Beer is simple. It's a fermented beverage made primarily of 4 ingredients.
With us so far?
So we've got 4 ingredients.
Water - Relatively self-explanatory stuff. Two Hydrogens and one oxygen in chemical bliss. Water is extremely important to beer. Water makes up anywhere between 90-95% of the volume of beer, depending on the style of the beer.
Malt - Malt is a toasted grain and the flavor backbone of all beer. "Malting" is a process, and refers to the process of germinating and then drying and kilning any sort of grain used in a fermented beverage. In most beer, the "malt" is barley, but it can be wheat, rye, etc. In most cases, "Malted Barley" and "Malt" are used interchangeably in brewing vernacular. Malt provides the all-important sugar and earthy, baseline flavor for all beer.
Hops - Humulus lupulus. This happy little plant flower provides the balancing flavors and aromas to help balance the sweetness of the malt. There are many varietals of hops in the world, all with different contributing flavors and aromas, similar to the different grape varietals used to make wine. Hops are fresh, bitter, highly aromatic, and critical to almost all beer styles.
Yeast - Yeast are living, single cellular organisms. The old saying in brewing says that "brewers make wort, yeast makes beer", and that's exactly right. Bakers use yeast to add leavening and flavor to their bread, and brewers use it for the exact same thing. Yeast eats through the short and long chain sugars in unfermented beer and makes the beer alcoholic and carbonated, amongst other things. This process is called "fermentation".
Wait! That simply wasn't enough detail. I wanna learn more about:
Your next question is going to be: But how do breweries make so many different kinds of beer if they all use the same basic ingredients?!
Great question! We'll keep using bread references because the process of brewing and baking bread are extremely similar. Think of all the great bread styles out there (Baguette, Italian, Rye, Sourdough, etc). All of them use the same basic ingredients right? The key is the proportion, style, and process for combining these ingredients. Beer is the exact same way. There are zillions of kinds of water sources, grains, hops, and yeast strains that can be used to make beer. We used zillion because no one knows the exact number. There's a bunch, that's the point.
Beer can also be brewed with the following ingredients. These are called additives and adjuncts and are not the primary ingredients in most beer.
Question - I heard that some of the ingredients used in brewing make it "not real beer", like rice and fruit. Does this disqualify a beer if it has these ingredients?
In modern brewing, many brewers and consumers in the craft beer community look down on some of these ingredients as "filler" and therefore an invalid or evil ingredient in beer. Some breweries do use these ingredients as a "filler" or replacement for quality ingredients (ahem...think really, really big breweries), but 95% of craft brewers do not abuse them. These ingredients can be used in healthy amounts to make a beer unique, flavorful, and truly representative of traditional and progressive brewing techniques. So don't hate. Inform yourself and enjoy!
Ok. So we've got our ingredients, and you're somewhat knowledgable on what these ingredients are used for. Now we need to combine them to make beer. Often times, just like baking, it's a simple recipe using complicated terminology.
In any one cycle of brewing a beer, a brewer might encounter fun stuff like:
Mash (or Mashing) - Both a noun and a verb, mash is the liquid that results from "mashing", which is the process of removing the useable sugars and carbohydrates from grain by heating them in water. We're not boiling here, however...we're talking water temperatures around 145-155 degrees Fahrenheit. This is enough to extract the sugar and activate the dormant enzymes in our malt.
Sparge (or Sparging) - When you're done mashing, you want to make sure you get every last bit of useable sugar from the spent grain (malt), so you spray it with more hot water and filter this out. This is Sparging.
A Tun (mash or lautering) - Big metal containers used to mix our malt with hot water (mash tun) and then remove the spent malt from the water, which is a process called "lautering" (hence - lauter tun).
Wort (pronounced "wert") - The resulting liquid from boiling your grains (malt) in water. It's sweet, grainy, and doesn't really taste like beer at this point. Wort is the backbone of beer.
Brew Kettle - This is big metal vessel where you boil your wort and add hops.
Fermentation Tank - This is where you put your wort/hop mixture after it's done boiling. Adding yeast at this point starts the fermentation process and turns your wort into beer!
Conditioning Tank - Sometime, additional time in another giant metal container is good for the beer. This allows the ingredients to mix for a while longer and get nice and cozy with each other. Depending on the beer style, conditioning is a necessary part of brewing.
Do you need to know this stuff? If you're a professional brewer...yes. You should know all of this and much more. If you're not a brewer, and you're still reading this, then good for you! You're a more informed beer drinker. This knowledge will help inform your palate as you drink more beer and understand the background and evolution of each style.