Introducing the ‘Nectar of the Gods’
Beer has been in production for over 3,000 years. Introduced to our shores in the days of the First Fleet, it is now Australia’s undisputed favourite alcoholic drink. Considered a stalwart of our culture, the idea of “grabbing a cold one” often goes hand-in-hand with our hot summer days. Hardly surprising then, that Australia now ranks as the world’s seventh largest per capita consumer of beer.
With our large scale production and consumption, the drinks’ qualities and intricacies of the brewing process, have often been overlooked. However, an increasing taste for beers that tantalise the palate, and not just quench our thirst, is driving the market towards boutique craft beers; and creating renewed interest in old varieties. But, to fully appreciate the array of beers we now offer, you first need to know a bit about how it is made.
Brewing good beer
Beer is a natural product made from four main ingredients: barley, yeast, hops and water. The first step is to mill the barley (and other grains) to expose the natural sugars known as malt. The malt is then dissolved in water, forming a liquid sugar solution: the ‘mash’. Yeast is then added, converting the mash to alcohol and flavours, this alcohol mash is known as ‘wort’. The amount of sugar which is converted (fermented) determines the beer’s alcohol content, and its sweetness (referred to as ‘maltiness’).
To the wort, hops are added, imparting an important bitter flavour – they also provide oiliness and aroma, give the beer head stability, and act as a preservative. The amount of hops and the timing of when they are added support these characteristics. A lot of hops or a long exposure to the wort gives more bitterness, often referred to as ‘hoppiness’.
As for the finished product – the quality of beer resulting is determined by its expression of maltiness and hoppiness, and how well they balance when tasting. The style of beer varies according to the type of fermentation used.
Fermenting for flavour
As any beer drinker knows, there are many different types. These fall into three main categories: top fermented, bottom fermented and lambic.
Top fermented beers are named because the yeast floats on the top of the beer during fermentation. The by-products and alcohol fall into the beer, creating a heavier style of beer known as an ale. Ale yeast is used in the production of ales, bitter, stout, and porter style beers.
To enhance their flavour, top fermented beers commonly use roasted or toasted malt in their milling. Similar to the flavours released from cooked food, malt which has been browned delivers more caramel and light cooked flavours, and appears brown in colour. A toasted malt produces a dark, rich beer with charcoal characters and hints of chocolate – for example, Ireland’s famous Guinness.
Bottom fermented beers are created when the yeast sinks to the bottom of the beer during fermentation. Here, alcohol and sediments float up through the beer – allowing brewers to skim the top of the vats, making a cleaner and more refreshing beer style. Again the balance of hop and malt brews differing beer styles. The lower the hop readiness and higher the malt, the more of a lager style (sometimes known as draught). In contrast bottom fermented beers with a lower malt threshold and higher hoppiness lean towards a pilsener beer.
Lambic beers are naturally fermented beers, combining wild yeast as well as top and bottom fermenting yeasts. These beers are prevalent in some small brewing communities, particularly traditional areas of Belgium.