“Pure mountain spring water, the best hops and the finest malt provide the unmistakable taste of our unique beer.” Sound familiar? Must. Because it’s written in similar form on many labels of traditional lagers. But since paper is patient and can’t fight back, the question naturally arises: is what it says on the beer label true? Is it really the case that these three ingredients have a significant influence on the taste of beer?
Four ingredients for a hallelujah
In order to be able to answer the question conclusively I would like to take a step back and recapitulate, what are the ingredients to a beer. Water, hops and malt have already been mentioned; yeast is often simply omitted from beer labels. As, by the way, also in the German purity law, which also does not originate from 1516 but from 1993 and above all had protectionism in mind – excursion completed.
Besides the mentioned ingredients, practically everything can thus be thrown into a beer that gives flavor, is tolerable for humans and does not prevent fermentation. However, in order not to make things unnecessarily complex here, the addition of additives such as vanilla, cocoa or cherries is to be excluded here for once. Because, of course, the typical taste of belgian kriek makes the co-fermentation of cherries.
Hard or rather soft?
So that leaves the focus on water, hops, malt and yeast as the flavoring agents of beer. But can water, as long as it is pure, have any influence at all on the taste of beer? Drinking water is different everywhere, and this “being different” is primarily related to the substances with which the water came into contact before being consumed. In Switzerland and many other countries, drinking water is either groundwater or spring water. Rainwater, when it seeps into the ground, takes quite different and much or little minerals with it, depending on the location. The minerals, especially sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium, chloride, sulfate and nitrate ionize the water, it becomes hard, as this is colloquially called.
The water hardness in Switzerland is basically high and is indicated with the French hardness. It is not equal to the German hardness and converts as follows: °fH x 0.56 = °dH. Calcium has a very high influence on water hardness and is often the most highly represented element in Swiss drinking water. Calcium or calcium compounds (e.g. with oxygen) also ensure, to put it simply, that the water becomes alkaline, i.e. that it has a high pH value above 7.
That’s all well and good, but does the brewing water now affect the taste? Soft water (pH value below 7 and thus rather acidic) allows the malt flavor to come out especially, which is particularly important for pilsners and other lagers. Besides, it also increases the shelf life of the beer. Accordingly, soft waters with a slightly acidic pH are basically best suited for pale ales. Water with a high pH value is correspondingly well suited for brewing dark beers. This is because the dark malts lead to acidic mash and the alkaline water neutralizes some of this acid. In addition, however, many other substances dissolved in water, such as silica or carbonic acid, also have an influence on taste. If you want to read more about this, you can find more information under the links inserted above.
Water – check – influence on taste confirmed. So is the fresh mountain spring water decisive for the unique taste of a lager? Probably not, because there remain three other ingredients that, as we will see, influence the taste on the palate more decisively than water.
So what about the “best hops”? How does it influence the taste of beer? The answer to this actually offers enough material for a book, but I will also try here to reduce the influence on taste to the essentials.
Hops were not always part of the brewing process. Before that, beer was flavored, for example, with so-called gruit, a mixture of herbs and spices from, for example, henbane, wild rosemary, heather, ginger, mugwort, spruce, but also juniper, caraway, and more. The use of hops was first documented in 736, but did not become established as a seasoning for beer until the 12th or 13th century. Thus, it is already clear that hops have a significant influence on the taste of beer. How much and how varied, however, is still to be clarified.
First, it depends on the type of hops. Here, a distinction is made between continental, English and American hops. Continental hops come from Central Europe, and typical varieties include Hallertau, Tettnang, Spalt, and Czech Saaz. They are used primarily for lagers and are described as having spicy, peppery, floral, and herbal aromas. English hops include East Kent Goldings, Fuggles, Challenger, or Target. They are typically described as herbaceous, grassy, earthy, floral and fruity. American hops include Cascade, Centennial, Chinook, Willamette, and Amarillo. We know you from American Pale Ales and IPAs, where the typical flavor is described with citrus and grapefruit aromas, resin, pine, fruit, and spice. In addition, there are other types of hops, such as those from Australia and New Zealand, which include Nelson Sauvin, Galaxy, or Topaz.
But what makes hops “finest hops”? Apart from hops that can’t be used for brewing due to pests, it’s the ingredients that matter most. Hops are composed of water, sugars, amino acids, salts, chlorophyll, cellulose, proteins and pectin substances. In addition, there are essential oils and bitter substances, which are important for the taste. The latter are composed of alpha and beta acids, and different hops have a different combination of these acids and oils. As with all agricultural products, for good hops the weather must be appropriately right so that the hop cones can mature cleanly. If the weather is poor in a given year, the hops will also not be of the right quality and thus have fewer acids and oils. Likewise, the age of the hop cone, the time since the harvest of the hops and their storage has an impact on the quality. That the hops and the hop quality thus influence the taste can also be affirmed.
In addition to the type and quality of the hops, the time of addition in the brewing process (or during or after fermentation) and the quantity are of course also decisive for the taste of the beer. However, this would be topic enough for a separate article. Referring again to said beer labels of traditional lagers, which also like to score with their long-standing brewing tradition with the drinking, it should be noted that when the beers were created, the selection of hop varieties was much smaller than today, because only the continental hops were available. Accordingly, the possible flavors that could be obtained from the hops are also significantly limited. Even more so because “innovative” techniques such as dry hopping (adding hops after fermentation) were not invented until the 19th century with the IPA in England.
So the “best hops” is also more from the copywriter’s imagination, and perhaps a little basic knowledge of hops and a little less beer in copywriting would have led to more variety on the rennet.
Barley and his acquaintances
The world of malt is also more complex than it might appear at first glance. First, there are various grains that can be used for malt. Mostly it is barley, often wheat and rye, but sometimes also oats, rarely rice, spelt, millet or corn. Malt is therefore grain germinated and dried by malting. How exactly this is done can be found in the compendium.
In addition, a distinction is made between base malts and specialty malts. Base malts include malts such as Pilsner malt, Pale Ale malt and Munich malt. They often make up the bulk of the malt. Special malts such as sour malt, roasted malt and smoked malt serve to refine and differentiate the beers and beer types, whereby in the case of roasted malt, the degree of roasting again influences the taste. The special malts also include caramel malt, which serves primarily to increase the fullness, because the sugar has already been caramelized and is no longer fermented.
The malt used, or the mixture of different malts, therefore also has a great influence on the taste of beer, as it is responsible for its body. Whether malt can also be “noble”, I dare to doubt, however, ultimately the mixture makes the taste.
The divine ingredient
The only thing left to check is the yeast. As mentioned, it is often omitted from the labels. Can it hardly be important for the brewing process and the taste? Of course it is. After all, it is the yeast that makes alcohol from the sugar, i.e. the starch that is dissolved from the malt during mashing. This process produces carbon dioxide, which also gives the beer part of its character. Too little carbon dioxide makes the beer flat. It seems stale. Too much and it shoots out of the wrong bottle when you open it or lies unpleasantly in the stomach.
The fact that yeast is responsible for fermentation was not discovered until the 16th century; before that, God was responsible for the inexplicable change from brewing brew to beer. Then, three centuries later, the first strains of yeast were bred in pure culture. This was an important breakthrough in brewing beer of the same quality and taste every time. Because depending on the yeast strain, the taste of the beer also changes.
Even just the distinction between top-fermenting yeast (often simplified as ales) and bottom-fermenting yeast (often simplified as lagers) has an influence on flavor. For example, only top-fermenting yeast can produce 2-phenylethanol, which has a rose-like flavor and is correspondingly pleasant in a beer, even if it is also one of the off-flavors (see next section). Another example of an aroma that only top-fermenting yeast develops is 4-vinylguajocol. It is reminiscent of cloves and thus is also a desired flavor and is often found in Hefeweizen beers.
In addition, yeast also produces various, often undesirable additional flavors during fermentation, such as acetalydehyde (reminiscent of green apples), diacetyl (buttery aroma), dimethyl sulfide (DMS, reminiscent of corn or cooked vegetables) and others. Beer sommeliers turn up their noses at this, and brewers do their best to adjust the brewing process accordingly to eliminate these “off-flavors.”
For example, a yeast strain with a distinctive flavor is also Brettanomyces bruxellensis. It plays an important role in the production of Belgian Lambics, for example. It has a reputation among brewers for eating through even the last unfermented sugars and, accordingly, changes the flavor of a beer with age.
So the answer is given. Yes, water, hops and malt naturally influence the taste. However, today any water can be prepared accordingly by adding or removing minerals and the pure mountain spring water is at best a relic of beer production before that time. At the same time, only the best hops are actually used, because bad hops would result in bad beer. And more important for the taste is actually the hop type and the time of addition, than whether the hops come from the upper or lower part of the perennial.
In the case of malt, the mixture plays the decisive role, because no one can harvest only the grains on the south side of the stalks. And the yeast continues to be mostly misappropriated, although it is actually the boss in the beer. So the fact that the introductory phrase is practically only on beer labels of traditional lagers shows above all the lack of imagination in the production of these mass products.