In a phrase, beer is fermented hop-flavoured, malt-sugared liquid.
How Beer is Brewed
Like loose tea leaves steeping in a teapot, malt steeps in hot water releasing its sugars, then the two are separated leaving behind sugary water (called wort).
The wort is then boiled in order to kill all rogue bacteria.
While the wort is boiling, hops are added for bitterness, flavour and aroma, and also act as natural preservatives. The hops are then separated from the liquid.
Once the liquid is cool, yeast is then added. Different yeasts = different types of beer.
Fermentation! The liquid is left to ferment at a certain temperature (warmer = ale, cooler = lager) so the yeast can effectively eat the sugar and produce carbon dioxide (bubbles) and alcohol (the stuff that makes you giddy). This process lasts anywhere from a few days to a few weeks.
The liquid is matured from 2 weeks up to however long the brewer sees fit
The by-product of this process is the delicious drink we all love. There is, of course, much more to this process, but the above is brewing in a nutshell.
Lager is brewed with a ‘cold-fermenting’ yeast, which sinks to the bottom during fermentation.
Lagers take longer than ales to mature, and must be stored in cold temperatures before going into bottles or kegs.
Lager tends to have a crisp bitterness and subtle flavours and aromas, and is best served a little colder (4-7 degrees Celsius) than ale. Lager is by far the most popular style of beer commercially.
Two common varieties of lager are Czech Pilsners (traditionally from Pilsen in Czech Republic) and German Helles (meaning light in colour). Most commercial lagers (1664, Fosters, Heineken etc) are based on one of these styles. The primary difference between the two traditional varieties is that Helles tend toward a softer bitterness and more malty flavours whereas Pilsners exhibit more crisp bitterness.
Ale is brewed with a ‘warm-fermenting’ yeast, which rises to the top during fermentation. The brewing process is quicker and often cheaper than lager, which partially explains why ale’s popularity has experienced a renaissance in recent years. The varieties of ale below don’t even begin scratch the surface of how many there are, but they are the more common that you’ll come across in the UK.
Pale Ale & India Pale Ale (IPA)
Pale ales and IPAs have been at the forefront of ale’s renaissance, particularly those brewed in the USA. More often than not they emphasise more hop characteristics which vary from tropical fruit and citrus to blueberry, pine and grassy. Traditional UK pale ales are more balanced than their newer American counterparts, which tend to have much more hops added.
IPAs differ from pale ales in that they are higher in alcohol content and have a more pronounced bitterness thanks to additional hops.
A rather close relation to pale ales, amber ales vary in colour from golden to dark ruby and tend to focus more on the malts than the hops. They often feature fruity or nutty and toasty aromas and flavours gained by using slightly more roasted malt, while some newer North American amber ales have more intense hop and malt aromas.
As you might have guessed, these beers are dark in colour. The two main varieties are stouts and porters, although these are practically one and the same nowadays.
Dark malts give strong roasted flavours and also contribute to the bitterness of the beer – think chocolate or coffee. North American dark ales are often more innovative, and like to exhibit the hops to a larger extent than in the UK.
So now you know a bit more about how beer is made, the two main types of beer and a few of their respective varieties. If you’ve more questions, there are loads of great books and websites out there which can help. Beer, like wine, also goes well with different dishes and is just as seasonal. A heavy stout in the height of summer probably won’t go down as well as a crisp, refreshing pale. They’re rather more suited to the wintry months.