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.)

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

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

Mash liquor chemistry/softness.
Boil liquor chemistry/softness.

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

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

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”

    (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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