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Beer is an alcoholic beverage brewed with grains, water and yeast.

There are many different types of beer, the two most well known being Ales and Lagers. Ale is brewed with ale yeast, which reproduces on the top of a vat of beer, and needs warmer temperatures to work in. It leaves some sugars unconverted into alcohol, thus giving ales the potential to be somewhat sweeter than other types of beer. Ales are also somewhat fruitier. Lagers use lager yeast, which reproduces at the bottom of a vat of beer, and so can stand lower temperatures. This yeast is also more efficient at converting sugar into alcohol, making lagers dryer-tasting beers.

In wine making, fruit provides the sugar needed to make the beverage alcoholic. In beer making, grains have starch instead of sugar, but that starch can be converted into the sugar needed through a process called "malting" which allows naturally occurring enzymes to do the conversion. The enzymes are triggered into action by germinating the grains: soaking them in water for a few days, then drying them out by placing them in a kiln where the dryness stops the enzyme process and further germination.

Barley is a typical grain for beer. It's kilned at 80 C for use in pale beers. For use in darker beers, such as porters and stous, it's kilned at higher temperatures of 150 - 180C to cause carmelization. Once the grain has been processed like this, it's referred to as malt. The person looking after the process is called a "maltster."

The malted grain is then put into water and heated. This mixture of malt and heated water is called a "wort." The sugars in the malt leech out into the water, causing it to become a sweet, brown liquid.

The water used is important for the ultimate characteristics of the beer that will be produced. In Burton-on-Trent, England, brewmasters there decided to specialize in pale ales, as the sulphates in the water there made the water a bit more bitter from the get-go, and so limited the use of hops. In Europe, brewers using water from the Pilsen river used were able to use large amounts of hops, as the water from the river was mild. Darker ales came to be made in southern England, and in Dublin, Ireland, because the water in those areas was alkaline and rich in carbonates, which in a beer nicely balances the acidity found in barley which has been malted to be darker. Nowadays, industrial brewing will use additives which give the water the chemical characteristics that the brewers want, so that they aren't dependent on the local water necessarily having what they are looking for.

The wort mixture is then boiled. The next ingredient to be added, hops, can be added either before the boil, at the end of it, or after. Adding the hops early in the boiling stage gives extra bitterness; adding them at the end or after preserves the aromatic oils in the hops better, meaning a more aromatic beer.

Beer without hops is way too sweet, and without hops, which act as a preservative, beer can turn sour fast. Prior to hops, people used various herbs (including bog myrtle, meadowsweet and rosemary) and spices to add bitterness and act as a preservative, but hops were found to give better results and soon displaced other flavourings.

At this point, the liquid will pretty much taste, and look, like swamp water. The liquid is cooled, and yeast added. The first stage of fermentation begins. At this stage, there is lots of oxygen and easily digestible sugars in the liquid, so the yeast grows quickly. The second stage of fermentation is when yeast growth slows down. The yeast now gets to work transforming the heavier sugars in the liquid into alcohol and carbon dioxide. Different yeast strains have the ability to influence the character of the beer being made. Some make a beer taste fruitier if they produce a lot of "ester" compounds, some make a beer taste spicier if they produce a lot of "phenol" compounds, etc.

Bottled versus canned beer

Higher end beers tend to be sold in bottles, rather than cans. Some feel that cans affect the taste of the beer, despite the plastic resin coating inside them, and that re-usable bottle are more environmentally friendly. Still, some microbrewers of craft beers have found that sales are better in single cans, and cite a study done for Coca-cola in the UK concluding that the carbon footprint for cans is half that of bottles. They also feel that cans reduce spoilage caused by light. [2]

As per DIN standard 6099, a metal beer bottle cap will have 21 points on its edges. This has been determined overtime based on the chances of the cap sticking in capping machines, the chances of the metal becoming too frail and splitting, and the circumference of the caps. [1]

Ways of serving beer

There has been an unspoken prohibition against serving Beer with dinner, though brewers of craft beers are trying to change that. Mexican and Indian food are two of the few foods that you can serve Beer with, without having anyone look askance at you. Perhaps part of what's wrong is the glassware; a pint glass doesn't look quite right on a fancy dinner table.

A "Half and Half" is half a pint of bitter with half a pint of mild Beer added to it.

A "Black Velvet" is half black stout, half champagne, traditionally served in a silver or pewter mug along with steak, kidney and oyster pie.

A "Shandy" is ale mixed with ginger ale. To be more accurate, it should be ginger Beer, but most people now, even in England, use ginger ale instead (Schweppes can be better than Canada Dry, which is very sweet.)

Lager and lime is lager mixed with Rose's Lime Cordial, in any proportion to taste.

Try a slice of lemon in a pale lager -- it's a habit in Munich; in Mexico, a slice of lime is often used instead.

Aging Beers

Typically, the longest a beer is allowed to "age" is a few months, which is the time required to ferment lager beers.

A few beers will actually age well when stored for a few years: beers such as barley wines, Belgian strong ales, bottle-conditioned ales, and Russian imperial stouts. As they are aged, their taste can get more mellow and rounded. The bitterness gets muted, letting malt sweetness come forward, the aggressiveness of the alcohol taste subsides, and the beer becomes a bit more viscous.

The Myth of Weak American Beer

Many American Beers have their alcohol content measured and indicated as Alcohol by Weight (ABW), which gives a lower number than measuring the Alcohol by Volume (ABV.) Because most people don't understand the difference, it leads to the myth that American Beers are weaker than British, German or Canadian Beers. In fact, when the ABW number of American Beers is converted to an ABV number, a different story emerges.

By WeightBy Volume
American Ales*4.25% - 4.5%5.3% - 5.6%
British Ales (and bitters)2.4% - 3.04%3.0% - 3.8%
American Lagers3.6% to 3.8%4.5% to 4.7%
British Lagers2.6% - 3.2%3.2% - 3.9%
British Stouts and Porters2.8% - 3.2%3.5% - 4%
Guinness Draught3.4%4.2%
Canadian Beershigh 3's to low 4's rangehigh 4's to low 5's range

* A few states mandate that to be labelled a Beer the alcohol content must be less than 3.2 by weight (4% by volume); anything above that for them must be labelled a "malt liquor."

Cooking Tips

Beer is often, and unfairly, seen as a "trailer park" ingredient in cooking, when compared to wine.

Some swear by beer as a meat tenderizer. But don't marinate meat in beer for more than two hours.

Some say beer makes frying batters crispier and airier, in addition to adding colour and taste.

If you want to use beer to deglaze a pan, put some water or stock in a pan first, to bring down the heat of the pan. Otherwise, the extreme heat can accentuate the bitter hops taste of the beer. Beer shouldn't be more than 1/3 to 1/2 of a deglazing liquid mixture.

Sweeter beers can be used as a glaze on fowl before roast.


When a heavier Beer is called for, such as a stout or a bitter, you can try substituting mushroom or beef stock, or red wine. When a lighter Beer such as an ale or lager is called for, try substituting chicken or vegetable stock, white wine, white grape juice, apple juice or ginger ale.

History Notes

The Sumerians were the first to grow grain specially for making beer from.

The Romans would not drink Beer; they considered it barbarian.

A Viking brew stick was a stick used for stirring beer wort with. These sticks would be handed down in families generation after generation, and were regarded as having almost mystical properties for making the beer turn out right. Turns out, the magic was yeast cells on the stick from the previous batch that would get into the wort when you stirred with the stick. The stick carried the strain of yeast from batch to batch, generation to generation. The brewers had no idea why the sticks worked, only that they did, and of course the concept of "yeast" was centuries away from being discovered at the time.

Even the dour Pilgrims brought Beer with them in 1690 to America. They had to, as water would go stale and couldn't be trusted on long sea voyages.

One of the first things the Pilgrims did was organize making Beer. But the Pilgrims weren't the first colonists by far, and Beer production was already flourishing in America: even John Harvard, when he founded Harvard in 1636, had made sure that a brewhouse was built to supply the students.

George Washington had a recipe for "small beer" that used molasses as the sugar for the yeast, instead of malted barley. The beer that he preferred, though, was Porter.

Vassar Female College was founded in 1861 by Matthew Vassar from the proceeds of his Hudson Valley Brewery.

For a while, Beer faced a tough challenge from cider (all cider was "hard", or alcoholic in those days). Prohibition finally killed off hard cider. Nationwide prohibition was in effect from 1920 until 1933. 1,250 breweries went out of business during prohibition; the 750 still around afterwards had survived by making soft drinks and other food products.

Literature & Lore

Elizabeth Barrett Browning would not drink Porter.

"Cerevisiam bibat!" ("Let us drink beer!") -- Hildegard of Bingen (16 September 1098 – 17 September 1179).

"To Make Small Beer: Take a large Siffer [Sifter] full of Bran Hops to your Taste. -- Boil these 3 hours then strain out 30 Gall[ons] into a cooler put in 3 Gall[ons] Molasses while the Beer is Scalding hot or rather draw the Melasses into the cooler & St[r]ain the Beer on it while boiling Hot. let this stand till it is little more than Blood warm then put in a quart of Yea[s]t if the Weather is very Cold cover it over with a Blank[et] & let it Work in the Cooler 24 hours then put it into the Cask -- leave the bung open till it is almost don[e] Working -- Bottle it that day Week it was Brewed." -- George Washington.

"...ale, porter and stout [were] all sold by potboys employed by pubs and taverns. They walked the streets, smartly dressed in white aprons and white sleeves, usually carrying wooden frames divided lengthways into two compartments, into which they slotted their foaming cans, with a measuring jug hooked on the side, although some preferred long sticks with up to twenty cans dangling by their wire handles. On weekday evenings these boys had set routes to supply local residents with their supper beer, but householders could also call to a potboy as he passed..... after the beer was finished, the pots, which were the property of the pub, were hung on the house-railings outside, to be collected by the potboys early the following morning..... In Nicholas Nickleby, there is one square in Soho that is almost entirely let out in lodgings, in which 'every doorway [is] blocked up and rendered nearly impassable by a motley collection of children and porter pots of all sizes..... in Dombey and Son, somewhere in a backstreet in Mayfair, 'the top of every rail ... [is] decorated with a pewter-pot'." -- Flanders, Judith. The Victorian City. London: Atlantic Books. 2012. Page 287 - 288, discussing London in the mid 1800s.


[1] O'Hare, Mick. Food science and food myths: James Bond may have been onto something. London: Daily Telegraph. 5 October 2010.

[2] Luxmore, Crystal. Yes, they can. Got a problem with that? Toronto, Canada: The Grid. 15 June 2011.

Bowles, Tom Parker. Dinner is poured: Cooking with your favourite ale. London: Daily Mail. 14 November 2009.

Bundesministerium der Finanzen. Vorläufiges Biergesetz. BierStG 1 bis 25. Retrieved 12 September 2005 from http://bundesrecht.juris.de/bundesrecht/bierstg/

Connelly, Andy. The science and magic of beer. Manchester: The Guardian. 29 July 2011.

Gill, Alexandra. Cellared beer: when fresh doesn't mean better. Toronto: The Globe and Mail. 29 November 2011.

Swaine, Jon. George Washington's beer recipe. London: Daily Telegraph. 5 May 2011.

See also:


Ale; Bavarian Beer Purity Laws; Beer; Black and Tan; Gruit; Hops; Lager; Nitrogenated Beer

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Also called:

Bière (French); Bier (German); Birra (Italian); Cerveza (Spanish); Cerveja (Portuguese)


Oulton, Randal. "Beer." CooksInfo.com. Published 02 November 2003; revised 25 June 2012. Web. Accessed 05/20/2018. <http://www.cooksinfo.com/beer>.

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