Summer is approaching, and this year’s crop of summer seasonal craft beers will soon be on the shelves!Most of these beers will be wheat-laced (I’m looking forward to Mendo’s White Ale), because wheat tends to give the beer a lighter, tarter flavor that suits the warmer days of summer. But wheat is only one of several grains that can be used to brew beer, and the choice of grain has a significant impact on the beer’s personality.
Grains form the backbone of beer. They contribute to the flavor, color and mouth feel of the beer while also providing the sugars the yeast require in order to produce alcohol. Grains are cereals, and most people agree that beer was first brewed as source of stored nutrition. The alcohol content of early beers was relatively low, around 3 percent, and the beverage was consumed by children as well as adults. European monks, who still create some of the most respected beers in the world, originally brewed beer as a way to provide nourishment to the townspeople and as their own source of nutrition during religious fasts.
Barley is the oldest known and still most commonly used brewing grain, with evidence of its use in brewing dating back as far as 3500 BC. It is well suited to the task of beer making—easy to work with and lending a clean, sweet flavor to the beer. Barley is sprouted and dried (malted) and roasted before brewing, and the amount of roast will determine the flavor, aroma and color of the final product. Although many brewers will also add grains such as wheat or rye to their brews, barley will generally make up the bulk of the beer’s grain bill. The other grains are considered adjuncts.
As a brewing grain, wheat is second only to barley, and it is the central ingredient in styles such as Belgian Wits and Hefeweizens (claiming up to 50 percent of the grain bill). Beers made from large percentages of wheat tend to be smooth and light, and wheat beers are often released as spring or summer seasonals. Wheat also contains more protein than barley, which results in beers with a silky mouthfeel and thick, long-lasting heads. (Some brewers will even add a bit of wheat to their ‘non-wheat’ brews strictly to improve the foam retention.) Most wheat beers—though not all—are also left unfiltered, which gives them a slight haze from both the proteins and the suspended yeast.
Rye gives beer a spicy, dry taste and a slight, bitter twist. Rye beers were once very popular in northern European countries, but a spell of bad harvests in 15th century Bavaria helped lead to the creation of the Reinheitsgebot, a declaration ruling that rye and wheat would only be used for baking bread (reserving the more difficult-to-mill barley for brewing beer). A little rye goes a long way, and today any beer brewed with rye is generally considered a rye beer, with most recipes containing only about 10 to 20 percent. Many American craft brewers like to pair the spicy flavors of rye with a hoppy bitterness.
Oats have a high percentage of proteins, fats and oils, which give beer a rich, smooth texture and help to produce a thick, creamy head.Once a popular brewing ingredient in medieval Europe, the practice of brewing with oats seems to have almost died out until the early part of the 20th century, when brewers initiated its revival by touting the nutritional qualities of these ‘porridge-like’ brews.Today, oats are most commonly represented in oatmeal stouts, where they make up 5 to 10 percent of the grain bill.
Corn and Rice
Often viewed with suspicion because of their association with pale, macro lagers, corn and rice can add their own desirable characteristics to beer. Corn will lighten the body and color of a beer without adding much flavor beyond a subtle sweetness, and is also a common adjunct in full-bodied, British bitters. Rice is used to help create a crisp, dry taste, and also imparts almost no flavor.
How seriously do you consider the ingredients in your beer? Do you feel beer should stick to its historical roots, or do you welcome new additions like basil and lime? Let us know in the comments below!