Every time someone opens a beer, whether it’s an old favorite or something new, the right taste is essential. So how can brewers create such an astonishingly wide variety of flavors, and keep each brew consistent?
Six versatile ingredients define the flavor of beer, and each has an important role.
Have you ever had tap water while on vacation and thought it tasted funny—or thought it tasted great? The mix of minerals that creates those variations in local water also sets the foundation for a beer's flavors. And if the local water's flavor doesn't fit the brewer's hoppy vision, it can be filtered to remove minerals that will create unwanted flavors.
Whether it's made of wheat or barley, malt is the main component of beer. In the malting process, grains are made to sprout, and then dried to keep them from growing, which turns some of their starches into sugar for fermentation. The type of grain and amount of roasting can affect a beer's thickness and fullness, taste, color, and how much sugar is ready to be turned into alcohol.
Hops come in many varieties, and they're the source of a group of chemicals called alpha acids that give beer its signature bitterness. A bitter beer like an IPA (India pale ale) has loads of hops in it, sometimes added at multiple parts of the process, while something less intense like a lager has fewer. But the variety of hops also makes a difference, in much the same way that the variety of grape affects the flavor of wine.
Yeast, the same microorganism that makes bread dough rise, is also responsible for turning some of the grain's calories into alcohol, and those carbon dioxide bubbles. The type of yeast used makes a huge difference because yeast digests some chemicals and creates others. That difference can be as subtle as a slightly shifted aftertaste, or so large it creates an entire sub-category, as with sour beers.
Connoisseurs might describe a beer's flavor as chocolatey, or with a hint of citrus — and sometimes, they're speaking literally. Many beers just stick to the four main ingredients (water, malt, hops and yeast), but there is a wide variety of other flavors that brewers add, from fruits and nuts to coffee and chocolate, to further expand the variety of flavors for the adventurous type (or those who like chocolate more than beer). Flavors can be mixed in after fermentation for a purer, more recognizable taste, or beforehand, for a unique twist.
OK, so this might not be an ingredient, but the equipment used to make beer is just as important. Stainless steel vats are commonly used for brewing because they have a minimal effect on the flavor, and won't be damaged over time by the processes happening inside it. But many beers are filtered to make them brilliant instead of cloudy, changing the way they look in your glass and feel in your mouth. Others are aged in bourbon or wine barrels to add those distinctive flavors. And almost all beers are stored in dark bottles to prevent sunlight from oxidizing the beer, or "skunking" it.
So whether sipping a favorite or trying out a new craft brew, beer lovers have complex chemistry to thank for the taste they so enjoy.