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Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Which Ingredient Exerts Greatest Influence?

I once said offhandedly to another beer fan (who may out himself if he wishes) that hops had the most influence on a beer. He contended the point, I believe arguing for malt instead. The issue came back into my consciousness last night as I tried a beer I was certain would be dominated by the malt flavors.  Instead, the yeast took the floor and muscled poor malt to the side. More on that beer in another post.  In the meantime, which is it--malt, hops, or yeast?

Argument for:  body of beer, the sugars, the hooch. No malt, no beer.
Argument against: as a matter of flavor, something of a pipsqueak.

Argument for: the mighty spice, rebuffer of infection, bringer of bitterness, flavor, and aroma.
Argument against: you can have a beer without hops, but not without malt or yeast.

Argument for: lagers, ales, and wild things; yeast determines beer's very nature.
Argument against: yeast schmeast; people made plenty beer before they even knew what it was.

The correct answer?  Water. Because, you know, yeast, malt, and hops piled up amount to compost. I kid. The actual answer is *.  All three are enormously expressive and their influences are easier to see in different beer styles. 

Hops are the biggest blowhards, no doubt.  They have the greatest capacity to overwhelm a beer--but in many styles they are nearly disposable.  Yeast provides the alchemy that makes beer spirituous, and they are the deep-thinking philosophical members of the trio because they do determine a beer's nature.  They are not far behind hops in their capacity to make a big impression, either.  Malt is the hardest case to make, but the gluten-free movement does an excellent job.  Barley malt's presence is subtle and you can easily overlook it, but the parade of sorghum counterfeits, thin, sour, and unbeery put proof to its importance.  

It is a debate with no answer, but a fun one to have.   Your opinion?


  1. I do agree that it's a debate with no clear answer, but my goodness it is a fun one.

    Hmmm... I lean towards yeast, myself. Yeast turns it all alive and without it you've got sweet malt extract or bitter water. Hops won the flavoring war, I would assume because of their bacteria-inhibiting properties, but beer has been subjected to many flavorings over the course of history. And in some cases, it still is. Not to stick hops in the mud so to speak, but I think yeast is responsible for much more of the flavor than even we might realize.

    And then on top of that, look at beers such as lambic. How important are hops to a beer like that? Certainly important to keep the baddies at bay but I can't imagine it's very often that you're getting much hop flavor in such a beer. Then again, lambic obviously doesn't make up the majority of beer made even its own country of origin.

    Alright I'm rambling now. My vote is for yeast.

  2. Charlie Chipmunk11:34 AM, May 14, 2013

    Without yeast there is no fermented beverage... period.

  3. Water! Without which beer would not be a fluid and therefore incapable of any influence as a beverage whatsoever.

  4. I know this game. Malt, because otherwise you have a yeasty glass of very bitter water. Or you've inadvertently made wine.

    It's slightly more interesting to think which ingredient contributes the most flavor and aroma, rather than which is most "important." Though I've muddied the water in my descriptions.

  5. I think malt, because it's a lot easier to make beer without hops than without malts, but yeasts, perhaps we've got a tie here (even though there are still people, brewers included, who do not consider yeast as an ingredient).

    All this, if you are counting water, but if we are, then hops is the least important of the lot because it's the only one you can really do without and still make something that we can recognise as beer.

  6. Perhaps "malt" isn't flavorful, but all the specialty and roasted malts are clearly absolutely key flavor components.

    Sure, a pilsner or a kolsch or a blond ale don't have pronounced "malt" flavors, but how are you going to make a big roasty stout without roasted barley, or a scotch ale without a bit of peated malt, or a rauchbier without good smoked malt, etc? And a hefeweizen may only be a Bavarian hefeweizen with certain yeast, but it definitely wouldn't be the same without the wheat either, would it?

    All the ingrediants are important, but I don't think you should just say "malt" is important because without it you wouldn't have fermentable sugar. There are so many interesting flavor components that come from how the malt is prepared that it's key.

    Calling out malt as if it lacks flavor is like saying that hops are purely a bittering ingredient rather than flavor... Clearly not true.

  7. It's hops, duh, because I won't drink anything that isn't at least 1,000 IBUs.

  8. Is the flavor/aroma debate a fair one, really? I suppose it depends on the type of beer, but I'm much more likely to notice hop-derived aromas and flavors as opposed to anything else. Though I'm sure there's plenty of instances where I've mistaken yeast derived-flavors for hoppy ones.

    I think narrowing it simply to aromas and flavors is making for a one-sided fight. I think sensations and textures are equally as important. In that case, malt might not so quickly be relegated to the odd man out.

  9. I think math is wrong. There is no thing called beer. There are things. So, the contribution of roasted malt governs stouts and hops in IPAs. Yet.. and this may save your question... is that yeast is constantly contributing which ever beer thing you are considering.

  10. Another ingredient in beer is the public house. Or the other way around.

  11. My votes are for yeast and time. I love tasting a beer over the course of its tenure and enjoy tracing the yeast--specifically in sour beers--muscle everything else out of the way. All those malt and hop flavors give way to other things. Sure, everything else is still contributing, but yeast is the host with the most.

  12. I like this debate, too... Ignoring unhopped beers, you NEED all four ingredients to make beer but each different beer (style) has its own unique dependence on the combination of ingredients.

    The way I like to describe the creation of a beer is with a statue analogy (bear with me)...

    The rough outline of the statue is the equivalent of the mix of malt and water - this is where you've created the basic shape and the material: is it make of wood, marble, old tin cans, and so on. And what is the basic shape - lion, strong man, tree, etc. In beer terms, you've determined the colour, texture and largely the alcohol content.

    The addition of hops and yeast give the statue (and beer) the definition. Some will make it sharply defined while others will keep a focus on the material beneath (the difference between a hoppy beer and a malty beer).

    For the sake of simplicity, take a 90/10 mix of pale malt and roasted barley and aim for 5% ABV. Split in to three tanks. In one use English yeast and English hops and you've got a stout; in another take lager yeast (plus an extra few weeks) and German hops and it's a schwarzbier; in the other use American ale yeast and C-hops and it's a Black Ale.

    Each style has its own unique needs in terms of the ingredients: the stout wants to have more malt, the yeast and the element of time takes over in the lager (I think so, anyway) and the hops push forward in the Black Ale. The water has to be individually appropriate for each.

    I guess it's about synergy and the overall needs of the beer. Everything has to work together, regardless of whether one ingredient is more dominant than another.

    If you were to make me choose one thing, however, I think I'd pick 'time'. It's the 'ingredient' that's rarely mentioned but it's so important. Each beer has an appropriate amount of time to be made so that it's at its best. You can take the finest ingredients in the world but if you want to sell your lager a few days after fermentation started then it's just not going to be delicious. Likewise, I drink far too many beers with faults like diacetyl and acetaldehyde which a few extra days (and care) would clear up.

  13. It seems to me the question is a lot like a question about women: which is the most important part? Face? Breasts? Legs?

    So hard to decide.