POLL: What’s the Most Important Ingredient in Beer?

Over on my TODAY post…uh…today, I review a quartet of gluten-free beers, which are brewed without the traditional grains (no barley, no wheat, no oats allowed).  As a result, they are mostly poor substitutes for “real” beers brewed with gluten-rich grains.  It’s basically no grains, no good.

That got me to thinking – what’s the most important ingredient of a traditional beer?  If we’re sticking to the Reinheitsgebot, there are only a few candidates to consider: 

Grains: The grain bill is the backbone of a beer, the foundation of the structure, the stage upon which the play unfolds.  It influences the richness of a beer and its eventual alcohol content.  I can say from my recent experience with gluten-free offerings – the grain bill is a critical component of a beer’s character.

Yeast: If the grain bill is the stage, then yeast are the actors who bring it to life.  These unsung little critters bring nuance and subtleties to a beer that help to define the styles we love.  Plus they convert the sugars from the grain bill into alcohol, an important part of what makes beer such a fine decompression device and social lubricant.

Hops: I’m not much of a hophead, but for those who are, the amount and types of hops used in a beer are critical to their enjoyment of it.  As more of a malt man, I usually only notice the hop kick of a beer when it’s exceedingly excellent or when leaves a bad taste in my mouth.  If we’re sticking with our stage/actor theme here, hops are like the special effects – when done right, you appreciate them (or don’t even notice them), and when done badly they can ruin the whole show.

Water: Water makes up the largest percentage of what’s in a beer, and can have a subtle but important effect on how it tastes. These days, many waters are filtered before going into a boil, but some regions are famous for their delicious waters which make for delicious beers.  There’s a reason why so many breweries chose to base their operations in Munich, and why Victory Brewing chose to put their facility on the eastern branch of the Brandywine Creek – it’s the water!

The Brewer: I wrestled with this one a bit because it seems a little romantic to me, plus the brewer isn’t an ingredient in the beer (at least you hope not!).  Still, when you taste two pale ales made with similar ingredients side by side, one can be glorious and the other totally forgettable.  You have to give credit to the person who created the recipe and pulled it off to perfection.  All beers are NOT created equal, and the people who craft them are a major factor to consider.

In a way (brace yourself for another analogy), a good craft beer is like a stool, with the grains, yeast, hops, and water making up the legs.  If one of these legs is missing or broken the whole thing tumbles, and to make a really beautiful one requires the hand of an excellent craftsperson – someone with vision and skill who takes pride in what they create.

If I had to choose one element (and not the brewer, which is the easy answer), I’d say the grains are the most critical part of a beer, especially after tasting a few gluten-free ones made without malted barley.  While yeast and hops and water are important, you can mix and match those in many different ways and come up with a beer that I’d enjoy.  But no barley, no thank you, at least in my book.

How about you?  Which ingredient do YOU think makes the biggest impact on your enjoyment of a beer?  Hit the poll below and let us know, and while you’re at it, share your thoughts in the comments.

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Categories: Beer, Poll

Author:Jim Galligan

Craft beer nerd, frequent beer blogger and occasional home brewer.

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32 Comments on “POLL: What’s the Most Important Ingredient in Beer?”

  1. Full Tun
    March 29, 2012 at 12:22 pm #

    You left off water as a choice for the most important ingredient. It is the most important ingredient. Based on the chemical composition of the H2O, it will influence how the yeast work, it will influence how the grains are mashed, and it will also influence how the hops are utilized. Water from a specific region is why there is such a hub-bub going on about Sierra Nevada and New Belgium opening second brewery locations. Unless they ship the water from the respective regions the beers will not taste the same. They will not be the same beer. That is also why, as a home brewer it is impossible to make a traditional English Ale or German Lager. I do not have water from the Thames or the Rhine. I can attempt to emulate the chemical make up of the water, but it is not the same as mother nature. Water is what makes everything else possible in beer.

    • March 29, 2012 at 12:27 pm #

      Think I fixed it. Sorry about that – dunno why “Water” fell off as an option, but it’s back!

  2. March 29, 2012 at 12:22 pm #

    F. The ethanol

    • March 29, 2012 at 12:28 pm #

      You should try Everclear. According to your logic, it’s like 20 times better than beer! :)

      • March 29, 2012 at 1:08 pm #

        Never mind that ethanol isn’t an ingredient. ;-)

  3. March 29, 2012 at 12:25 pm #

    I voted for the brewer, but it was the easy answer, and I’m not sure that’s what I really wanted to do. I think your comments about beer being a stool is spot on, and that’s what I really wanted to vote for. But the poll was the parts, not the whole, and in that vein maybe I shouldn’t have voted for the brewer either. Because, as you also mentioned, (hopefully) the brewer isn’t in the beer.
    Maybe I should just have voted Water…
    I vote water!
    No wait, yeast.
    Ah, crap… I’m going back to the brewer.

    Great poll, thinking about this is fun. Thanks.

    • March 29, 2012 at 12:29 pm #

      It’s a hard question to answer, and the “stool” idea came to me while I struggled to figure it out myself. But as a guy who loves malty beer and after tasting ones made without barley, my answer was clear. At least today.

      • March 29, 2012 at 1:16 pm #

        One flaw in the stool analogy… Mankind has shown that a 2-legged stool can in fact stand on its own…

        • March 29, 2012 at 1:23 pm #

          But only for so long. And who are you calling a “stool” anyway. ;)

        • March 29, 2012 at 1:44 pm #

          Er, ah, um… Hold that thought. I need to go top off my beer… I’ll be right back… ;-)

  4. Michael
    March 29, 2012 at 12:41 pm #

    I tried my first and last gluten free beer a couple of weeks ago. I definitely vote for the grains first and yeast second. So much water is filtered now I put that third.

  5. March 29, 2012 at 12:46 pm #

    Ethanol and CO2 are the yeast’s “stool,” right?

    • March 29, 2012 at 1:14 pm #

      Grains are quite important. There’s an entire germination and roasting process to consider before you even add them to the mash tun. Botch that and your hope for decent beer diminishes rapidly. Plus how you roast and what types of grain you use greatly impact the type of beer you’re producing.

      All the core ingredients are vital in making beer though. I like your stool analogy (though I wasn’t going to vote for it as an ingredient) in that removing or flawing any one of them causes the batch to fail.

    • March 29, 2012 at 1:48 pm #

      You’re right, Alex, but dogs love dog poop, so I think it’s okay that we love yeast excrement.

  6. March 29, 2012 at 1:15 pm #

    Wow, not sure how my reply tucked under Alex’s reply… Ah well.

  7. March 29, 2012 at 1:55 pm #

    While I voted for the whole ‘stool’ thing, I really think you’re right with the grains being the most important. I’ve had a couple of gluten free beers and was immediately looking for something to wash the nasty taste out of my mouth. Rice beer doesn’t do it for me either, rye on the other hand can make some great beers!

    But the other ingredients can make all the difference as well; I’ve had some beers that started out great and then finished bad for me because of the choice of hops. Yeasts impart more to the taste than most people realize. So I guess I’m back to the ‘stool’ thing. ;)

    • March 29, 2012 at 2:01 pm #

      Rye does make for tasty beer, but it’s usually a fraction of the total grain bill. I would imagine a 100% rye grain bill would be a bit odd.

      • March 29, 2012 at 2:06 pm #

        Plus, I believe that rye has gluten in it.

        • March 29, 2012 at 2:11 pm #

          Right, I wasn’t thinking gluten free, just the prospect of an all-rye being more of a select or acquired taste.

          Sorghum is no replacement for malted barley, in much the same way as carob is no replacement for chocolate.

          Hmmm… as far as gluten-free goes, these could be some nice adjuncts if not core ingredients if they contain enough sugars. http://www.reciperascal.com/gluten-free-flours.html

        • March 29, 2012 at 2:19 pm #

          Looks like Widmer cooked up a beer using barley that has less than 20ppm of gluten, so it’s within the definition of gluten-free. They are sending me samples, so we will see if it’s any good.

      • March 29, 2012 at 2:07 pm #

        Agreed, I was just using it as an example of how the choice of grains affects the taste of the finished product. :)

    • March 29, 2012 at 2:05 pm #

      You talked yourself in a circle, Will!

      • March 29, 2012 at 2:09 pm #

        Well if you look at the top of some stools, they’re round…

  8. March 29, 2012 at 5:29 pm #

    I’m gonna cheat and say flavor. Also, I’m having trouble with the whole thing because you used a stool as an analogy and as Alex so aptly put it… How ’bout we liken it to a chair?

    Seriously though, a great beer requires all those things. Great water is still just water. It quenches the physical thirst and provides a version of terroir for our beers but by itself it doesn’t quench that special inner thirst that a really good beer does. As for hops, our ancestors drank unhopped beers for centuries, and even though I’m a hop-head, you can brew a decent beer w/o hops. Grain malt is an essential part however, and each type of malt has its own characteristics. It just so happens that barley malt makes for the best beer from a European perspective. Folks in Asia might argue that rice does a better job, those from Africa that corn or millet does a better job. If yeast weren’t important to brewing and baking we wouldn’t work so hard to preserve certain strains. But let an amateur throw it all together and you get dreck. So I’ll have to say that it is the brewer w/ his skill and knowledge that makes the most difference. Don’t believe me? Take a Bud Lite, it has water, malt, yeast and hops, but even the slugs don’t like it!

    • techcommdood
      March 29, 2012 at 6:10 pm #

      I have to call you out on a few points. First, water isn’t just water. The complete chemistry of the water plays a large role in every aspect of brewing. This is why large scale breweries have a chemist or multiple on staff to keep the ph, salinity, calcites, and other minerals in check from batch to batch. It’s vital to a commercial beer’s consistency. Even small scale breweries and homebrewers adjust their water’s composition, sometimes to tune into a particular style better. Second and final, I’m tired of macro-bashing, even as it relates to light beer. It’s a style that was born out of WW2 grain rationing that many grew accustomed to. It stuck. And more importantly, whether you like the style or not, the macros are indeed to style for light American pilsners. It’s fun to bash a big beer and say that no one likes it, but consider the size of the market for a moment and ask yourself if no one likes it, how the hell do they sell so much of it? I have no stake in the game (just a humble homebrewer). But I can’t help but wonder if a brewery like Dogfish Head owned the majority of the beer market, would we be bashing them “for being off-style and using everything but the kitchen sink in flavoring their beers so outlandishly”? Brewing’s a business. I’m sure the owners of the more successful craft breweries would love a tremendous volume of sales. Will that come at a price when our grandkids come of drinking age and scoff not at light body and flavor, but frivolous waste of grains and clean water?

      • March 30, 2012 at 12:29 pm #

        Hi Tech, I’m well aware of the differences in water, which is why I said it “provides a version of terroir”.

        As for the mainstream American beers, lots of people drink them because that’s what they’ve always had. (Even the guy who started Anhueser-Busch considered the brew to be unsuitable for his palate or that of his family.) If American lagers and Pilsners were really good, sales wouldn’t be dropping off they way they are, and there wouldn’t be such a growing demand for alternatives. American style lagers are as you say, a result of WWII grain rationing (and of an impoverished American brewing scene after the end of Prohibition.) As a result of same, they are a very homogeneous lot that has, as the trend for low-cal Lite beers exemplifies, become less and less flavorful. I personally, would rather drink water than a Bud/Millers/Coor’s Lite, yet I have no problem w/ drinking a Yuenglings. I think there’s a message there. That message is flavor!

        The macrobeers lack body, mouthfeel, the symphony of flavors one usually expects in a good beer. Because they’re so heavily filtered, they also lack the vitamins, minerals and trace elements that traditionally made beer a food item for our ancestors. The macros also suffer from bad press because they represent big corps, and a lot of craft beer drinkers object to that on principle. I personally have no problem with drinking a beer produced by AB-InBev or Millers-Coors–I’m quite fond of some of Goose Island’s and Leinies’s brews, as well as Dominion’s Oak Barrel Stout–but I insist on flavor in what I drink.

        Now one could say that I just don’t like lagers, but truth is I love a good lager–I had a couple of pints of Magic Hat’s lager (on tap) just the other day. What I don’t like is mediocre crap billed and sold as quality. If you like the macros as they now exist, good on ya. I don’t and I’m not afraid to say so. The days of grain rationing are over, we have better uses for corn and I wont even go into rice extract. I demand good beer or no beer. If Ab-InBev produces good beer, I’ll drink it. Till then fuhgetaboudit!

  9. March 30, 2012 at 7:49 am #

    Is it safe here? Are we done talking about stools?

    Thanks, Alex – yes, the CO2 and the ethanol are the products of the yeast. Wine without ethanol is grape juice.

    The brewer isn’t actually in the beer, but the brewer’s ethos and the company’s philosophy is, in a sense, in the beer and that influences what I think of a beer.

    I can think of breweries that I like even though I don’t like some of their beers, and other breweries that I don’t like even though I sometimes like their beers. If I have a connection to the brewery or if I respect what the brewery is doing overall then I will enjoy the beer more.

  10. March 30, 2012 at 9:54 am #

    techcommdood and full tun make good points about water’s importance to beer.

    Nevertheless, I went with grain. Besides, if we’re only considering the Reinheitsgebot law’s list of ingredients, then yeast (because yeast were waiting on Louis Pasteur to find them) and brewers (even in the 16th century it was poor form to add brewers during the boil) aren’t part of the list.

    The fermentable sugars released by the malted grains depend on the temperature during the mash process, which affects the dryness and mouthfeel of the beer. The degree of malting and roasting, and whether the grain is malted or not (without malting the enzymes are produced and so can’t be released during the mash) all play critical parts in the flavor profile.

    Grains are to beer what vegetables and meat are to stew. Hops (plus water and yeast) are the spices in a beer just as salt and pepper are the spices in a stew. Hops and yeast and water complement (or not) the final product.

    As for stools, Jim, I’m not touching that. You’re not 50 yet, are you?

  11. Don
    March 30, 2012 at 12:56 pm #

    I don’t ever want to hear you mention Beer and Stool in the same sentence ever again!

  12. charles cindric
    April 20, 2012 at 10:22 am #

    if you don’t believe it’s barley that is most important (“the soul of beer”) try a BRUNEHAUT. It is gluten free but made from barley and is a great tasting Belgian beer(s)! …..in contrast to your recent experience tasting gluten free beers not made with barley.

  13. May 2, 2012 at 7:04 pm #

    As water has always been one of the biggest influences over the beer styles produced by a specific region, I’d say that it gets my vote. But because the question is about which component of beer impacts my enjoyment of it most, I’m going to have to go with the hops.

    Though honestly, the whole stool analogy really hits the nail on the head…

    • May 3, 2012 at 10:51 am #

      Water is a determining factor where many breweries decide to locate their operations. If it tastes like Munich, it’s good!

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