Saturday, July 10, 2010

The Meaning of Beer

I have been reading with interest various posts on other blogs about the terminology we use when talking about our favourite libation; whether than be craft beer, micro beer, real beer or any other of a legion of terms. One post in particular got my attention with the term "imitation beer" to describe beer made with various additives and industrial processes. All this hair splitting though got me thinking about the ultimate basic question for us tipplers, what is beer?

A simple enough question you might think, but it is really a fundamental one.

According to'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.
We can forget about the last definition there for the sake of this post. The second definition is certainly interesting, especially given that once upon a time both ginger beer and root beer were alcoholic and it is pretty much only since Prohibition that they became soft drinks.

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.


  1. Couldn't agree more with the statement in your final paragraph. Just because we love craft beer does not mean that we should condescend to question people who drink beers brewed by the macro's. Would the roles be reversed if we were all drinking flavourful, hoppy craft beer, I am sure if this were the case that there would be a small cohort of people looking to drink what we now consider to be bland mass produced beer.

  2. And we should remember that brewing was at the forefront of science in the 19C. Microbiology was pretty much a product of the investigation of fermentation.

    Science in brewing isn't evil. I bet Westvleteren have a shiny laboratory. The evil is crap beer, whether produced by a macrobrewery or a craft brewery.


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Anyone with even the most cursory interest in German beer knows about Reinheitsgebot, the famed Bavarian "Beer Purity" law enacted...