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Beer Basics


Beer is one of the world’s oldest beverages, with the history of beer dating back to the 6th millennium BC. The earliest Sumerian writings contain references to beer. A prayer to the goddess Ninkasi known as “The Hymn to Ninkasi” serves as both a prayer as well as a method of remembering the recipe for beer.
Grain would only last so long, but grain in liquid form as beer lasted much longer.

Malt, water, yeast and hops are the four main ingredients for making beer. These ingredients, mixed in the right proportions under the proper conditions, will produce beer. Essentially, it can be defined as a brewed and fermented alcoholic beverage made from malted grains and flavored with hops.



Malt is simply germinated grain. The process of malting begins by soaking the grain in water and then keeping it in the correct conditions until it germinates. It is then placed in a kiln where it is dried and sometimes roasted.

The amount of heat and length of time the malt is roasted determines the color and sweetness of the final product. Some typical types of malt include pale, caramel, crystal, roasted, chocolate and black malt. As the names suggest, malt colors range from a light pale to black. Lightly roasted malts produce the highest amount of fermentable sugars. Chocolate or black malts are kilned until much of the sugar is caramelized, leaving less fermentable sugars and creating their distinct colors.
Barley is the grain that is malted for the beer we know since barley contains the enzymes needed to convert the starches into sugars during the mash. Wheat and corn do not have these enzymes.

Types of Malt

Base malts usually account for a large percent of the total grain bill, with darker-colored specialty malts accounting for up to 25% of the grain bill. Base malts and, to some extent, light-colored specialty malts provide most of the enzymatic power to convert starches into fermentable sugars. The base malts also provide most of the fermentable sugar for the yeast to convert to alcohol.

Light-colored specialty malts are kilned at higher temperatures than base malts and impart a deeper color and a fuller malt flavor and aroma to the finished beer along with some toasty and biscuty notes. Enzyme levels are lower than for base malts. Victory, Vienna and Munich malts are examples of light-colored specialty malts.

Crystal or Caramel malt is made from stewing the wet malt before drying causing the starches to convert to sugars and caramelize. The roasting temperature determines the depth of the color and the degree of caramel flavor. Caramelized malts come in a wide range of colors, from light to very dark amber, and with flavors ranging from a mild sweet caramel to caramel/burnt sugar. It is primarily known for its color control but can also provide body, mouthfeel, and some sweetness.

Dark-colored malts have little or no enzyme activity because of high-temperature kilning or roasting. These malts are used in relatively smaller amounts than light-colored specialty malts because of their strong nutty and roasted flavors and dark colors.  Darker malts are an essential ingredient in porters and stouts and can be used in mild ales, brown ales, and old ales, and can be incorporated into the grist of dark lagers.  Examples are Chocolate Malt and Black Malt.



Water is another essential ingredient for making beer. It may seem to be the least important of the four main ingredients, but this is not the case. Water forms 85-90% of the finished beer and is used in every step of the brewing process. Traditionally, most major brewing centers worldwide developed because they had ready access to quality sources of water.  This is not the case today, as it is possible to chemically treat water to remove or add minerals from different water sources. This ability to control the quantity of minerals is important because water that is suitable for making ales isn’t necessarily appropriate for lagers.



Hops are the essential ingredient for imparting bitterness and aromas to balance the flavor of beer. Without hops to balance the flavors, beer would simply be a sweet grain juice. A vine-like climbing plant with cone-shaped blossoms, the hop is a member of the same family as cannabis.  Hops contain resins and essential oils which account for the bitterness and dryness and contain tannins that act as a natural preservative.  The fuller the beer, the higher the bitterness required to balance the sweetness of the malt.  Since different hops have different bitterness/aroma potential, brewers often use more than one type of hop in the brewing process but single hop beers are also brewed to showcase the characteristics of a single variety of hop.

Most hops are turned into pellets as they stay fresh longer than whole flower hops and are easier to measure and store.  Right after the hop harvest in the fall, Wet Hop beers are made by using undried and freshly picked hops.

Hop Varieties

American hops are grown in the Pacific Northwest and are known for their citrus, floral and piney aromas and flavors.  Cascade is the classic hop of this type is often used in highly hopped West Coast ales that have a citrus-floral hop character like Sierra Nevada Pale Ale.  Some other varieties are Centennial (Bell’s Two Hearted), Chinnok, Amarillo, and Simcoe.

Noble hops are grow in specific regions in Central Europe. They have a clean, sharp and spicy aroma and flavor profile and are often used in brewing lager beers and ales.  The five noble hops are Tettnanger, Hallertauer Mittelfrueh, Spalter, Saaz, and Hersbrucker.  Samuel Adams Noble Pils uses all five varieties.

English hops are typically earthy, woody and herbal and are used in classic English ales.  Common varieties are Goldings and Fuggles.



Yeast are single-celled microorganisms classified as fungi and are responsible for converting fermentable sugars into alcohol and other byproducts like carbon dioxide. There are literally hundreds of varieties and strains of yeast.  There are two basic types of beer yeast: ale yeast and lager yeast.

Ale yeast strains are best used at temperatures ranging from 60 to 75°F. Ale yeasts are top-fermenting yeasts since they rise to the surface during fermentation process. Fermentation by ale yeasts at these relatively warmer temperatures produces a beer high in fruity esters, which many regard as a distinctive character of ale beers.

Lager yeast strains are best used at temperatures ranging from 45 to 58°F. A secondary fermentation slowly falling to a temp as low as 33°F allows for a slow reduction of any remaining fermentable sugars giving the beer a cleaner and smoother flavor.  Lager yeasts fall to the bottom thus are bottom-fermenting.


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