What makes a beer a Lager, or a Pale Ale, or a Pilsner, or Porter or a Stout? Why do some beer styles taste similar but have different classifications? What’s a seasonal ale? Why are some released only in a limited number? And who makes all these decisions?
The answer is not as simple as you might think. Who makes all of the decisions is the person brewing the beer, but even then circumstances beyond their control can change everything.
To answer the other questions, lets start with another… What is beer?
Answer: Approximately 95% water, the other 5% consisting of alcohol derived from boiled grains whose sugars have been converted by yeast and flavored with another agent, usually hops.
Those four simple ingredients and the varied multitudes they come in create the thousands of varieties of beers available.
Now, I know what you’re saying, water is water. Wrong! The water in Belgium that is used to make farmhouse ales and the oh so delicious Belgian style ales has a different mineral content than the water from Bavaria, which is obviously influenced by the nearby Alps. The varied topography of America makes it’s a really rich variety just based on water alone.
Grains are usually barley based, but can contain adjuncts like corn and rice, particularly if it is a lager. Wheat, Wit, Hefeweizen, all are wheat grain-based beers. Roasted barley gives you the darker colors associated with Porters and Stouts, and some Stouts use oats as well for the smooth milky texture. Rye used for Reds and other darker colors. And in Barley alone there are different varieties available, Two-row, Six-row and others. Rice that is brewed and fermented is usually Sake, which is a whole other topic (and coincidently a post). These same grains when distilled will give you whiskies (bourbon, scotch, whiskey, etc.).
Yeast is a funny little creature… Yes, I said creature. They are single cell organisms which are used to convert the sugars from steeped grains into alcohol. There are various strains and they are used in the making of Wine, Whiskies, Beers, Kombuchas, Sakes, probably some others that you my not have heard of. Basically they are a fungus. But don’t think about that. This about the lovely work they do creating some of our favorite beverages. And when converting those sugars into alcohol they create carbon dioxide and they leave a signature flavor behind when they do. There are two main types: Top Fermenting yeast which is used to makes Ales, and Bottom Fermenting Yeast which is used to make lagers. And within these two types there are many different varieties. There are also a yeast type called Spontaneous Fermentation, which occurs when vats of prepared wort are left open to the surrounding environment to allow naturally occurring yeast strains to work on the sugars and convert them.
And this brings us to the hops. This funny little green budding plant (not too dissimilar to Mary Jane both in appearance and genetic structure) emits specific types of oils on their bud leaves when in bloom. There are three categories of hops consumed for making most beers (Bittering Hops, Aroma Hops, and Dual-Purpose Hops), and within those categories there are over 80 varieties currently being harvested for production. Hops not only brings bitterness and flavoring to counterbalance the sweetness of beer, but it also adds a preservative value.
So let’s say we only have 10 different varieties of water, not true as there are many more, but let’s just say that. Multiply that by the 10 grain varieties. Then multiply that by let’s just say 20 strains of yeast. Then we will multiply that by the 80 varieties of hops currently available. That’s 160,000 varieties of beer available. And this doesn’t include all of the water combinations, yeast strains and unknown hop varieties. Then let’s throw in the mix of the brewer’s preference of how long he let’s the grains seep, how long of a boil he uses and how many varieties of hops he adds, and then just for fun let’s and blending into the mix. The amount of different varieties of beer that have yet to be discovered is staggering. If you drank ten different beers a day from the age of 21 to 91 and never repeated a beer, that would be over 250,000 different beers. I still don’t think you could sample them all.
The opportunities are endless. Why? To paraphrase an old movie, “Because Allah (or Yahweh, or God) in His infinite wisdom loves wonderous variety.”