One of the best ways to understand why certain beers taste the way they do is by knowing the ingredients. And whereas wine is pretty easy (there’s only one ingredient...grapes!), beer has 4 ingredients to know: malt, hops, water, and yeast.
Watch the video or keep reading the blog post below!
Malt can be described as the grains used to create sugar, which then in turn creates alcohol (because the fundamental equation for alcohol is: yeast eats sugar and excretes alcohol and carbon dioxide.) Any grain can make up malt, but barley is the most common because it is the easiest for brewers to work with.
The aromas and flavors of malt are determined by how much the malt gets kilned, which is basically the equivalent to toasting the malt. Think about the difference between a piece of light toast compared to a piece of burnt toast--the same chemical reactions will happen to malt. Flavors in our beer from malt therefore can be really bready like bread dough, bread crust or pie crust up to roasty with flavors like coffee, chocolate, or even burnt toast. You can also get caramel, nutty, or toffee flavors in your beer too, which all come from the malt.
The second ingredient in beer that contributes to aroma and flavor is hops. Hops contribute bitterness to balance out the sweetness coming from malt. They give beer a refreshing quality because in all honesty, if they weren’t around, your beer might taste like leftover cereal milk.
For most beer styles in the world, the flavors and aromas from hops are very subtle giving floral, minty, herbal, and earthy notes to the resulting beer. But here in America, our hops are a little bit stronger. They contribute more of a piney, citrusy, resiny note to our beers, and since we love hops in this juncture of the beer world, those flavors tend to dominate American beer styles.
Moving onto the third ingredient in beer: yeast. Yeast is one of my favorite ingredients to talk about because it is often overlooked, but contributes some of my favorite aromas and flavors in beer. As I mentioned earlier, yeast is what is responsible for making beer alcoholic, and when it eats up sugar and creates alcohol, it also makes byproducts called esters and phenols that contribute to the beer profile.
Esters are simply “fruit” notes in beer, like:
Phenols contribute “spicy” components to beer, and even though they aren’t as prominent as esters, some beers will have a black pepper or clove component to them from the phenols. Yeast contributes a lot of flavor to most ales, so start paying attention when you’re tasting. Check out this video on ales vs. lagers.
Finally, our last ingredient in beer is water, which is really important because it makes up 90% of beer. There are minerals in water like calcium carbonate, gypsum, chlorine which can definitely influence the aroma and taste of beer. Calcium Carbonate will clash with hops and make them taste harsh, whereas gypsum will accentuate hops and make the beer taste more refreshing. Chlorine will make beer taste like medicine. If water has a high iron content, the resulting beer will taste metallic. Historically this was an issue, but today enough technology exists that gives brewers the freedom to add or detract minerals in their water.
Beyond these off-flavors, we really don’t talk about water adding flavor to beer. Most of the aromas and flavors come from malt, hops, and yeast. So the next time you sip on a new beer, think about what you’re smelling and tasting...now you’ll know which ingredient those flavors are coming from!