Nature and Agriculture
Water is the most important raw material used by the brewing sector, making up about 92% of beer on average. And of course if it weren’t for the wonder of water, the barley wouldn’t even germinate and beer would be stripped of its life-enhancing powers. The composition of the water also has a major impact on the brewing process and the final flavour of beer. Before the age of water treatment, the type of beer that could be brewed depended on the geology of its immediate environs. Mineral rich, hard water is more common in the production of ales, whereas soft water is key to the production of lager. It was no coincidence, therefore, that, historically, the world’s most prestigious brewing centres were also blessed with a specific and consistent supply of high-quality, beer friendly water. Water comes from three main sources: groundwater, surface water and city (municipal) water. Groundwater is pumped from a private well or borehole directly into the brewery. Surface water is sourced from rivers and lakes. Finally, city water comes from a well or surface water source that supplies the local area.
With quality beer relying on a consistent supply of high quality cereals and hops, 125 000 EU farmers’ livelihoods depend on supplying beer’s ingredients. Europe grows 50% of the world’s hops and around 20% of Europe’s barley is used for beer.
Barley, rice, rye, wheat, oats, sorghum, maize and spelt are just some of the grains used by brewers, with barley being by far the most commonly used in Europe. The cereal is to beer, what the grape is to wine – furnishing it with the fuel for fermentation. Not only that, it dictates a beer’s mouth-feel, flavour, body and colour. The cereal also serves as a springboard of sweetness from which hop and yeast character can thrust themseves and perform tasty tricks.
Malted cereals can be roughly divided into two camps: base malts and speciality malts: Base malts will make up most, sometimes all, of the grain for a particular beer and will often be blended with other base malts. Speciality malts, in contrast, are used in smaller quantities to add colour and flavour to the beer. Brewers use myriad malts when brewing: To brew a lager or pilsner, brewers call on the light bready, shortbread characteristics of pale or pilsner malt. Pale ales tend to be mashed using the amber-coloured biscuit malt or Vienna malt while dark brown and black dry-roasted malts give porter and stout their opaque appearance, bittersweet character and full-body. Peated malts, like those used in whisky, are also summoned to impart some sweet smokiness. Dark dry-roasted malt varieties are cured longer in the kiln. Examples include Crystal, Chocolate and Brown malt and they tend to be used in big quantities when brewing heavier ales.
The art of kilning is incredibly nuanced and a brewer can call upon a huge combination of different malts – be it pale, crystal or chocolate malt. Delicate yet detectable differences can also be discovered within each defined malt style.
Without the hop, beer would be nowhere near as splendid as it is. Before it reared its cone-like head, packed with a wealth of resins and essential oils, brewers had to rely on all manner of herbs, flowers and spices to counterbalance the crude sweetness of dark, heavily malted beer. These included heather, yarrow, bog myrtle, gooseberries and even seaweed.
Today, hops are cherished and loved. Brewers use hops like a chef uses spice and seasoning. When used early in the brewing process, hops bless beer with its zesty, herbal, grassy bitterness while hops that are added towards the end of the brew adorn beer with its array of alluring aromas. But that’s not all. Like little cone-headed green gargoyles, hops preserve beer and ward off stuff that simply isn’t welcome in a decent brew. Without hops, beer also loses its distinctive foam head.
Hops are mostly picked in the summer, dried and used predominantly in pellet or fresh flower form. Alpha acids and hop oils are the flavour compounds that brewers seek to coax from the hop cones. Hops abundant in alpha acids, known as bittering hops, are added early for bitterness while finishing hops, heavy in hop oils yet unresponsive when boiled for long periods, are added late in the brewing process to enhance the beer’s aroma.
In the hop cone, there’s a resinous yellow powder called Lupulin. It’s this which holds all the wonderful taste sensations that brewers need, their holy grail of flavour. There are hundreds of hop varieties that a brewer can choose from. Each hop has its own bitterness levels and flavours and all hops can be dual purpose, the brewer’s art being in discovering a formation that works best.