Imagine pouring a glass of your favorite craft beer. The fizzy froth that forms as it gurgles into the glass. The sweet, bready, and roasty aromas that captivate the nose. The rich and lustrous golden hues that please the eye. The delicious malty flavor that fills the mouth. And then that little extra something that delivers a blissful, easing sensation that stimulates smiles and sociability.
We can thank the good efforts of the beer’s brewer for delivering this simple yet spellbinding moment to us. But together with the brewer we must appreciate that which truly made this moment possible: grain!
Grain is responsible for much of beer’s make up. The appearance, aroma, taste, and even alcohol content of a beer are greatly determined by the type and treatment of the grain used to brew it. The myriad styles of beer we enjoy today are the result of resourceful and innovative brewers of the last several millennia.
Brewers honed their craft in the same way many regional culinary traditions develop, by using locally available ingredients. For the temperate regions in the Northern hemisphere to the moisture-rich valleys of sub-Saharan Africa, this meant grain. It is speculated that at one point in the early days of agriculture, a vessel of grain was mistakenly left in the rain. In an attempt to salvage the lot it was consumed shortly afterward. The pleasing result led to experimentation and refinement, and eventually brewing was born.
In order for harvested grain to be useful for brewing, it needs to be sprouted. To do this, it undergoes a process called malting. Malting begins with steeping the grain in a bath of warm water for 48 hours until a 43-48% moisture content is achieved. Next, the water is removed and the grains are placed in a warm, dry environment where they are allowed to germinate. Once this has been achieved, the grain is heated in a kiln, drying first and then curing at higher temperatures. The end product is a brewery-ready base malt. Further kilning can roast the malt and create specialty malts, which are utilized by the brewer to create specific styles and impart particular flavor profiles. When malts are milled and mashed and ready to be brewed, it is called a grist.
The grain that came to stand out as the most suitable for brewing is barley. Barley works best for beer brewing for a number of reasons: it is easy to grow in large quantities over several seasons, it carries a husk that aids in keeping the mash loose and well drained during the brewing process, and it is rich in carbohydrates which can be converted into fermentable sugars.
The value of barley was not lost on the ancients. Historians speculate that barley cultivation for brewing dates back to the Neolithic age, when barley was once used as a form of currency. It was one of the first domesticated grains to appear in the Fertile Crescent of Western Asia and along the Nile of Northeast Africa. Ancient Egyptian folklore tells of Osiris, god of agriculture, mixing barley with sacred Nile water. After becoming distracted long enough for his decoction to ferment, he drank it, loved it, and decided to gift it to mankind. In 1324 AD, King Edward II of England declared that three barleycorns laid end to end be the length of an “inch.” The inch as a unit of measurement obviously stuck.
Other grains besides barley can be malted and brewed into beer, usually added alongside a percentage of barley in the grist. Some such grains are wheat, rye, and oats. As with barley, different grains yields distinct flavor characteristics, and the particular grain content is carefully adjusted by the brewer to impart a desired flavor and body to the beer.
Brewers of gluten-free beer have various options. They can use ingredients that contain no gluten, such as sorghum, rice, millet, corn, buckwheat, and chestnuts. They may also use barley even though unprocessed barley contains gluten protein. Since the malting and brewing process converts proteins (such as gluten) into non-harmful amino acids, the resulting beer can be classified gluten-free if each batch tests lower the 20 ppm allowable threshold for gluten-free labeling. There is debate as to whether this is safe for all levels of gluten intolerance, and those with higher gluten sensitivity might want to avoid barley-containing beer.
For consumers concerned with the presence of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), there are no GMO barleys currently sold on the market. The only GMO grain to look out for is corn, which is used in many mass-produced beers as an adjunct ingredient. Since the vast majority of craft beer brewers follow adjunct-free recipes, you should expect a GMO-free beverage with craft beer!
From our Neolithic ancestors through the ancient Egyptians and medieval Europeans, up to the craft beer culture of our own region, let us raise a glass to what made it all happen… and that fills the glass we raise! The glorious Grain!
Try for yourself! Here are some beers that carry unique grain recipes.
Sierra Nevada Ruthless Rye: A complex, blackpepper spiciness can be detected beneath the bold malt and hop flavors with the inclusion of rye in this beer’s recipe.
Harvester Brewing Pale Ale: This gluten-free beer is made with chestnuts, sorghum, and oats.
Ninkasi Oatis Oatmeal Stout: The addition of oats to this stout imparts a slight dry sourness and a full body to the beer.