Nowadays there are no shortages of different ingredients that can be added to beer, everything from spices like coriander and cinnamon to herbs like rosemary and sage. But by in large the main ingredients for beer are Water, Hops, Yeast and Grain. With these four ingredients alone you could make hundreds, maybe even thousands of different combinations of recipes, but what if I told you some ingredients were more important than others? What would you say is the most important ingredient in beer?
If you consider yourself a hop head like me, you would probably put hops at the top of the list. I believe the majority of people, hop heads or not, would say they are the most significant ingredient in beer. Well, I am here to tell you that you are wrong! In fact, I contend that hops are the least important ingredient of the four listed above.
But how can this be so, you say? Well first off, hops are a relative newcomer to beer. According to Tasting Beer by Randy Mosher, hops were first used in the beer making process around year 1000 in the North German town of Bremen. Before then beer was made with a herb and spice combination called gruit that contained things like Bog myrtle (sweet gale), Yarrow, and Rosemary to name a few. Hopped beer wasn’t even fully accepted until around 1500 when it started showing up in England, introduced by Flemish immigrants, whereas beer was first made around 10,000 BC and became well established by the year 3,000 BC.
So are hops really that vital if beer has been brewed for thousands of years without them? Even today only a few beer styles contain massive amounts of hops (although they are some of my favorites). Styles such as Stouts or Lagers have a much greater emphasis on grains and yeast character, which are defining for their respective styles.
Ok, so hops aren’t the “most important” ingredient, but com’on they aren’t the least important, are they? If I were to rank the ingredients from most to least important it would go something like Yeast (1), Water (2), Grain (3) and Hops last, but this can kind of vary based on style.
I say yeast is the most important ingredient because it is the biological machine that actually makes beer, beer. It takes the sugary water that is extracted from the grain and does all the manual labor of converting the sugars into alcohol. This process is so powerful and mysterious that in olden times it was thought to have been magic that causes this transformation before science was able to explain the phenomenon.
Another thing to consider, from a brewing perspective, is that hops will not necessarily ruin your beer if they are not used properly or are of poor quality. Brewers often have to overcome bad hop harvests and can still produce a beer that is of the same quality. However, if you mess up the yeast, whether it be fermenting at too high of a temperature or if it becomes infected, this can render your beer virtually undrinkable.
Water is also very important; it was once thought impossible to brew a pale beer in Munich because the water chemistry was such that it did not allow for it. It was not until the 1870s that water treatment was understood and various local styles were then able to be brewed almost anywhere. In fact, you could say the very reason there are different styles of beer is because the local water would dictate the type of beer a region could produce. Beer is almost entirely ALL water, I mean ya that is kind of important. It is also important to note that the brewing process uses about five liters of water for every liter of beer produced.
Grain could be argued as the most important ingredient, as this is where the sugary goodness comes from that the yeast later converts to alcohol. Grain is also responsible for much of the flavor and texture you find in beer. Grains can be lightly malted to produce pale beers, or more roasted to create darker colors that contribute caramel and chocolate flavors, and the type of grain you use can really dictate the style of beer.
Now do not take this rant to mean that hops aren’t important, they are, and as an admitted hop-head and red blooded San Diegan I love them. Everything from the wonderful aroma and the balancing effects of their bitterness, to the preservation qualities that hops provide, make them the perfect complimentary piece to beer. But the way beer is marketed to the mainstream today it can seem that the only thing to beer at times is hops. So I say let’s slow our roll here, step back and appreciate the other fine qualities that go into making beer. Cheers!