Beer 101: What is beer?

Beer 101: What is beer?

Sure, it’s your favourite beverage (ours, too!), but have you ever pondered where it comes from? Here's the answer

If you really think about it, beer is in a league of its own: It comes in a range of styles and flavours, and has a global presence most beverages can’t even come close to. It’s time to take an in-depth look at how this drink comes to life.

What is beer?

Simple by design, beer requires only a handful of ingredients to achieve ultra-delicious results. But brewers combine different elements and use a variety of processes to create the huge array of flavours, textures and personalities you’ll find in your favourite cans and bottles. Let’s explore the basics.

  • How is beer made?

    The brewing process isn’t complicated, but it does require a series of steps. First, malted grains (commonly called malt) are heated in water to create a mash. Next, lautering happens, in which the mash is strained to capture the sugary liquid, called wort. The wort is then boiled with hops until the desired flavour is achieved. This liquid is allowed to cool before heading into fermentation, during which yeast is added to convert the sugars into carbon dioxide and alcohol. Most beer sits for one to three weeks after fermentation finishes and is filtered again before being packaged and shipped to stores. Learn more about the brewing process here.

  • What is malt?

    Malt, or brewer’s malt, is made when grains (usually barley) are germinated just long enough to release enzymes and then heated to stop seed growth. These sprouted grains are kiln-dried, or roasted, to bring out their natural sugars, which add sweetness to the resulting brew and provide food for the all-important yeast.

    Malt is a little like your morning toast: The longer it’s heated, the stronger and darker its flavours become. A short time in the heat yields a pale malt, which creates light-coloured, delicately toasty beers. A golden roast is richer and ideal for more deeply coloured brews, like amber ale. A long roast creates flavourful dark brown or black brews. Malt is the reason some beers smell like a bakery — crackers, bread dough, caramel and chocolate aromas are all present.

  • Which grains go into beer?

    The majority of brewer’s malt is made with barley, which happens to be Canada’s third-largest crop by acreage. Supplemental grains are also used to create different flavours and add body. These include:

    • Corn, for sweetness

    • Oats, for a creamy mouth feel

    • Rice, to brighten flavours

    • Rye, for complexity and subtle spiciness

    • Wheat, to add smoothness and a rich, full-bodied mouth feel

  • What are hops?

    Hops are the flower buds, specifically the inner seed cones, of a climbing plant with the same name. Hops are commonly associated with bitterness in beer, but that’s not all they’re good for. Before there were refrigerators, hops acted as a natural preservative. The brewers of yore ended up liking the herb-like tastes and aromas hops’ essential oils, or terpenes, gave to brews, so they kept on using them.

    Hops are usually added to beer at the boiling stage. Producers of dry-hopped beers, however, treat hops more like herbs, adding them after boiling to retain more of the essential oils. Hop over here for further facts about this important ingredient.

  • What is yeast?

    The same thing that gives bread its airiness also makes beer fizzy — and adds alcohol to the mix. Yeast is made up of single-celled organisms that feast on sugars, creating carbon dioxide and alcohol in the process (even in bread dough, although the alcohol evaporates as the loaf bakes).

    There are many strains of yeast, and each imparts a signature flavour — from banana to peppercorn. Brewer’s yeast is divided into two broad camps:

    • Ale yeasts like a warm environment and add fruity, spicy or earthy flavours.

    • Lager yeasts need to be in a cool environment to lend their crisp, clean, complex flavours.

    And, yes, there is a sourdough equivalent in the beer world. “Wild beers,” such as lambics or saisons, are left out in the open for wild yeasts and friendly bacteria to colonize and work their magic. The result is brews with a funkier taste, not unlike that of a good tangy sourdough loaf.

  • What flavourings can be added?

    The magical interaction between malt, hops and yeast is usually responsible for a beer’s signature flavours, but sometimes it’s the actual thing — such as real lime zest or pumpkin pie spice — that makes a brew taste so good. While pretty much anything goes (peanut butter, anyone?), the most common flavourings are orange, lime or lemon peel, honey, fruit juices or purées, espresso and spices. They’re typically added at the end of the boiling period to preserve their taste and aroma.

  • What’s the best water for beer?

    Good water makes good beer, so brewers follow strict purification standards. Water should be free from any scents, including sulphur, chlorine or pond smell (seriously). It also needs to have the right amount of calcium and acidity, so brewers often adjust the mineral content to achieve ideal levels.

  • What do beer alcohol levels mean?

    Alcohol by volume (ABV) tells you how much alcohol is in your beer by percentage. Here’s how the terminology works in Canada:

    • 0.4% or less: Low-alcohol beer

    • 1.1 to 2.5%: Extra-light beer

    • 2.6 to 4.0%: Light beer

    • 4.1 to 5.5%: Beer

    • 5.6 to 8.5%: Strong beer

    • 8.6% or more: Extra-strong beer

    Fun fact: Because long-roasted dark malts retain some starch, less sugar is available for yeast to convert into alcohol. This is why some pale beers can have much higher ABV than darker varieties.

  • How and why is beer aged?

    Most commercial beer is cellared for one to three weeks before hitting store shelves. Once it’s purchased, you should enjoy it right away — ideally within three months. But some varieties, such as high-ABV brews and wild beers (including sour beers, gueuzes, lambics and saisons, which are made with wild bacteria and yeasts), can be aged to develop richer flavours and complexity. The living organisms in these suds will change the beers’ characteristics over time, however, so their shelf life isn’t infinite.

    To age your favourite bottles at home, store them upright in a consistently cool, dark location where they won’t freeze. Your basement or insulated garage just might be ideal.

How is beer categorized?

While many people think of beer in terms of origin — such as German, Irish or Mexican — the truth is that geography reveals just a small piece of a brew’s flavour profile. Here’s a quick primer on how to identify your ideal variety.

  • How many types of beer are there?

    It may seem like there are as many beer types as stars in the sky, but in truth, they all fit into two broad categories: ales and lagers. These categories are further subdivided into more than 80 different styles, which are organized by factors including alcohol percentage, bitterness level and physical characteristics, such as colour, taste or aroma. See how we’ve organized our 800-plus varieties of beer here.

  • What is an ale?

    Ales are generally full-bodied, fresh-tasting and thirst-quenching. The yeast used to make them enjoys a warm environment, does its job within a matter of days and produces lots of complex flavours, such as fruit, earth and spice. Wheat beers, IPAs, Belgian dubbels and tripels, saisons, porters and Irish stouts all fall under the ale heading.

  • What is a lager?

    Lagers are typically crisp, refreshing and easy to enjoy. The yeast that goes into them needs a few weeks to settle in and prefers a cool home (lager is German for “storage place”). Pilsners are part of this family, as are most pale German and Mexican beers.

  • What is a microbrewery?

    It is exactly what it sounds like: simply a small-scale brewery. In Ontario, a microbrewery does not make more than 50,000 hectolitres (or five million litres) of beer per year.

  • What is craft beer?

    The term craft beer is loosely associated with products made by smaller breweries. A craft brewer in Ontario is defined as one that’s bigger than a microbrewery but smaller than a large-scale commercial operation.

What’s the best way to serve beer?

You don’t have to follow complicated rules to enjoy your favourite suds. In truth, beer doesn’t even need to be poured out of the can or bottle! But knowing a few tips and tricks can help make the experience more delicious.

  • Use the ideal glass

    Beer steins and dimpled mugs aren’t just great for cheers-ing — they’re designed to let you sniff an aromatic brew, drink it easily and keep it cool as you hold onto the handle. Find out more about glassware, from pints to tulips to steins, here.

    Fun fact: Did you know residue from milk or tea can affect how beer looks when poured? For the best bubbles and a frothy head, invest in a set of beer-only glassware for enjoying your chosen brews.

  • Store and pour right

    Heat and light are not friendly to beer, so make sure your brews are stored in a cool, dark location; kegs should always be kept refrigerated. Keep bottles vertical so yeasts stay put at the bottom, and toss any unfinished open beer (or use it for baking, a cocktail or marinating, if you like). Most beer should be enjoyed within three months of purchase. Find more storage tips here.

    Home kegs come in five different sizes and should be stored between 1°C and 3°C. A home draft unit — a.k.a. the “Tap and Pour” — is the ideal place to discreetly store, cool and enjoy your home keg. If you’ve lost track of its age, the product date code is stamped on it using one letter (for the month) and two numbers (for the day); for example, Jan. 1 is A01.

  • Chill out

    Beer generally tastes best when it’s served at 3°C to 5°C. If your brews are already in the fridge or you’ve come straight home from The Beer Store, you’re golden. But even slightly warm beer can take a while to cool down to the optimal temp. It’s not a good idea to flash-chill it in the freezer (or, for that matter, snow), as the liquid can freeze, expand and break the can or bottle. Try placing beer in an ice bucket and leaving it for 30 minutes — we even sell ice to make this part easy. Find more chilling tips and tricks here.

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