I just like saying that word. Its a bit like bechemel or sparge, it just rolls off the tongue. Good beer is the same way. It dances across your tongue and makes you smile. But this then raises the question, what is it that makes good beer?
According to the Reinheitsgebot beer only contains water, barley, and hops (later to include yeast). From this huge amounts of flavor possibilities are are possible (ever notice when you say a word too much it tends to lose meaning to you). Then add in the use of adjuncts (we don’t all have to follow purity laws) and even more flavors become possible.
When you have this much potential it is expected that you will run across quite a few bad combinations. At the same time the potential for greatness is there as well. It has been said that even a monkey could type great poetry if you allowed them to hit the keys long enough. This doesn’t bring us any closer to answering the question at hand though.
Looking at the 4 key ingredients of the Reinheitsgebot, we find that three of them are pretty much essential to even make a beer water, a cereal grain, and yeast. Without yeast, all we are left with is a super sweet wort. Though this may have quite a few uses on its own, it is still not beer. Without water we can not allow the enzymes from the grain to convert the starches into sugar for the yeast to eat, again not beer. And finally, without cereal grain there is little in the water for the yeast to feed on (and what is there actually makes us sick when untreated).
Hops are not an essential because in the grand scheme of beer culture they are only a recent addition (only having been included for a couple hundred years). The purpose that hops serve though, aids in the drinkability of the final beer. Hops found a place in beer culture by adding bitterness to balance out the sweetness of the grain sugars and also to aid in preservation. Until the ultimate acceptance of hops beers used gruit to help balance the sweetness. Gruit is a spice mixture that was controlled by church and government. It was a way of taxing the brews; the taxman has always had his hand in your beer. When you really think about it, for this purpose hops are essentially just another adjunct, something to give additional flavors to the final beer.
So back on track we now have three ingredients that essential and then a wide range of adjuncts that exist for flavoring. An interesting thing of note, as science has progressed we have increased the range of even the essential ingredients. Through our understanding of water chemistry, we can mimic the water of any region in the world, or even create a water profile that we can call our own. Through advanced techniques of malting, the maltster can control the elements of the malt, to the point of custom tailoring the malt for the brewers use. And finally through selective breeding we now have yeast to fit quite a number of flavor profiles and can even control the parameters of the yeasts growth in house to create a specific house strain.
In all of these I am only briefly touching on the possibilities of what can make a good beer. Well, except for one ingredient, the brewer. Even with all the different additions that can be made during the brewing process the brewer is the one variable that is essential to good beer. You see, even if everything is exactly the same, there will be variations in the batches between two different brewers. This is why more consistent breweries tend to blend batches of beer. This allows them to compensate for minor variences that will always happen. And again, this is something that the brewer controls.
I think its time for a pint…