Beer Basics

It’s All in the Grain

Bread, cake and breakfast cereals are all made from grains. Grain is also the basis for beer! Beer is made from fermented grains, which are most often barley, but can sometimes include wheat, rye, oats or corn.

  • Barley- sugars are easily released from the grain. Makes a beer with soft clean flavors.
  • Wheat- enhances the roundness of the flavor. Can improve the stability of the head when the beer is poured.
  • Rye- imparts a hint of spiciness.
  • Oats- imparts a silky smoothness.
  • Corn- lightens the body.
  • (Note: Wheat beers usually contain no barley.)

Variety of Barley

Different varieties of grapes produce different styles of wines—even a causal wine drinker knows the difference between Sauvignon Blanc and Malbec! Barley also has differences and can be classified into three different types of Barley. The number of seeds at the top of the stem distinguishes these classifications. Barley seeds grow in 2, 4 or 6 rows along the central stem.

European brewers generally use the two-row barley, which has a higher starch to husk ratio. US brewers generally use either the four or six row barley, as it’s more economical to grow in warmer climates. These also have a higher concentration of enzymes needed to convert the starch into sugar.

Where Barley is Grown

Wine grapes mostly grow between the 30⁰ and 50⁰ latitude north and south. It’s often said that if you can’t grow grapes, grow grain. In fact, fine barley is grown in northern hemispheres between the 45⁰ and 55⁰ latitudes. Barley likes temperate to cool climates.

It’s the Water

More than 90% of a pint of beer is water. Water is obviously very important to the final taste of the beer. Simply put, “Good water makes good beer”. The most revered water contains a balance of minerals such as calcium and magnesium. These minerals are what put the hardness in “hard” water. Not only do these minerals add a desirable mouth feel of their own, but they also aid many of the biochemical processes taking place during brewing.

Calcium, for instance, helps produce an acid that balances the alkaline phosphates found in malts. Magnesium is essential because it is used by yeast in the production of enzymes required for fermentation.

The best pilsners owe part of their mild character to “soft” water or water that contains very little calcium and magnesium.

Today brewers can adjust almost any water supply to produce just the right balance of minerals for the style of beer they want to produce.

What Makes Beer Hop?

Hops impart complex flavors, aromas and bitterness to the beer, as well as antiseptic qualities and help to clarify the brew. Hops have been used in folk remedies as an antibiotic, anti-inflammatory and cure for insomnia.

Hops of a different flavor:

  • England hops- fine aromas and low in acid.
  • Northdown hops- higher in acid, more bitterness. Valued in Belgium and Bavaria.
  • Czech Republic- renowned for delicate flowery bouquet. Classically used in Pilsner beers.
  • Germany- revered for aromatic qualities.
  • North America- citrus aromas.

Other Additives

Specialty beers may contain other spices and herbs, such as orange, ginseng, ginger, saffron, elderberry, juniper and chili peppers.

Making of the Beer


Grain is soaked in water for a few days followed by gentle warmth for about a week. This starts the germination process. Germination is the breakdown of starch and protein. Traditionally, germination takes place on the stone floor of the malt house or the more modern method of using rotating drums in which air is blown in for a period of four to six days.


Heating the green malt in a kiln stops germination. Kilning is a process in which a combination of airflow and heat are controlled to make a specific product now called malt. Malting doesn’t just stop the germination, it also gives color and flavor to the beer. The more intense the kilning is, the stronger the color of the malt and more likely it is to contain caramelized sugars. Gently kilned malt will be light in color and milder with soft delicate flavors.


Malt is then cracked in a mill and turned into “grist”, which looks like coarsely ground flour. The grist is soaked in hot water in a vessel called a mash tun. Typically mashes contain about 2/3 water and 1/3 malt. Mashing converts the starch into sugars that can then be fermented.

After the sugars have been converted, the sweet liquid is called “wort”. The wort is then separated from the grains and transferred to a kettle.


Hops are added to the sweet wort then boiled in a sealed kettle, typically made from copper or stainless steel. During boiling the hops release resins that give it its bitterness and oils that give the beer its “hoppy” aroma. These include notes of pine, flowers, citrus and other fruits.

After boiling, the brew is strained. The wort is quickly cooled to clarify. The natural sugars in the wort are ready to be transformed into beer via fermentation.


Fermentation starts when yeasts are added to the cooled wort. Yeast then eats the sugars giving off by-products of alcohol, carbon dioxide (CO2) and heat. A bung seals the vessel allowing only controlled amounts of CO2 to be released. The CO2 gives beer its carbonation or fizz. After the fermentation is complete, the beer is cooled to enable the dead yeasts to settle to the bottom. The beer may then be filtered to remove sediments and bottled.

Top-Fermenting Yeasts

Top-fermenting yeasts form foam on the surface of the fermenting beer. These yeasts like relatively warm conditions (59 – 68⁰F) and are used in the production of English and Belgian style ales.

After about 7 days, the yeast head is removed and the beer undergoes a second fermentation at a lower temperature. This releases more complex fruity flavors and mellows the beer.

Bottom-Fermenting Yeasts

Bottom-fermenting yeasts are used to make lager style beers. These yeasts collect at the bottom of the vessel and prefer cooler conditions (around 50⁰F). The beer is stored (lagered) for at least 30 days and becomes smoother and mellower.

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