The Many Variables That Make a Beer

Packets of hops.

When we asked how Belgian beer could be so cheap, Matthew Curtis suggested on Twitter that their tendency towards relatively conservative hopping could be part of the answer.

This got us thinking. After all, though hop aroma is not something we especially associate with Belgian beer, it is certainly not the case that Belgian beer is bland or homogenous.

Hops are great — we love them — but their amount and variety are far from being the only variables a brewer has to play with.

In fact, two beers made with simple pale malt and ‘boring’ Fuggles could end up tasting and looking completely different, and equally mindblowing, if the following variables were carefully manipulated by a skilled brewer. (Or screwed up by a lazy one.)

Sugars
Dark or clear? Unrefined? Caramelised?
Long boils to darken/caramelise sugars in the wort.

Yeast
Strain selection.
Fermentation temperature.
Blending of multiple strains.
Refinement/customisation in the lab.

Water/minerals
Mash liquor chemistry/softness.
Boil liquor chemistry/softness.

Malt
Custom/homemade malts.
Creative ‘misuse’ of specialty malts.
Belgian/German/British/US version of standard types, e.g. Pilsner malt.
Mash temperature and timing.
Extracts.

Additives
Heather (as in Williams Bros. Fraoch).
Salt (as in gose).
Spices (e.g. coriander).
Herbs.
Chocolate.
Coffee.
Lactose and other unfermentable sugars.
Soured/stale/aged beer.
M&Ms, otter spittle, Mr Kipling apple pies, and so on.

Conditioning
Temperature.
Carbonation levels.
Wood ageing.

And finally…
Hop freshness/age.
Timings of hop additions.
Extract, pellet or whole leaf?

13 thoughts on “The Many Variables That Make a Beer”

  1. PITCHING RATE!!!
    (under ‘Yeast’)

    Process control and type of brew kit are also massive variables.

    1. Now, we had pitching rate in our first draft and took it out because, although it certainly is a variable, we weren’t sure it was one anyone ever manipulated for effect — you either get it right or wrong, but people don’t tweak it to create specific effects, do they? Or maybe they do.

      1. An example would be underpitching a Weisse beer to create more esters (Yeast growth promotes esters)

  2. Thanks for the mention guys! I love both Belgian Beers and more modern highly-hopped brews but can’t help think but the latter have to spend more on their ingredients and the logistics of getting them to the brewery… Another thing to consider (if talking specifically about Trappiste beer) is that most brewers probably pay themselves more money than the Monks do!

    1. As we said in the Belgian beer post, the fact the trappist breweries have efficient, industrialised operations with very efficient processes is the most likely explanation.

      Not quite sure I’d call it mass-produced, though — supply still way below demand, which is what makes the continued relatively low price in most markets so remarkable.

  3. What are you thinking about as “creative mis-use” of special malts? Something like putting some Munich malt into a Pale Ale, for example?

  4. There are far more variables in the mash than you are currently considering.
    Different mashing regimes – thicker or thinner.
    Type of mash employed – simple infusion v. stepped mash. What are the steps – temperature, time?
    Creative mis-use – giving a Porter a decoction.
    Stage at which the dark malts are introduced into the mash.

  5. Nøgne Ø’s first batch of Imperial Brown Ale was famously far better than the second batch. The brewer says the only recipe difference in the two batches is that the malt mill was set to a different gap width.

    So I think you’re going to wind up with a looong list. 🙂

    Some more additions: There’s also things like various methods for dry hopping. Different fermentation systems (like Yorkshire squares, Burton union, etc).

  6. +lots on pitching rate…. Plus aeration rate.

    Also, you missed off the counts of unfavourable microbiota where not intended – how to really make an enormous screw up is to get the batch infected…

    Fermenter geometry was mentioned-affects level of ester production due to hydrostatic pressure. Similarly, I believe this is how industrial lager is fermented-high pressure used to reduce esters at higher temperatures.

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