A simple enough question you might think, but it is really a fundamental one.
According to dictionary.com's sources, the noun "beer" has three main descriptions:
- an alcoholic beverage made by brewing and fermentation from cereals, usually malted barley, and flavored with hops and the like for a slightly bitter taste.
- any of various beverages, whether alcoholic or not, made from roots, molasses or sugar, yeast, etc.: root beer; ginger beer.
- an individual serving of beer; a glass, can, or bottle of beer: We'll have three beers.
The first definition is interesting for several reasons. Firstly it acknowledges that while malted barley is the dominant cereal used in brewing, it is not the only grain. Naturally we immediately think about wheat, rye and oats for use in beer, but there are plenty of historical accounts of the use of rice and maize - both during the Colonial era in America, and more recently in the United Kingdom. Indeed I can think of at least one Czech brewer that makes a corn beer, a well respected "micro-brewer" no less. Clearly the definition was not written by a hop maniac, as so many of the revered beers of the craft brew world are somewhat more than "slightly bitter".
If this were a case of international politics, we would probably stand aghast at the imposition of a given country's perception of beer on other brewing traditions, yet this is exactly what happens with the near sanctification of something like Reinheitsgebot. For some reason we have it in our collective heads that beer must only be made with barley, hops, yeast and water, but that immediately raises problems for beer lovers everywhere, especially those convinced that Westvleteren is the greatest beer to ever exist, after all it uses an adjunct of sugar.
One of the comments I found most interesting in this post refers to the processes undertaken by macro brewers, specifically "all that science tweaking a molecule here and a compound there", as though the application of science is in some way evil. Now consider what many breweries do by using water stripped of the natural minerals local to an area and then adding various salts to mimic brewing waters for certain beer styles. Is this not the exact same thing, as such all beers that add gypsum to burtonise their water should have to label their brews as "imitation Burton ales"?
I tend to the opinion these days that if a beer is accepted as such by the majority of drinkers then who am I to say it is not really beer? I may not like most of the beers from multinational brewers, but they are still beer.