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Thursday, August 11, 2011

So Which Ingredient Is the Most Important?

Yesterday's toss-off post, which quoted Daniel Fromson saying "beer’s third-most-important ingredient, after water and barley..." raises the question: which is the most important?

Hops, obviously, are out. Beer was made for millennia before anyone thought to toss hops in. (Along the way, they tossed just about everything else in, too. Everyone who thinks bog myrtle should be in the top five most important, raise your hands.) Beer is so simple to make that the ancient proto-Sumerians were able to shake a few stalks of wild grain into a bowl of water and let stand for a few days. It probably wasn't tasty, and it surely wasn't very alcoholic (though even before civilization dawned, those crafty pre-historical brewers had invented malting), but it was beer. Ish.

So grain and water are in. What about yeast? One could argue, and this one might, that yeast is not an ingredient so much as a helper. A microscopic brewer who finishes the job once all the conditions have been met. This is nevertheless a controversial position. When yeast does its thing, it creates all kinds of chemical compounds that remain in the beer. These become ingredients--and essential ones in many styles--so I guess we have to keep yeast in, too.

To make good beer, tasty beer, though--that's another matter. Water is wholly beside the point. As long as you have it, you have beer. Brewers can adjust water's chemistry to look like classic profiles or to compensate for hardness, pH, etc. Even homebrewers can amend water to meet their needs--its effect on the final product is easily the smallest.

The remaining three ingredients play different roles in different styles of beer. Hops play next to no role in lambics, but they're the whole ball game in IPAs. The same is true of malt and yeast, depending on the style. That is, in fact, the wonder of beer as opposed to, say, wine. Beer is constructed of ingredients. Depending on the recipe, you may emphasize one or another element.

The answer to the question: none. Or all--take your pick.


Kevin said...

I'll bite. I would not only agree that yeast is an ingredient in brewing, but argue that it is the most important and only required one on your list.

Sure grain is nice to have, and in the US required (albeit not much) to call a product "beer". But really, when it comes down to it, what we are looking for a sugar source. Pumpkins, beets, corn, honey and a host of other adjusts have been used in addition to or in the stead of grain throughout brewing history. And as far as water, I've seen articles describing the use of everything from fruit juices to birch sap as brewing liquid. Technically, these fluids are composed mostly of good old H20, but tapping a tree and drawing a bucket from the well are completely different processes, at least in spirit.

So, again, we need sugar, a way to wet it, and our magical little unicellular friend.

And now to nitpick, because that's the kind of guy I am. I would say that hops play a very important role in Lambic brewing. While not providing much in the was of bitterness, copious amounts of aged hops act as a sterilant, keeping undesired microbe in check through the long aging process.

Beer and Coding

Grotusque said...

If we just go by the base 4 ingredients-hops, water, malt, yeast-then I don't know how one could insist that one is not as critical as another. There's just not enough ingredients to be able to fake it by using components of poor quality.

Jeff Alworth said...

Kevin, I like that you come out boldly, knocking down sacred cows wherever you find them. However, we must insist on a few definitional parameters. Fermented beet juice, grapes, honey, et al, do not a beer make. (Fermented beet juice is, in any case, an abomination and we'll speak no more of it.) Language has to mean something, so when we have perfectly good words like "wine" and "mead" and "beer," we understand them to mean more than "beverages fermented with whatever you happen to have on hand." Beer is a lightly alcoholic beverage made (principally) of fermented grain. No grain, no beer.

I find it amusing, also, that after arguing for a hugely expansive definition of beer, you become very specific about the need for hops. And while I am the last person to claim that consistency has any place in an argument, I must here also dissent.

Long before brewers used hops, they made beer. (Real beer, not fermented beet juice.) We know, too, that there are examples of unhopped, spontaneously fermented beers from earlier eras. You can make lambics without hops. You can't make them without malts.

I am apparently feeling feisty.

Daniel Warner said...

I think, in a broad sense, you could say "beer" is anything from converted starch, and "wine" anything from fruit.

There's a difference conceptually, practically, and to get back to yeast, biologically as well. Not all kinds of yeast can consume maltose, let alone higher-order sugars. Most wild yeast can't, actually. Juice from fruit, by comparison, is going to be mostly fructose. Much easier to digest.

While most yeast strains have been wrangled for industrial production these days, it was not always the case. Then, regardless of the physical ingredients--whether beer or wine--it was local yeast that made beer or wine what it was. Even with today's commodified yeast strains there's no way to make a mild without a real top fermenting english ale yeast. Or to make a hefeweizen without a real german yeast.

Yeast is the most important element but it's not an ingredient, per se. This is especially true if you look at something like natural wine or mead-making, where nothing yeasty is added at all.

Kevin said...


If cows were so sacred, they wouldn't fall down so easily.

My point about the need for hops was not aimed at beer in general, but squarely at your comment that they play next to no role in lambics. Throughout the +/- 500 years that lambics have existed, large amounts of "old' hops have been used to prevent spoilage during aging. Sure, they don't play a role in the bitterness or flavor of the beer (unless you count the cheesy flavor you get from aging hops at ambient temperatures), but they play a big role in lambic brewing.

And the assertion that "beer" is (principally) fermented grain may be true now, but I bet ancient brewers here happy to fortify their concoctions with whatever they could get their hands on. Take for example DHF Midas Touch, based on an ancient beer recipe, which contained about an equal split of malted grains and grapes/honey.

If we are ranking the importance of ingredients as they pertain to modern, or even semi-modern brewing, then I'll concede to the power of malt and water. But with all the key-strokes spent on words like "proto-Sumerians", I assumed you were looking for a more inclusive (or expansive) answer. In which case, I still contest that yeast is the one ingredient you listed that is absolutely critical, the other being sugar.

Or perhaps I don't really believe any of the points I put forth. There is a chance I simply noticed that a post on Beervana has somehow failed to garner a single comment after three hours of life. Maybe, just maybe, being familiar with the internets, I knew the best way to get the ball rolling would be to state something contentious, point a critical finger at the author.

Then again, yeast IS pretty awesome. I mean, without it we wouldn't have things like beer. And now that we've come full circle and my cheek is starting to get a little sore from the continued pressure of my tongue, it's time for me to get back to work.

Beer and Coding

Jeff Alworth said...

Kevin, don't MAKE me bust out the etymology of the proto-Indo-European alu, not to mention its descendents öl and øl, because I will. I'm just itchin' for it.

(Thank your for rescuing things. And uncommented post is a terrible, sad sight.)

Kevin said...


By all means, ring the school bell. Though, my Scandinavian roots make me inclined to ask that you start with öl. Or, if you feel this is too public a forum, perhaps we can discuss it at the next qlör where our paths cross.

Ok, really, back to work now.

Beer and Coding

Jeff Alworth said...

It's quite possible no one else is as amused by this as we (Daniel, maybe), but hoo-boy, good stuff.

Alan Sprints said...

Call me crazy, but what makes a great Beer? Having enjoyed many, I can say that the person who decieded how to Brew is more imporant than what you put in it. We have all had unpleasent Beers made with great ingriedients. I think the Brewer is the most imporant ingriedent.

Pete Dunlop said...

I can relate to Alan's comment. I admit to brewing far too many dreadful beers while using great ingredients.

DA Beers said...

I'd go with water as being the most important ingredient.

Daniel Warner said...

Kevin, there's pretty good evidence that civilizations considered fermented grains and fermented fruit (or honey) different things.

This is especially true of ancient europeans, from whom we get all our words for booze. In Beowulf alone, you'll see four different words: ealu (precedessor of "ale"), beor (pronounced like what you'd think but it ISN'T "beer"), meadu (obvious) and wine.

Mead, contrary to popular opinion about Germanic groups (especially the vikings) was not ubiquitous. There's some evidence they considered mead functionally similar to wine, just a special type of it that didn't come from grapes, but there's not much concrete about it. They both appear in kennings related only to the king or to important royal shit. Kings were "wine pourers"; heorot was a "mead hall," but the people drank out of "ale cups." Beor is a false friend, and no one is completely sure what it was (though glosses place it in a similar family with mead, so it was perhaps honeyed beer?). However the old word died off and was replaced with a word imported from the continent, probably via French. From there (this would have been pre-Chaucer) beer and ale competed and you have the split history of those words in English. The salient point, however, is that long before we knew what maltose or sucrose was, "ale/beer" and "wine" and "mead" occupied different lexical space.

The same seems to be true of other areas where both co-existed, from north africa to mesopotamia to china. This is probably because wine predates beer, by a wide margin. Sorry, beer people.

However that doesn't make the sugar source NOT the most important ingredient, because it determined what microbes went in there. Early beer was probably like sourdough. No matter where in the world you go, you're going to end up with a mix of one of three kinds of wild yeast and five kinds of bacteria in a symbiotic culture, just by taking grain and adding water. It's kind amazing, actually (The idea that local yeast will fly into sourdough is total bunk, btw).

Early meads were most assuredly fermented of their own volition (like traditional Tej or any various names fermented honey goes by worldwide). Early grapes were fermented with the yeast that collects on the outside of fruit, much of which tends to be Saccharomyces. At some point some people probably started dumping wine yeast into beer--I have heard no other plausible explanations for how medieval brewers isolated yeast, and they did, by at least the 13th and 14th centuries when it was written about in what's now Germany, from Munich to Cologne. It is clear that by the 15th century even "lager yeast" was isolated from both bacteria and other kinds of yeast, as they were talking about top and bottom fermenters by then. Science note: Lager yeast is a hybrid of S. cerevisiae and S. bayanus. Bayanus is one of the more populous of the wild yeasts that ends up on the bloom of grapes. Neither kind does well in sourdough (they are not team players and will outcompete).

To go back to another culture again, early chinese "sake" brewing required separate practices from fruit wine. Probably chewed rice (like American maize beers) at first, and then eventually another fungal culture, what the Japanese call koji. It's that koji that makes Sake. You can't make sake without it.

But it's not an ingredient as much as it is a process, but that process is going to depend on the sugar source. So ultimately I tend to agree with your assessment: It's the source of the sugar that determines what something will ultimately be, because it will determine what microbes will work on it. But it's the microbes that make beer, or wine, or mead. They are the real brewers, here.

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