Beer is the world’s most widely consumed and probably the oldest of alcoholic beverages; it is the third most popular drink overall, after water and tea. It is produced by the brewing and fermentation of starches, mainly derived from cereal grains—most commonly malted barley, although wheat, maize (corn), and rice are widely used. Most beer is flavoured with hops, which add bitterness and act as a natural preservative, though other flavourings such as herbs or fruit may occasionally be included. Some of humanity’s earliest known writings refer to the production and distribution of beer: the Code of Hammurabi included laws regulating beer and beer parlours, and “The Hymn to Ninkasi”, a prayer to the Mesopotamian goddess of beer, served as both a prayer and as a method of remembering the recipe for beer in a culture with few literate people. Today, the brewing industry is a global business, consisting of several dominant multinational companies and many thousands of smaller producers ranging from brewer’s to regional breweries.
While there are many types of beer brewed, the basics of brewing beer are shared across national and cultural boundaries. The traditional European brewing regions—Germany, Belgium, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Poland, the Czech Republic, Scandinavia, the Netherlands and Austria—have local varieties of beer. In some countries, notably the USA, Canada, and Australia, brewers have adapted European styles to such an extent that they have effectively created their own indigenous types.
Despite the regional variations, beer is categorised into two main types based on the temperature of the brewing which influences the behaviour of yeast used during the brewing process—lagers, which are brewed at a low temperature, and the more regionally distinct ales, brewed at a higher temperature. Ales are further categorised into other varieties such as pale ale, brown or dark ale, and stout.
Lambic, a beer of Belgium, is naturally fermented using wild yeasts, rather than cultivated. Many of these are not strains of brewer’s yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae) and may have significant differences in aroma and sourness. Yeast varieties such as Brettanomyces bruxellensis and Brettanomyces lambicus are common in lambics. In addition, other organisms such as Lactobacillus bacteria produce acids which contribute to the sourness.
Stout and porter are dark beers made using roasted malts or roast barley, and typically brewed with slow fermenting yeast. There are a number of variations including Baltic porter, dry stout, and Imperial stout. The name Porter was first used in 1721 to describe a dark brown beer popular with the street and river porters of London. This same beer later also became known as stout, though the word stout had been used as early as 1677. The history and development of stout and porter are intertwined.
Wheat beer is brewed with a large proportion of wheat although it often also contains a significant proportion of malted barley. Wheat beers are usually top-fermented (in Germany they have to be by law). The flavour of wheat beers varies considerably, depending upon the specific style.
Ales are normally brewed using a warm fermentation, and a strain of brewers’ yeast (most commonly Saccharomyces cerevisiae) that clumps and rises to the surface because of this they are often referred to as “top cropping” or “top fermenting”— though this distinction is less clear in modern brewing with the use of cylindro-conical tanks, where the behaviour of lager and ale yeast are quite similar. The important distinction for ales is that they are fermented at higher temperatures and thus ferment more quickly than lagers.
Ale is typically fermented at temperatures between 15 and 24°C (60 and 75°F). At these temperatures, yeast produces significant amounts of esters and other secondary flavour and aroma products, and the result is often a beer with slightly “fruity” compounds resembling apple, pear, pineapple, banana, plum, or prune, among others.
Lager is the English name for cool fermenting beers of Central European origin. Pale lagers are the most commonly consumed beers in the world. The name “lager” comes from the German “lagern” for “to store”, as brewers around Bavaria stored beer in cool cellars and caves during the warm summer months. These brewers noticed that the beers continued to ferment, and to also clear of sediment, when stored in cool conditions.
Lager yeast is a cool bottom-fermenting yeast (Saccharomyces pastorianus) and typically undergoes primary fermentation at 7–12 °C (45–54 °F) (the fermentation phase), and then is given a long secondary fermentation at 0–4 °C (32–39 °F) (the lagering phase). During the secondary stage, the lager clears and mellows. The cooler conditions also inhibit the natural production of esters and other byproducts, resulting in a “cleaner”-tasting beer.
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