What's in My Beer? Learn What Goes Into Making Your Brew
Florida Agriculture Literacy Day was this week and, if you're like us, everything we read about makes us think of beer. So what better time to learn a little bit about it? After all, it's made of things you grow in nature, and possibly your backyard.
Bill Manley, of Sierra Nevada brewing, lays it out straight. "[Beer] is an agricultural product that contains things of the earth that are a little bit different every year."
Like the tomatoes in your garden or the sugar fields near Lake Okeechobee, beer essentially stems from the ground. Everything about it is an organic product; it's food.
But what is it really? To put it simply, it's made of four things: water, malt, hops, and yeast.
The ultimate original gangster of agriculture. We couldn't live without it, let alone grow or cook with it. Since it's a huge majority of your beer, it's one of the most important, and sometimes overlooked, aspects of the product. If you've battled with shower scale, you know there's stuff in that water. Some of it is good, some bad. But most brewers will try to start off with a fresh slate; filtering it and treating it with reverse osmosis.
There are some beer styles, however, that will actually taste better with certain minerals in the water. Porters, for example, can benefit from carbonate, of which some brewers add in calcium carbonate, or chalk. When the Brits were making their porters, they had chalky water, and the style developed from there.
Floridians are blessed with a fantastic aquifer -- as long as we don't wreck it -- and have readily available fresh water to use.
You see 'malt beverage' on the side of bottles, but what does that even mean anyways? What is 'malt'? Well, 'malting' is the process of germinating and then drying out a grain, and the most commonly used one is malted barley. Barley is one of the oldest domesticated grasses, and happens to be the grain that is best suited to making a fermented beverage. It's no wonder then that the Egyptians and early Mesopotamian civilizations grew their borders to encompass barley producing regions. Some might say that growing barley is what caused man to finally settle down and stop leading the nomadic life.
Around here, it's way too hot to grow barley. The plant disdains the acidic and sandy soil of the state as well. So brewers have to import from the barley producing states. Have no fear, though, as some eco-conscious breweries will recycle their (non-alcoholic) spent grains to local farms, which the animals eat up like a delicious sweet porridge.
The traditional bittering and aroma agent of almost every modern beer style, hops are a herbaceous climbing plant which brewers utilize the female flower to produce beer.
The flowers contain acids called alpha and beta. These produce the majority of the bitterness and aroma flavor compounds, respectively. Alpha acids have an amazing anti-bacterial property, making hops especially helpful in preserving a brew.
The old 'noble hops' of Europe (Hallertau, Tettnanger, Spalt, and Saaz) are a staple of many standard Old World beer styles, like Pilsners, Marzens and Dunkels. Us Americans will generally utilize Pacific Northwest hops like Cascade hops, Columbus, Centennial, and Willamette. But beer makers aren't limited to these, no no! Agricultural universities are constantly creating new varieties to use, focusing on specific tastes and aromas.
Unfortunately, like cereal grains, the hop plant doesn't do well down in our crazy sub-tropical hardiness zone. Some have had success with North American varieties in the northern part of the state, where climate is a little more conducive to growth, but overall, brewer's best bet is to get it from the best growing areas.
It's not just for bread. It's a microorganism of the kingdom fungi that turns sugary wort (unfermented beer) into something that is worthy of drinking. They're what produce ethanol, the component that'll give you the desired buzz.
Brewers yeast will fall into two categories: top fermenting and bottom fermenting. These, again, are pretty straight forward. Some do their business up top, others are power bottoms. Lagers are made by power bottoms. Ales like it up top. To each their own.
They can be harvested and cultured, and many breweries will produce their own house strain to their exact needs. Most varieties will add some extra character to a beer. Belgian-styled ales are known to get banana and cloves aromas from their yeasts, and some styles will get sour notes. Wild yeasts (from yeast naturally occurring in the air) are particularly used in Lambics.
Some beer styles, and experimental brewers, will call for an addition of unique ingredients, and Florida has a knack for some interesting agricultural products. Known worldwide as a grower of oranges, one of the byproducts of those huge orange groves is the amount of orange blossom honey that gets made. Beers such as Orange Blossom Pilsner from OBP Brewing in Orlando and Orange Blossom Barleywine from Green Room Brewing in Jacksonville Beach use the stuff to create honey-infused beers.
Orange peel is also popular, and tropical fruits such as papaya and mango have the capability of producing some interesting flavors. Homebrewers have experimented with these fruits, and some enterprising commercial brewers have too. Australia's Matso's Broome Brewey puts out a Mango Beer, Swamp Head Brewery in Gainsville puts out a Papaya Big Nose IPA, and perennial experimenters Cigar City in Tampa have done a Papaya-flavored Jai Alai IPA.
As an agricultural product, beer is highly dependant on what goes into it. The better ingredients, the better beer. Now that you know a little bit more about beer, it's time to put your knowledge to the test: raise up a pint, and enjoy what you've just learned!
Beer things in your Twitter feed - Follow me @DougFairall
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Find out about upcoming events and special offers happening in the South Florida dining scene.