits such as whiskey, rum, or vodka. All of these are the result of fermentation transforming the original sugars into alcohol. In the case of beer the sugars are acquired from barley by convincing the grain it is planted and should begin to sprout in a process called malting.
The first step to making beer is called “malting,” which is performed by a maltster. The basic method involves wetting the barley and warming it to convert the energy stored in the seed to a sugar that can be extracted, as it would do when planted. When the conversion is nearly complete the seed must be dried to stall the process for storage. The temperature at which the grain is dried imparts various flavors we enjoy in the end product. Lowest temperatures create a pale malt. Higher will produce a crystal, vienna, pilsner, caramel, even chocolate and black patent. The highest kiln temperatures can make a toasted malt which is found in Scotch ales and some stouts.
The next ingredient is hops, the buds which grow on hop vines. While hops has not always been an ingredient in beer, it is now accepted as a defining ingredient. Hops was added for its properties as a natural preservative. There is a wide variety of hops but all will impart a bitterness and flavor to the finished product, each strain having its own characteristics of bite as well as the floral, citrus, and fruity notes. More or less hops can be used to balance the malt or alcohol, or for other reasons. In order to endure the trip from England to troops in India, beer had to be brewed high in alcohol and very hoppy, the creation of India Pale Ale.
Finally the yeast is the source of the fermentation process which creates beer. Yeast, as with the other ingredients, comes in different varieties. Yeast grows wild but has been isolated and crossbred in order to refine the flavors produced. Most brewers have proprietary strains of yeast, helping to define their particular product. Strains may be suited to different beers or fermentation temperatures. For instance, some may not survive in a high alcohol environment while others may consume too much sugar leaving a dry beer.
The method of brewing can be quite complex but it can also be made very simply. For the purposes of clarity a very simple method will be covered here. The first stage is bringing water to temperature and mixing in the malted barley, or “mashing in.” The grain must be held at a temperature to complete the conversion of fermentable sugars. Other temperature stages can be used to accentuate or suppress flavors from the malt. Once the conversion is complete the next step is to “sparge” the grain, rinsing the sweet “wort,” essentially a barley tea, from the grain into a separate vessel for boiling. During the boil stage the hops are added, the time in the boil dictating the amount of bitterness in the beer. Hops added at the start will bitter the beer while those added end of the boil will add almost no bitterness but plenty of hop aroma and flavor. Adding the hops in stages through the boil can also create a more complex beer.
After boiling, the wort is cooled to between 80 and 90 degrees in order to pitch the yeast. Any higher will kill the yeast but lower will limit their activity. Once fermentation is complete the beer may be aged, then kegged or bottled where carbonation takes place. Natural carbonation is a result of final fermentation, producing a build up of carbon dioxide and pressure, which saturates the fluid over time. The modern method is “force-carbonating” by simply pressurizing the beer with CO2. This can be done to a filtered beer that has no yeast while natural carbonating cannot.
After a short time in the bottle to let flavors settle the beer is ready to drink! Every stage in the process has some impact on the final result and can be isolated by a skilled tongue. Beers, as other drinks, will lend themselves to certain foods, seasons, even events, and I hope that the next time you taste a brew you will take a moment to appreciate the characteristics that make each one unique.