The Chemistry of Beer – Part 1

Beers Basic Ingredients

The Chemistry of Beer

“Beer” we all know it, we all love it, we all know it tastes great and makes us feel good. We all know how it’s made in big oak barrels being carted around behind Clydesdale’s and some of us even know how it’s made from boiled wheat with hops in it…Right?            

Uh nah!

It’s funny how a country so entrenched with beer culture can be so ill informed when it comes to what beer is and how it’s made. I’ve always found it difficult to understand how the majority of beer drinkers couldn’t care less what goes into their beverage of choice “just knock the top off it and drink it”! Well luckily this mentality has been changing over the past 10 year’s or so and slowly but surely the days of drinking a particular brand because “that’s what my father drank” are dying out and a new beer drinker is emerging from the depths of Australia’s lake of Lagers.

This new beer drinker is equipped with a thirst for knowledge and wants to know what goes into his or her glass. It’s become trendy to know hop varieties by name and aroma and to brandish the term crystal malts between sips, but still the majority of beer drinkers couldn’t tell you what beer is made from or indeed how it’s made. 

One of the first things people ask me when they find out I’m a brewer isn’t “how do you make beer”? but it’s “how long does it take before you can drink it”? Unfortunately this says a lot about the Aussie beer drinker. 

So to that end let’s talk a bit about beer, what goes into your glass and how it made it there, so that way you’ll be better equipped to lock horns with that beer nerd down your local,  impress the opposite sex with your new found super power and watch them go weak at the knees with your beer knowledge. I don’t want to “nerd out” too much but enough to help you understand how beer goes from “Grain to your Brain”  So lets talk ingredients.


(Chemical formula: H2O) it’s a transparent fluid that forms the world’s rain, rivers, lakes and oceans, and is the major constituent of fluids in us and other stuff… yeah probably didn’t need to go there but it does make up on average around 95% of your beer so it’s very important. Water chemistry is vital even at a home brewing level. Adjusting how hard or soft (the ph level) the brewing water is can have a big impact on the beer body and flavor, Pilsner’s are historically brewed with soft or alkaline water’s and IPA’S benefit from harder or more acidic water which help lift hop aroma, flavors and bitterness. Hardness and softness also refers to the amount of sulfate, calcium and other ions in the water which can be adjusted and be used to mimic water profiles of famous brewing areas from around the world. All in all water is the body of our beer.


It’s the source of the carbohydrates that yeast use to make the alcohol and it’s where the majority of beer’s flavor comes from (dependent on style). There are many forms of grain used in beer production and it’s style dependent to which is used, but they include, Barely, Wheat, Rye, millet, sorghum and cassava, Secondary sources of fermentable carbohydrates or (adjuncts), can include maize (corn), rice, or sugar. For the most part Barley is the main grain used in beer, it goes through a process called malting and is referred to as Malt when used for brewing beer, we’ll talk more on malting in the second part of this article. The grain is also kilned to various roasts not unlike coffee is, the darker the roast the darker the flavors. All beer recipes use what is referred to as a base malt, one that’s been lightly kilned, and this forms the main source of the fermentables the yeast will use to produce the alcohol. Added to this the brewer will use what are termed as specialty malts (malts that have been kilned to various levels) to produce the flavor and colour he or she desires. Grain is the engine, nuts and bolts of our beer.


The flowers or (cones) of the “Humulus lupulus” plant. If grain is your main ingredient then hop’s are your spices to add that zing to your recipe and bring it all together. Hops actually bring more than one thing to the table. Firstly  they impart bitterness into our beer through the release of isomerized Alpha acids, secondly they give beer flavor and aroma through the release of essential oils and flavonoids and last but not least they help to preserve beer, hop’s have an anti bacterial property that helps to ward off infections and pathogens that might otherwise infect and ruin our beer. There are literally hundreds of hop varieties and each have their own flavor, aroma and bitterness. Primarily used in the boiling process, however they can also be used during later stages of fermentation in a process called dry hopping as well as during the Mash, we’ll talk more about how hops are used in part 2 of this article. Hop’s are the bling, the custom paint job of beer.


These little guy’s are freaking awesome! Oh the life of yeast, swimming around in carbohydrates (in this case wort but more on that in part 2) eating them up and pooping alcohol. Yep it’s good to be a single cell organism. It wasn’t until the invention of the microscope followed by the pioneering scientific work of Louis Pasteur in the late 1860’s that yeast was identified as a living organism and this was closely followed by the ability to isolate single strains and culture them for brewing. Before this the brewers were at the hands of the winds and relied on air born or yeast living in the wood of the cool ships (fermenters) to inoculate their wort. There are currently around 1500 species of yeast identified and of those it’s the Saccharomyces cerevisiae family that are mainly used for brewing. There are many types of brewers yeasts, the type used is dependent on the style of beer being brewed. Yeast can have a huge impact on the flavor and body of a beer and changing just the yeast type in a recipe can give you a completely new beer. Yeast consume carbohydrates produced by the grain and convert them into alcohol and c02. They are the interchangeable wheels that get everything moving from W to B.

The Chemistry of Beer

Water, Malt, Hops and Yeast! These four ingredients (and the Chemistry of Beer) are all that’s needed to make a great tasting beer. Indeed in Germany this is all beer is allowed to be brewed with. The beer purity law (Reinheitsgebot) stipulates that no other ingredients can be used. As for the rest of the world? Well in there lies a whole new topic and I’ll definitely be talking about the things that shouldn’t be in beer but I’ll leave this sensitive issue on the hook for now.

Well my beer brethren this concludes part 1 of The Chemistry of Beer. I hope this helps you better understand the four ingredients that lubricate your life. Next week in part 2 we’ll be taking a closer look at how grain becomes malt and delve into the brewing process.

So stay tuned, drink up and brew strong!

The Alechemist.

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