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.