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The Main 4 Beer Ingredients: Which Ingredient Is The Most Important?

Sometimes it seems overwhelming when you walk down the beer aisle of your favorite liquor store and see the enormous variety of beer choices.

Lagers, IPAs, Stouts, Porters, Wheat Beer, Fruit Beers, Lambics, Pale Ales, Pilsners, and the list goes on and on and on.  But out of the hundreds of available beer selections, most every type and style of beer have one thing in common.

They are only 4 main ingredients in every beer.

  • Water
  • Grain
  • Hops
  • Yeast
 
Yes there can be additional ingredients like different spices and fruits to achieve a specific beer profile, but they all use the four ingredients for the base of each beer.

Table of Contents

Water

It may seem obvious, but most of the beer that you drink is water. Over 90% of your favorite brew is made of good old-fashioned H2O – the base that all of the other ingredients thrive within.  Bad water usuallymeans bad beer too.

For most beer drinkers, the type of water used during brewing is usually even thought about.  But for the mega breweries, as well as a homebrewer, the water used can make all the difference in the taste and quality of the beer.

Not all tap water is the same.  Some water is considered “hard or soft”, or heavily chlorinated, or it might contain many different minerals which can drastically affect the flavor of the beer.

A massive challenge for brewers is optimizing the pH level of the water. The pH level dictates the acidity or the alkaline nature of the water, and can range between pH1 and pH14.  For many commercial brewers, a pH level of between 5.2 and 5.5 is used to ensure that their beer consistently tastes as it should.

If you are a homebrewer that has had off-flavors that you can’t pinpoint, it might be wise to get a water test done.  Many water companies and retailers can do this for free.

Grains

A brewer always wants to create the perfect flavor and color profile for his beer. A key facet of this is the grains used during the brewing process. The grains that are used enhances the smell, the color, and mouth feel of a beer.

Barley is an enzyme-rich grain, and is the most common grain used in the making of beer. But before it can be used, it must go through the “malting” stage. Malting is a germination process which is used for converting the grain, or barley to malt.

This malting process is what is needed to convert the starchy grains into a simple sugar which will be needed to produce alcohol and make beer.

Barley for beer making

As mentioned above, barley is the most common grain choice for brewers, but other types of grains can be used as well:

  • Wheat
  • Corn
  • Oats
  • Rye

Hops

Hops are the cone-shaped flowers of the hop plant, humulus lupulus, and are used during the brewing of beer, while enhancing the beer in four different ways.

  • Bitterness
  • Flavor
  • Aroma
  • Stability
hops for making beer

The Role Of Hops In Your Beer

Can you brew beer without using hops?  Technically yes, but why would you want to?

As of today, there are hundreds of hop varieties available to a brewer to help enhance their beer creations. Hops are needed to offset the sweetness from the malted barley.  Without hop additions, you would basically have almost an undrinkable sweet, boring, and flat tasting beer.

There are several reasons why brewers use hops in the beer brewing process:

  • Bitterness
  • Flavor
  • Aroma

Bittering

The use of hops during brewing is directly related to the bitterness or better known as “hoppiness” to your beer.  Traditionally the bittering hops” are added at the start of the boil at the 60 minute mark.

Big fancy words here, but when hops are added to the boiling wort, the alpha acids are thermally isomerized into iso-alpha acid which gives finished beer its distinct bitterness characteristic.

The bitterness of a beer is rated in International Bitter Units, or IBUs.  Naturally the higher IBU number, the more bitter the beer will be.  Many beers like an easy cream ale can have a 10 -16 IBU or lower, where a really hoppy double black IPA can be in the high 80s.

If you are a fan of really hoppy beers, have a look at some of the best IPAs here.

Flavor

When using the hops for flavor, the hops are most often added to the wort during the last 15 to 20 minutes of the boil, instead of the beginning.

The high heat and long boil will kill the essential oils in the hops, which are needed to add flavor to the beer.

Aroma

As the name suggests, specific hops are chosen because of its scent-laden properties, and can smell fruity, citrusy, spicy, earthy, or floral, depending on the hop that is selected.

Although adding hops during the last 15 minutes of the boil will preserve the flavor profile of the hop, you will still lose the aroma.  To extract the aromas from the hops, these are usually added with no more than 5 minutes left in the boil.

For many styles of beers like pale ales and IPAs, the hops are not boiled at all.  Most brewers will add the hops to the beer after primary fermentation has completed.  This is called “dry-hopping”

Yeast

Yeast is a living single-cell microorganism, and needed to complete the fermentation process when making beer.

The yeast metabolizes, or eats, the sugars that are present within the malted barley and converts it into carbon dioxide and alcohol.

In order for the yeast to do its job of creating alcohol, the yeast must be “pitched” in the wort at the correct temperature, and then must remain at the proper light and temperature conditions until fermentation is complete.

If the temperature is too hot, the beer can develop off-flavors like a real strong not-so-good alcohol flavor.  If it is too cold, the yeast will go dormant and basically fall asleep.

Ale Yeast - Top Fermentation

Ale yeast likes to work its magic in a warmer environment of 60° to 75°F to increase the speed at which it does its job.  Working faster will create a full-bodied and a more flavorful beer.

Although the yeast works its way throughout the beer, it will eventually rise to the top.

Lager Yeast - Bottom Fermentation

Bottom fermented yeasts for lagers and pilsners are suited to very low temperatures of 40° to 50°F, and work at the bottom of a fermentation tank, hence the name.

Fermenting at a lower temperature slows down the pace at which the yeast works, and by doing this, it will produce a crisp and clean flavor profile of the beer.

To get a better understanding of these two beer styles and the beer “family tree”, take a look at this Ale vs Lager post, and see what makes them different from each other.

Is There a Most Important Ingredient In Beer?

So is there a most important ingredient in beer?  There really isn’t. All four of the basic beer contents each have their own role during the beer brewing process, and when used together, can make so many delicious beers.

You can’t brew beer without water, since water makes up about 90% of the beer. Grains like barley, provide specific characteristics of the beer, and provide the sugars needed for fermentation.  Yeast is needed to convert the sugars to alcohol. And finally, without hops, your beer would lack bitterness, flavor, and aroma.

Final Say

Although there are hundreds of beers form all over the world to choose from, water, grains, hops, and yeast are the four main ingredients in every commercial brewery and home brewer.

The art of brewing beer can depend on a lot more than these core ingredients. Adding spices and fruits, along with knowledge and experience are crucial to craft beers with stunning mouth feels, textures, aromas, and flavors.

The real passion comes in how a brewer utilizes these ingredients to create highly palatable and flavorful ales and lagers.

If you are ready to create your own craft beer and start brewing your own beer, take a look at our guide to homebrewing here.

Happy Brewing!

Todd
Todd

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