THE NATURE OF BEER
Before we get into the story behind Stone Brewing Co. and fun facts about all of our beers, let’s take a look at beer as a whole: what it is, how it’s made, and its history. Put on your safety glasses and lab coat. (Simple reading glasses or a proverbial thinking cap would be acceptable alternatives.) At times, this discussion is a bit technical and the tone is somewhat serious, but it’s good information, damn it! And, in the interest of making this a complete guide to beer, we figured it best to start this epic tome, well, at the start with the simplest of questions: what is beer? WHAT IS BEER? (NOT A STUPID QUESTION!)
Beer is an alcoholic beverage that is most typically made with four basic ingredients: malted barley, hops, water, and yeast. You may wonder how so many different beers can be made using just these four ingredients. Let’s consult Stone’s head brewer Mitch Steele and ask him to explain the role that each of these ingredients plays in the final brew. MALTED BARLEY
“As the brewing saying goes, ‘Malt is the soul of beer.’ It provides the color, the body, the sweetness, and, perhaps most importantly, balances the flavor of our hops. (Not to mention that without malt, there would be no sugar for the yeast to ferment!) A good-quality malt is crucial to brewing good beer. We talk a lot about the ‘backbone’ of our beer being the malt component. A good malt blend, with the right (balanced) amount of flavor, sweetness, and body, provides the foundation for every one of our beers.” --MITCH It’s My Own Damn Malt
Hordeum vulgare, or barley to you and me, is the fourth most cultivated cereal grain in the world. It’s used around the globe for making breads, soups, main courses, and salads, not to mention being a key ingredient in livestock feed. However, before it can be used to produce beer, it must undergo a simple process called malting, which involves soaking the grain until it begins to germinate, or sprout, releasing enzymes that begin to convert the starches in the barley into smaller-chain sugars--sugars that yeast can convert into alcohol and carbon dioxide. You’re Not the Only One Getting Toasted
Okay, so you’ve got a ton of barley soaking in water, with enzymatic reactions abounding, but you’ve got to put a stop to the fun eventually. Once the sprout, or acrospire, has grown to 75 to 100 percent of the length of the grain, the barley is said to be fully modified. At this point, it’s quickly kiln-dried with hot air, which halts the starch-to-sugar conversions, stops the sprout from developing into a full-on seedling ready to plant in the ground, and produces dried kernels of malted barley.
Lighter and darker styles of malt are produced by variations in the temperature at which the malt is dried and the length of time it’s heated. Lighter malts with higher levels of fermentable sugars and more enzymatic activity (pale malt and pilsner malt being two of the most common) are referred to as base malts and make up the majority of the grain bill called for in any given brew. Other varieties, called specialty malts, are used more for flavor than yeast fuel.
Lighter roasts in which the sugars in the kernel have begun to crystallize, such as crystal and Vienna malts, often impart notes of caramel, biscuits, toffee, and bread, among others. Further roasting at higher temperatures produces darker malts, such as chocolate malt or black malt, which, added sparingly, can contribute robust flavors similar to coffee and chocolate, adding complexity and a touch of roasty bitterness.
The brewer’s selection of malts is the keystone for any quality beer, as it affects not just the flavor of the beer, but also the aroma, the color, and the all-so-important mouthfeel. The following table outlines some of the malt varieties most commonly used in craft brewing, along with all of the varieties called for in the homebrew recipes later in the book. Let’s Get Cereal
Other cereal grains can also be used to make beer, though barley typically makes up the majority of the base with other grains added in smaller amounts. Wheat, rye, and oats find their way into some brews to contribute flavor and mouthfeel. The megabrewers use a lot of corn and rice to create their fizzy yellow stuff, since neither grain contributes any real discernable flavor, and they cost a fraction of what barley does. Bonus! (Well, for them at least. What they gain in cost savings, we lose in taste.) HOPS
“Hops are often called the spice of beer, as they contribute bitterness, flavor, and aroma to beer. There are literally hundreds of different varieties of hops available to brewers, and each can contribute unique flavors, aromas, and bitterness. Several of our beers are identified with a particular variety of hops. For example, Stone IPA is most identified with Centennial hops, one of our favorites. A signature hop flavor is what craft beer lovers often seek when they try new beers.
I get really excited when we have the opportunity to use a variety of hops that we haven’t used before. We’ve had some fun with one-time brewing projects using varieties such as Nelson Sauvin and Motueka (from New Zealand) and Sorachi Ace (from Japan). That said, I’m a huge fan of classic hop varieties, like Saaz and Hallertau, which we don’t have much opportunity to brew with here at Stone, and also East Kent Goldings, which we’ve used a bit in our Stone Old Guardian Barley Wine. I tend to gravitate toward hop varieties that have unique flavor attributes, and we have fun trying to capture those flavors in our beers.” --MITCH Hopping Mad
Hops are the cone-shaped flower of the perennial plant Humulus lupulus. They’re very rich in resins, alpha acids, and oils that produce a veritable treasure chest of flavors and aromas familiar to anyone who has ever tasted an India pale ale or any type of “imperial” fill-in-the-blank. They can impart essences that are often redolent of citrus, spices, flowers, or grass, or they can exhibit piney, earthy, or woodsy notes.
Hops were probably originally added to beer for medicinal purposes, then later were found to extend shelf life, a very important factor historically speaking, since transoceanic voyages by boat lasted months and beer was a vital source of nutrition and clean drinking water, not to mention a way to unwind during a very long and possibly trying voyage. (It would have to be a pretty crazy ride for someone to confuse a manatee or dugong for a mermaid, wouldn’t you think?)
As mentioned, hops add an element of bitterness to beer that balances the sweet profile of the malt. However, since a growing number of imbibers are gravitating toward bigger, bolder, and hoppier beers, the argument can certainly be made that the roles have changed and malt is being used to balance the hops. At least that tends to be how we view it at Stone Brewing. Hour of Flower Power
Hops are traditionally added at three stages during the boiling process that all beers go through. (More on that later.) First added are the bittering hops, which, as their name implies, add the crisp bitterness and graceful bite found in many styles of beer, from pilsners to IPAs. Longer boiling time is critical for bittering hops--typically an hour to an hour and a half, although sometimes longer. During this time, certain otherwise insoluble compounds called alpha acids go through isomerization, a process that makes them soluble so they can lend their unique character to the final brew.
In contrast to the bittering components of hops, their aroma and flavor components are extremely volatile, so they evaporate during a long boil. For this reason, aroma hops and flavoring hops are typically added near the end of the boil: aroma hops in the last ten to twenty minutes, and flavoring hops in the final three minutes), to preserve their full sensory potential.
Another popular method for boosting hop flavor and aroma is dry hopping, a simple procedure that allows the brewer to add hops to the beer after it has cooled and most, if not all, of the fermentation has completed. A nice long soak, ranging anywhere from a few days up to two weeks, allows the beer to draw essential oils from the flowers without fear of losing their amazing volatile aromas, since no heating is taking place.
Wet hopping may sound vaguely related, or reminiscent of some sort of bitter rivalry, but it actually refers to a completely different process. Sometimes called fresh hopping, it’s simply the use of just-picked hop cones, directly from the vine rather than dried. These wet hops can be incorporated at any stage of the brew, including--believe it or not--for dry hopping. (What? Dry wet hopping? Wet dry hopping? Huh?) What’s in a Name?
You’ll sometimes see the varieties of hops used in the craft beer you’re drinking listed on the bottle, but what’s the difference between them, and why should you care? The chart on pages 12 and 13 shows some of the varieties of hops most often used in craft brewing, along with a selection of the varieties called for in the homebrew recipes later in the book. Note that alpha acid content can vary from region to region and season to season; the values listed are approximations. IBUs and You
So, how do you know how hoppy a beer is going to be? Well, beyond the clever names that sometimes warn (or entice) you about the palate wrecking you’re about to receive, some brewers also alert you to the IBU count of their beers. IBUs--International Bittering Units, that is--are a measure of the bitterness in beer, with each IBU equating to 1 milligram of isomerized alpha acids per liter of beer. While IBUs can be used as a rough guide in gauging how bitter a beer will be, it does not take into account how much malt is used in the beer.
Case in point: Stone Imperial Russian Stout runs around 90 IBUs, while Stone IPA hangs out at 77. Even though the Stout has more IBUs, it also uses quite a bit more malt and alcohol to balance them, and thus the apparent bitterness will be less on your palate. Remember, IBUs are a measure of isomerized alpha acids per liter of beer. And the amount of malt you can use per liter ranges greatly between styles. So, while IBUs are accurate at quantifying bittering compounds in said liter of beer, it can’t really predict how our tongues will perceive them. WATER
“The claim can be made that water quality historically drove the development of different beer styles. These days, technically advanced analytical tools allow us to make adjustments to emulate any water profile, so we can brew any style of beer. However, there are two qualities any water used for brewing should have: it must be clean and potable, and it should have a neutral flavor. We taste our water every day to make sure it fits our requirements for brewing.” --MITCH Chemistry?! But This Is a Beer Book!
Of the four basic beer ingredients (malt, hops, water, and yeast), it might seem like water would have the least impact on the flavor of the final product, but ask any brewer and you’ll hear a very different story. Mineral content, pH levels, dissolved solids, and all sorts of other terminology come into play. So even though this is a beer book, we need to discuss some chemistry.
Did you dread high school chemistry class? Maybe you had a terrible teacher who was so deluded by overblown visions of his own self-importance that he didn’t realize that his students just weren’t getting it? (Little did he know that one of those confused pupils would someday co-author a book and subliminally call him out on it.) But hey, I’m not bitter! (Except when it comes to beer, and then I’m very, very bitter!)
Anyway, fret not! We’ll make it through this basic chemistry lesson together, and I promise to present the material in a clear, friendly, and interesting manner--the way we all should have learned it in the first place. H2O Yeah!
Pure H2O, with a completely neutral pH of 7 and devoid of minerals, doesn’t exist in nature. It can be manufactured, as in the case of distilled water, but it isn’t of much use to the brewer. Water’s properties in the brewing process are influenced by the amount of minerals the water has picked up as it travels through soil or rock. The mineral profile adds subtle flavor nuances and gives the great beers of the world much of their character.
Have you ever foolishly paid extra for bottled water from some exotic island because your tap water tastes chalky? Have you ever had trouble getting soap to lather, or had that darn white buildup on your showerhead? These problems can be explained by high levels of minerals in your water, which can easily be filtered out. (Get an under-the-counter filter or one of those pitcher systems for your fridge already and stop buying all those wasteful plastic bottles!) I’ve Got My Ion You
Many minerals exist in water, but only six are of major concern to our friend at the brew kettle. They occur in the form of ions--atoms or molecules with a positive or negative charge--that form once the mineral is dissolved. Monitoring levels of these ions is crucial to a successful batch of beer. Water with a higher mineral content is referred to as hard water, whereas water with a lower mineral content is called soft water. Neither soft water nor hard water is universally advantageous for making beer; it is just another factor that brewers must take into account and adjust for depending on the style of beer being brewed.
Brewers must also filter or boil out the chlorine that’s added by most municipal water facilities. Chlorine reacts with the grains to create off-flavors described as “medicinal” or bearing a strong resemblance to the smell of bandages. Think Globally, Act Locally
Historically, long-established brewing cities have adapted to their water supplies, since, until the advent of reverse osmosis filtration, they really didn’t have much of a choice. Plzen, birthplace of the Pilsner, is home to remarkably soft water, which naturally lends itself to the style.
Conversely, Dublin’s water is quite high in bicarbonates, which are alkaline, so it takes a heavy hand with high-acid dark, roasted malts to balance them out, which explains Dubliners’ affinity for making opaque dry stouts. Munich’s darker dunkel and bock beers also owe a nod to the bicarbonate levels of their water. The sharply bitter India Pale Ale owes its success to the high-sulfate well water of Britain’s Burton-on-Trent.
Modern brewers, empowered with this knowledge and special equipment, are able to filter out much of what they deem undesirable and add in minerals as they wish, making it possible to brew a very diverse range of styles of beer at the same location. YEAST
“Yeast is the unsung hero of beer flavor. Yeast wasn’t even identified as a living organism until 1857, but as early as the Middle Ages it was understood to be a necessary ingredient to ensure complete transformation from a syrupy sweet malty liquid called wort (pronounced wert) to beer. Before yeast was identified as a living organism, it was known by brewers as ‘God is good.’ They knew it was a something, but in absence of a firm scientific explanation, it was assumed to be a divine something.” --MITCH
While we now know that yeast is what gives beer both its alcohol and those beloved CO2 bubbles, many people still don’t understood the overwhelming influence yeast has on beer flavor. It’s true that malt and hops tend to make up a large percentage of a beer’s flavor profile, but the fact is, they also make up the flavor profile of the wort. Yeast is the wonderful (and maybe even divine) ingredient that plays such a huge role in making beer taste more like beer, and less like . . . wort. Blowing Bubbles
While water comprises upwards of 90 percent of a beer, yeast constitutes but a small percentage of the formula, and it’s filtered out after fermentation in many styles of beer. But even though the amount of yeast added might not look like much, there are usually between 30 million and 100 million yeast cells slaving away for our benefit in each teaspoon of freshly spiked wort.
Yeasts are introduced to feed on the sugars present in the malty wort and convert them into alcohol and carbon dioxide. While there are several different yeast strains of interest to the brewer, the two most common are Saccharomyces cerevisiae (Saccharomyces is derived from the Latin for “sugar fungus,” and cerevisiae from the Latin for “beer” or “brewer”), and Saccharomyces carlsbergensis (named after Denmark’s Carlsberg brewery, where this strain was first successfully isolated and identified).
Besides producing alcohol and carbonation, yeasts also synthesize a variety of flavors and aromas, ranging from good to bad to ugly. Bottle-conditioned beers, in which the yeast remains in a layer at the bottom of the bottle, also provide a host of B vitamins, amino acids, and minerals to the lucky imbiber. Yeast Inflection
Most commercial brews are inoculated with carefully selected strains of yeast propagated in laboratories that specialize in yeast culture. Certain varieties produce specific flavors, tolerate higher alcohol levels, or exhibit qualities desirable for particular beer styles.
Saccharomyces cerevisiae is often referred to as ale yeast or top-fermenting yeast, and as the latter nickname implies, it does its bubbly work at the top of the wort. It thrives in warmer temperatures and tends to produce fuller flavors that are often fruity or spicy in character. More robust strains may also produce fusel alcohols, which in excess carry a heavy solvent taste, but in proportionate quantities can add complexity and a slight warming effect to the palate, as found in stronger Belgian ales and imperial Russian stouts.
Saccharomyces carlsbergensis, often referred to as lager yeast or bottom-fermenting yeast, tends to prefer cooler temperatures. Lager yeasts typically make a negligible contribution to the flavor profile of the beer, resulting in a more neutral beverage (or neutered beverage, in the case of industrial lagers) with cleaner, crisper flavors. Lager strains may also produce nitrogen and sulfur compounds, which in proportionate amounts can increase fullness and roundness of flavor. One example is dimethyl sulfide (DMS), which at moderate levels can be desirable in lagers, but in excess has a characteristic taste of creamed corn. We Want the Funk
Outside the world of controlled Saccharomyces and other single yeast strains, there exists a small but growing list of brewers willing to subject their brews to whatever Mother Nature throws at them. Spontaneous fermentation, in which the wort is exposed to the environment in large, shallow, open vessels known as coolships, allows whatever microorganisms are present in the air to “infect” the wort. Leaving the fermentation up to airborne yeast can be risky business, but in breweries with a long tradition of making such beers, the house yeast strains wafting about are actually fairly dominant and do a good job of keeping out rogue yeasts and bacteria that would otherwise spoil our fair beverage.
These spontaneously fermented brews rely on symbiotic fermentation involving both yeast and bacteria. Yeast strains such as Brettanomyces bruxellensis or Brettanomyces lambicus (“Brett” for short) are often implicated as spoilage or contaminants in most beers and wines, but for lambics, gueuzes, Flemish reds, and certain other styles, they add a sensory layer that is, if nothing else, polarizing: you either love it or hate it. These strains produce barnyard flavors, usually described as being goaty or like a wet horse’s blanket.
To make things more interesting, varieties of Lactobacillus and Pediococcus bacteria often drop by the party to produce lactic acid, which adds a touch of sour pucker to the sudsy science experiment. Fear not these “infections.” As many beer enthusiasts know, when a deft brewer’s hand is at work, the results can be deliciously sublime. What’s more, these bacteria are of the same genera as the suddenly in-fashion probiotics found in yogurt, kefir, and kombucha. See? Not only is beer good, it can be good for you!
But what of the brewer who isn’t feeling spontaneous? Not a problem. With the help of yeast labs, breweries now have access to these curious cultures, allowing their use in controlled fermentation and removing the risks associated with spontaneous fermentation. THE WORLD IS YOUR OYSTER
In addition to these four seemingly basic ingredients--malt, hops, water, and yeast--just about anything else that’s fit to eat or drink can be thrown into the mix. From açai berries to Zinfandel grapes, you name it, someone has probably tried it. Herbs, spices, honey, fruit, vegetables, coffee, tea, chile peppers, roots, tree bark, flowers, oysters, unicorn tears . . . the possibilities are nearly endless. The creativity of the brewer is the only real limiting factor when it comes to dreaming up a new brew. As to whether it’s consumed, that relies first and foremost on a spirit of adventure on the part of the drinker.