American breweries have introduced many Americans to craft beers that were previously unavailable in the American market. In 2015, there were over 4,200 breweries in the United States. This represented annual growth of nearly 15% over 2014 and was the greatest number of breweries in operation at any time in American history. With so many more brewers and their beers in the marketplace as well as local beer produced by microbreweries, even the most experienced beer enthusiast can get lost among all the types of beer found in the local liquor store. Here are five factors that distinguish the various types of beer available:
All beer begins with grain. More specifically, all beer begins with malted barley which is barley that has been allowed to germinate so that natural enzymes in the barley can develop. These enzymes are essential to converting the starches in the malted barley into sugars later in the brewing process.
While all beer includes malted barley, beer can contain other grains or sources of starch. For example, wheat beer also includes wheat and oatmeal stout contains oats. Other grains that can be used to make beer include rye, corn, and rice. These different grains lend a different flavor to the different types of beers that are produced from them.
In the typical brewing process, the malted barley along with any other grains are mixed with hot water. During this process, the starches in the grains are converted to sugars by the natural enzymes in the malted barley. Beer is produced when the sugars developed in malted barley are converted to alcohol.
The next step in brewing is to filter off the grain and boil the liquid containing the sugars along with hops. Hops are the flowers of the hop plant and they add bitterness as well as other aromatic flavors to beer. Hops also serve as a preservative. Because hops add flavor to beer, the amount of hops, the length of time the hops boil in the sugary liquid, and whether hops are added a second time later in the brewing process will all affect the flavor of the various types of beer produced.
After boiling, the sugary liquid is fermented by adding yeast. It is the yeast that converts the sugars in the liquid into alcohol. The type of yeast used by a brewery in the fermentation determines whether the beer is an ale or a lager. Ales, porters, and stouts are fermented with a yeast called Saccharomyces cerevisiae at a relatively warm temperature. This is commonly referred to as a top fermenting yeast. Lagers are fermented with a yeast called Saccharomyces pastorianus. This is commonly referred to as a bottom fermenting yeast. Most of a beer’s flavor comes from the yeast used. The yeast, therefore, is one of the key factors that produces different types of beer.
The aging process that beer undergoes after fermentation is completed is called “conditioning.” During this process, a secondary fermentation may use any residual sugars in the beer to carbonate the beer and develop and mellow the flavor of the beer. In some cases, the secondary fermentation is primed by adding yeast and sugar, or more unfermented sugary liquid, to the beer. While different from conditioning, an analogous process is used to produce sour beer in which beer is aged in wooden barrels.
While most beer is made using only water, grain, yeast, and hops, some beers include additional flavoring ingredients. These flavoring ingredients can include spices, fruits, and fruit peels.
Different types of beer have different flavors, textures, and colors due to the differences in ingredients and brewing techniques. The grains and yeast used to produce the beer, as well as the amount and timing of the hops added during the brewing process, produce different types of beer. Conditioning and other additions to the beer can also influence the eventual flavor of the beer produced.