What is beer?

So what is beer? We give a crash course and short history of beer.


If it seems overwhelming to peruse the shelves at your local craft beer store, there's a very good reason for that. According to the Brewers Association, there are currently 152 varieties of beer. Not brands – varieties.

And while a lot of that can be attributed to the booming popularity of craft beer over the last few decades, it turns out that beer is actually one of the oldest prepared beverages. In fact, records of beer production date back to Iraq and Egypt nearly 5,000 years ago when it was traded as payment and nutrition for laborers. But historians believe initial production started around 9500 BC when grains first appeared as food crops.

For the most part, beer has retained the same four ingredients:

  • Malt
  • Water
  • Yeast
  • Hops (first introduced in the 9th century AD)

Malted grain is harvested then carefully dried and allowed to begin the growth process before being stopped by heating in a kiln. This process allows the grain to develop various enzymes which, when crushed and boiled, are very appealing to yeast organisms.

The yeast will eat all the enzymes and sugars from the malt and, in turn, produce alcohol and some carbonation as a byproduct. It are those same byproducts that help bread rise but end up being released to the air during the bread making process.

Hops are a green, flowering plant that offer up a bitter flavor in modern beers, but were once added to beer for their natural preservative production. Refrigeration and canning have helped eliminate the need for using hops as a preservative, but consumers have grown accustomed to their flavor. These are added during the cooking process for a more subtle flavor, but are sometimes added after fermentation to give a stronger flavor and aroma.

Within these four ingredients, there is a wide array of subtleties and variances that can change the beer from one recipe to the next. Everything from which grain is used, to the 120+ varieties of hops will affect the flavor.

In fact, larger breweries, like Flying Dog, have labs within the brewery to cultivate and curate yeast strains that will tweak the flavor of the beer as part of a proprietary recipe.

Seems extreme, right? Keep reading.

In an effort to create a consistent product, Anheuser-Busch breweries will even taste water like you would taste fine wine – including the water being used to rinse the brewing equipment. Their goal is to find any off-flavors that would change the science, and taste, of their beer.

The key takeaway is that brewing beer really is a big chemistry experiment and, at the end of the day, it's a science we can all appreciate.


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