Everything you need to know about beer
Whet your appetite with our condensed guide to beer, brewing and serving the perfect pint.
You probably won’t be surprised to learn that beer has been around for a long time. In fact, it’s one of the oldest drinks made by humans, dating back to ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia.
Scientists have dated traces of beer made from barley in pottery unearthed in modern-day Iran from 3,500–3,100 BCE. The oldest known beer recipe is detailed in a 3,900-year-old Sumerian poem written in honour of Ninkasi, the goddess of beer.
Before the Industrial Revolution, beer was brewed and sold domestically (primarily by women). By the 19th century, most brewing had shifted from artisanal to industrial production. Thanks to the development of better technology, such as hydrometers and thermometers, it was possible to be more consistent with brewing.
Along the way, beer has played an important role in the development of civilised society. It’s central to many spiritual ceremonies, rituals and traditions that we still uphold today.
From ancient Mesopotamia to the 21st century, beer has come a long way. Beer is now the world’s most popular alcoholic drink (and the third most popular drink after water and tea).
Beer’s popularity remains constant. According to Statista, about 1.91 billion hectoliters of beer was brewed globally in 2019 .
Ingredients of Beer
Beer is made from four base ingredients: malt, hops, yeast and water.
Each of these brings something different to the final product, so it’s helpful to understand how they’re used in the brewing process.
Malted barley is the most popular grain used in brewing. That’s because it’s filled with starch and enzymes, both essential to fermentation. Malted barley has been soaked in water and allowed to germinate, which tricks the enzymes into converting the grain’s starches into sugars. These sugars are then turned into alcohol by yeast.
Hops can provide three different characteristics to beer: aroma, bitterness and flavour. Their role will depend on what stage of brewing they’re added and how long they’re left to boil. The region where the hops are grown play a considerable part in their aroma and flavour profile. For example, US hops are renowned for their citrus, pine and grapefruit notes, whereas UK hops are known for being more earthy and herbal.
There are two main types of brewing yeast: ale and lager yeast. Ale yeast is called ‘top-fermenting’ because it stays at the top of the fermentation tank, preferring higher fermentation temperatures (12.8°C and above).
Lager yeast is ‘bottom-fermenting’, preferring cool fermentation temperatures (4.4–7.2°C) and sinking to the bottom of the tank. Ale yeast imparts fruiter flavours, and lager yeast produces beer with a cleaner finish.
Water makes up 90% of beer, making it arguably the most important ingredient in brewing! Brewers can alter water’s PH levels to change its alkalinity and taste, giving them a blank slate to work with, even if they’re using hard water in cities like London. Water can taste differently because of the minerals present in a local supply.
The Process of Brewing
Brewing is the process of turning grain (usually malted barley) into beer.
Malted barley is added to hot water (brewers call this ‘hot liquor’) inside the mash tun (this process is called ‘mashing in’), which provides fermentable sugars that convert into alcohol during fermentation. This mixture of barley and hot water is called the mash, which at this stage resembles porridge.
The mash is then sparged (sprinkled with water and raked), where as much of the sugary, sweet fermentable ‘wort’ is removed from the grain. The wort is run off into the kettle for the next step.
Once in the brew kettle, the wort is boiled and hops are added. There are several stages of hop additions, including the bittering addition and the ‘late hop’ addition. The late hop addition enhances aroma and captures the essential oils from the hops.
The liquid is cooled down and transferred through a heat exchanger into a fermenting vessel. Here the yeast is pitched to begin the fermentation process.
‘Pitching’ is just adding yeast to the wort. It’s important to note here that brewers make wort, not beer—it’s the yeast that’s responsible for alcohol! Different yeasts might be used, including the top-fermenting ale yeast and the bottom-fermenting lager yeast. You can read more about these below.
The next period is called fermentation. The yeast will metabolise sugars, producing carbon dioxide and alcohol as it does. When this process is finished, the beer is cooled down again and allowed to sit in the fermenter tank for as many weeks as needed for the type of beer, allowing it to develop its rounded flavour.
Hops can be added again to the wort after fermentation has begun in a process known as ‘dry hopping’. As the hops are not boiled at this stage, the aromas and flavours from the hop oils are further accentuated. The beer benefits from the aroma and flavour characteristics of the hops added without additional bitterness. Dry hopping is very common in craft beers, making beer as aromatic and punchy as possible.
What’s the Difference between Ales and Lagers?
There are two different categories of beer: ale and lager. But what’s the difference between them? It all comes down to yeast.
Ales typically ferment at warmer temperatures for a shorter amount of time; ale yeast is top-fermenting and gives fruity aroma and flavour characteristics to the beer.
Meanwhile, lagers are known for being clean and crisp. Lager yeast is bottom-fermenting and generally requires cooler temperatures. They are slower acting than ale yeast strains and therefore take longer to ferment than ales.
It’s believed that there are over 100 styles of beer in the world today. Beer styles can be specific to countries or regions. Countries like Belgium and Germany are celebrated for their brewing traditions and historical styles.
In Germany, the Bavarian Purity laws (known as the Renheitsgebot) have been in place since 1487 and dictate that the only ingredients used in beer are barley, water and hops (the role of yeast in fermentation was only discovered by Louis Pasteur in 1857). As a consequence, beers from this region were primarily lagers (such as pilsners) as they were not allowed to use wheat in brewing. Examples of this Bavarian lager style include Fourpure Lager and Magic Rock Brewing’s Magic Lager.
In other areas of Germany unaffected by the purity laws, wheat beers were developed and enjoyed (styles such as hefeweizen). These days, the laws have been relaxed, but they have had a lingering impact on brewing traditions.
Belgium has a rich history that goes back to the middle ages. Although now famed for their Trappist beers, brewed by monks to raise money for their monasteries, these were actually an invention of the 20th century! Belgian beers usually contain wheat and include styles like witbier. New Belgium Brewing’s Fat Tire is an example of a Belgian-inspired beer.
There is also a rich tapestry of beers brewed across the Belgian landscape, from saison beers for farmhands, which are usually made with wheat, lower strength (ABV) and were safer to drink than water at the time. Around the Seine Valley, wild yeasts and bacteria are encouraged to fall into beer that is left to cool in uncovered troughs called ‘coolships’, which give a variety of unusual flavours from ‘horse blanket’ to bacon. This style, called lambic, is revered by beer connoisseurs! Similar complex sour beers include Double Barrel Fructiferous from Magic Rock Brewing’s sour barrel ageing programme.
The US craft beer scene has been at the core of the global craft beer movement. Many people believe it all began when Fritz Maytag bought Anchor Brewing in 1965. The brewery had been around since 1896, brewing a historical beer style called steam beer. Maytag rescued the brewery and soon drinkers were interested in this beer again. This coincided with a time where Americans were travelling abroad and trying beer from European countries such as Belgium and Germany. They enjoyed them so much that they came back to the US, wanting to recreate them.
Thanks to Prohibition laws, homebrewing was illegal in the US until 1978 (even later for some states), but that didn’t stop excited beer drinkers from having a crack at it. And some were very good at brewing, eventually starting their own small breweries. By the 1990s, hundreds of new breweries had appeared in the US and the craft beer scene grew from there. This includes New Belgium Brewing.
The excitement, innovation and growth of the craft beer industry in the US has since been an inspiration to many breweries across the globe, including Australia, with Little Creatures, and the UK with breweries like Fourpure and Magic Rock Brewing.
Serving Beer and Glassware
Certain styles of craft beer should be served in glassware that is specific to the qualities of the beer. Glassware can enhance aromas, flavours and help with head retention. You can read our guide on glassware here.
The most important thing to note about glassware is that you must ensure that your glass is ‘beer clean’, meaning that you aren’t serving craft beer drinkers glasses that are visibly dirty. You’ve probably seen this at the pub when you notice a cluster of bubbles hanging to the side of your glass. This means that the glass isn’t clean and can irritate drinkers, especially when they’ve paid for a more expensive beer!