What’s in your Beer? Know your Beer Ingredients

September 22,2009 by 4 Comments

Has this ever happened to you? You’re sitting there holding a beer, rocking a solid buzz, gazing down into the bubbly paradise, and you curiously think to yourself, “What the hell is in there?”

If so, then you’re about to have your question answered so you don’t have to look like a complete freak again in public. If not, then well, at least maybe now I’ve got you wondering.

There are four main beer ingredients. These form the basis of all recipes and each one plays an integral part in the beer’s character. Yes there are other ingredients used and they are numerous, but these are the big 4 that make up almost every batch that is brewed today.


Water gets very little respect as an ingredient in beer, yet it makes up over 90% of what is in your pint glass.

Not so long ago, one of the major health benefits of beer was that it was boiled and deemed safe for drinking. At 90% by volume, it is obvious that the water used in brewing has a big influence on the finished product. In fact, many styles of beer are known for the water used.

Famous Water

Take the classic Pilsner originally brewed in the city of Pilsen, Bohemia.  The soft water there is responsible for the delicate, crisp taste of the Pilsner that truly defines the style.  Or look at the English town of Burton whose hard water has given birth to dry and hoppy brews for centuries.

Nowadays, the brewer is not at the mercy of his local water supply. If the water is sub-par he can treat it until it is of brewing quality. Brewers (including homebrewers) can even adjust their water profile to recreate a classic style. Want a Burton-style pale ale? No problem, throw some brewing salts in the pot and you’ve gone Burton.

Even with a great water supply, a quality beer relies on the interaction of all four ingredients and sound brewing techniques. Still, make sure you give water it’s rightful place in the cupboard of ingredients.


You have a cereal grain to thank for that loopy feeling you get after drinking a few bottles. But before you go charging toward the corn flakes, get the facts on how barley acts as the food source for the yeast in your beer.

Barley Suited for a Beer

Barley is responsible for producing the sugars needed that the yeast turns into alcohol.  As stated above, it is a cereal grain that is grown worldwide in temperate climates. Contrary to how cereal grains are used in most food products, barley must be processed into malt (or malted barley) before can be used in beer. Malt is created through the natural process of malting, done by a professional maltster.  You malt barley by soaking it in water for a few days, allowing it to germinate and produce the components necessary for fermentation.

This same process can be done with other grains such as wheat or rye, but barley is the most common in the beer world.

What Malt does for your Beer

Give malt a lot of credit because it adds much more than just alcohol to beer. Flavor, aroma, and body are all influenced by malt. Malt leaves traces that are generically summed up by an essence of sweetness. That is a generic statement however, because there are dozens of varieties of malt that contribute unique characteristics.

There are even specific malts (aka base malts) that are specifically used for their fermentable sugars while other malts (aka specialty malts) whose sugars can’t be fermented and are only used for their flavor qualities.

Malted barley is to beer what grapes are to wine. They give their sugars to the beer and leave unique imprint on it. Learn what malt was used in your beer and you’ll have a good idea of what to expect from it.


“Humulus Lupulus!”

No it’s not a Harry Potter spell, it’s the scientific name for the “spice” of beer: Hops

Hops are a plant that is gown in many regions of the world, with the Pacific Northwest being the hop-capital in the U.S. Specifically, the Yakima Valley in Washington is responsible for most of the hops that end up in your pint glass.

So what do hops do in beer?

The brewer uses hops to add bitterness that balances out the sweetness contributed by the malt. Without them, you’d have something tasking like an gross sugary soda-beer. Besides adding bitterness, hops also give flavor and aroma. The time at which the hops are added determine how the beer tastes.

Add them early and the beer will be more bitter. Add the hops later and it will be less bitter, but have more flavor and aroma.

What a funny little flower

Hops are recognizable as flowerlike green “pinecones” that grow on vines that can reach of 20 ft. tall. The cone contains resins and oils (in their lupulin gland) that impart the hop-like qualities on the beer. You may have seen the commercials of the Sam Adam’s president vigorously rubbing the hops between his hands and then smelling them. No he’s not on drugs, he is releasing the resins and oils in the lupulin glands to to get a good sense of the hop quality.

Speaking of drugs, did I mention that hops are in the same family (Cannabaceae) as a naughty relative ?

Hop Nation

Not just there to temper the sweetness of the malt, hops are also the predominant characteristic in many beer styles. In fact, the ravenous fans of these hop-monster beers proudly call themselves “hop heads”. Maybe you have known a hop head or have seen one in public. Maybe you are a hop head. Well, are you?


Oh the enviable life of a yeast cell. It eats all day to its hearts content, belches without judgment, and rests when it’s full. All the while being thanked by the brewer for the treasured byproduct of this process – alcohol.

Yeast in it’s simplest terms converts the sugar in beer into CO2 and alcohol. Technically it is a fungus, invisible to the naked eye but nevertheless the magical ingredient that makes a beer a beer. Yeast also influences the final flavor, usually adding fruity and spicy notes. But its primary job is making booze.

Ales vs. Lagers

There are two main types of yeast – ale yeasts and lager yeasts. That’s correct, the type of yeast used determine whether a beer is an ale or a lager.  So what’s the difference?  Ale yeasts are known as “top-fermenting”, meaning the yeast collects on the top during fermentation. These beers are also fermented at warmer temperatures  (60-75 F) than their lager counterparts.  Lager yeast is “bottom fermenting”. The yeast drop to the bottom of the beer which is fermented at cooler (40-60 F) temperatures.

Ales are heavier bodied and more complex. Stouts, hefeweizens, IPA’s, and porters are all types of ales. Lagers are usually light crisp. Most mass-produced (e.g. Bud, Coors, Miller) beers in the U.S. are lagers, usually of the pilsner style. Other lager beers include Oktoberfest, bock, and Munich Helles

Happy Yeast is Productive Yeast

The yeast’s needs must be met in order for it to do it’s job correctly. The brewer must provide food in the form of the sugars and nutrients created during the brewing process.  He must also make sure the environment is the right temperature and keep out all light.

Your beer is truly alive. Yeast cells are mysterious and magical creatures that we don’t yet fully understand. But as long as their humble demands are meant, they will provide you with the final ingredient in creating remarkable beverage.

Now that you know all about the beer ingredients, read about how they influence over 100 beer styles.

About Billy Broas

He is the founder of The Homebrew Academy, a BJCP beer judge, and the homebrewing expert on the Rocky Mountain PBS television show Colorado Brews. He lives in the fine beer town of Denver, Colorado.

4 responses to “What’s in your Beer? Know your Beer Ingredients”

  1. Jeff says:

    Hey Billy, Men’s Health said that there are more antioxidants in beer than wine, true?

  2. Billy Broas says:

    Hey Jeff, there’s been talk about beer’s antioxidant content for a while, but the evidence just got stronger with a recent study (which is probably where the MH article got their facts). Here’s a link that talks about beer’s cancer fighting abilities: http://bit.ly/5sFT5K The antioxidants are in the hops, so beers like pale ales and IPA’s are better cancer blasters.

    See, we were just being healthy in college : )

  3. Erica says:

    I got the guy I’m seeing this cool home brewing kit! It is designed to create a gallon of IPA but he doesn’t like IPAs and prefers a stout. Since they are both ales (and are fermented at the same relative temperature) I was just wondering how I can turn the IPA into a stout? Is it a difference of hops or grain? Please let me know :)



    • Billy Broas says:

      Hey Erica, you really can’t turn an IPA recipe into a stout recipe. They have completely different ingredients – grains, hops, yeast. I would just go ahead and get a stout kit. Good luck!

Leave a Reply