This is my favorite question because it gives me the opportunity to talk about Brewing techniques, recipe writing and ingredients all at once. Given enough time, I can cover every aspect of brewing with this one simple question. I usually don’t, though, and I won’t here either, so have no fear.
For these blog posts, let’s focus on the main 4 ingredients in beer as traditionally accepted, and see where it goes. First, let’s get on the same page about what makes a fermented beverage a beer:
Technically, beer is any fermented beverage which derives most of its sugar from cereal grain of any type. Rice, Corn, Wheat, Oats, Rye, Spelt, Sorghum all count and are used in varying degrees of importance in many different styles of beer all over the world. The undisputed King of cereal grains for brewing, according to all brewers, is Barley.
Now we’ll talk about the ingredient which is, by volume, the most important raw material in brewing, Malted barley:
Barley: Barley is the perfect grain for Brewing, and many anthropologist and agricultural historians have suggested that barley may have first been cultivated to make beer only. We know that Sumerians and other cultures in and around the Levant and “Fertile Crescent” were making dried, hard barley loaves called “Bappir”, which they would store and then soak to create a precursor to beer. This was more than 5,000 years ago, and we know that Barley has been cultivated for at least 10,000 years.
The main reason why Barley is still the king of grains for brewers is because it naturally contains almost everything needed to make beer: high starch content, the enzymes needed to convert the starch to sugar, and proteins to aid in yeast health. Barley’s husks are even perfectly suited to act as a filter during the brewing process – which is crucial, as anyone who has ever had their brewing system gummed up with wheat or rye can tell you.
Malt: Malting grain is a process by which any cereal grain is allowed to germinate (grow with the energy contained within the starchy endosperm in the center of each grain). The goal of the Maltster ( that’s really what they’re called) is to stop the growth of the seed at just the right time so that most of the starch in the seed is converted to sugar, which brewers extract and give to yeast, which then creates alcohol.
In the malting process, the seeds are given a moist, warm environment where tiny filaments, called rootlets, and what would be the stem of the plant, the acrospire, are allowed to grow just a bit. This allows the seed the right environment to convert starch to sugar, using its own natural enzymatic power (diastatic). The seed is converting starch to sugar because, just like for you and me, sugar is a more readily available source of energy than more complex carbohydrates. The plant uses this store of energy to break out of the ground, where photosynthesis takes over and the plant is able to derive energy from its environment. In the case of malting, the spike shaped acrospire is allowed to grow about ¾ of the way up the ridge in the back of the grain.
Of course, there are many more scientific ways to analyze the grain’s readiness to stop growth but, year in and year out, regardless of the variety of barley, an acrospire growth of ¾ the length of the seed is about perfect for malting barley. After this, the seeds are dried out at relatively low temperatures (withered) and then roasted (kilned) to varying degrees and for varying reasons (more about that in another post).
There is no real proof that ancient cultures preformed the process of malting with their ancient grains, but they probably did. Malted grain is at the center of traditional, European based brewing. There are indigenous “beers” which do not use Malted grain and are still brewed today; South American “Chicha” beer comes to mind. But even Chicha undergoes a similar enzymatic breakdown of starch to sugar before it becomes the sugar source for the kind of beer it creates. Traditionally, Women Brewers would crush corn and then chew it before expectorating into the brewing vat. It sounds pretty gross to me, but the enzymes in their saliva broke down the complex starches in the corn and made sugar, which wild yeast would ferment into alcohol. Anything for a buzz, I guess.
I’ll delve more into ingredients and process as we post more, but please forward any questions to email@example.com