Most people know that beer is made from water, barley, hops and yeast. The big four. If you were to glance around the shelves of the local liquor store, you might of course notice that some styles, such as Hefeweizens, are brewed with a fifth ingredient, wheat.
But that’s it, right? Just those five?
Luckily, absolutely not.
Of Sugars and Starches
Barley and wheat are both sources of starch, and starch breaks down (think back to high school biology with us) into sugars, and this happens in the mash.
But we can substitute other ingredients for a portion of the barley. If the goal is either to find other starches to break down into sugars, or just plain ol’ sugars, what other sources are available to brewers?
We hate to be the bearer of bad news, but fall is coming soon and with fall comes pumpkin beer. Pumpkin, or any squash for that matter, is a great source of starch, and lends a, well … pumpkin-y flavour. A pumpkin beer will often contain the same spices as pumpkin pie, making this a beer to be sipped rather than slammed.
Another barley substitution is oats. The silky mouthfeel oats lend to full-bodied beers — such as stouts — make them one of our fav’ starchy additions.
Honey is another non-barley ingredient and is great for two reasons: it’s sweet (as in, full of sugars), and it’s delicious. Honey beers (technically called braggot) are often slightly sweeter, but more importantly contain those amazing floral tastes and aromas that are so often limited to your morning toast.
If you would rather switch honey for something a tad more patriotic, go for maple syrup: just like honey, but a tad more maple-y.
And this is to say nothing of fruit beers. Apricots, cranberries, apples, cherries, pomegranates or raspberries –- just about anything goes. They all have starches and sugar, and all contribute different flavours.
Hops are a seasoning, a flavour addition to balance the sweetness of the malted grains. While there is nothing wrong with embracing the bitter hop, it is only one ingredient in a list of many that can balance a beer’s otherwise too-sweet taste. Brewers can either substitute some of the following for a portion of the hops, or they can (gasp!) brew entirely hop-free.
Some of the more common spice additions include coriander, cardamom, cloves, black pepper, liquorice, ginger, vanilla and cinnamon.
Many beers from Belgium are spiced, Hoegaarden being the most popular one among North Americans. It’s a Belgian Wit, and contains orange peel, coriander, and an unrevealed secret spice, thought by some to be cumin.
Gone are the days, unfortunately, of Yukon Brewing’s wonderful Aroma Borealis Herbal Cream Ale, a very enjoyable beer made from the Yukon’s wild and local flora. If there’s not yet a petition to bring this one back, then this world is one petition short.
Most people who have been to Skagway Brewing Co. have enjoyed their Spruce Tip Ale, made with the abundantly found local ingredient.
And the Whitehorse Liquor Store carries the very recommendable Fraoich Heather Ale, flavoured not with hops at all, but with sweet gale and heather flowers.
The Kitchen Sink
Now what about the “Just Because You Can” additions that aren’t taking the place of one of your key ingredients? These include chocolate, coffee and yes, even bacon, to name but a few.
Thankfully, many of the above ingredients are in your local liquor store (especially if you’re reading this from Skagway or Haines), but you do have to do some poking around. Be sure to check out your locals: Yukon Brewing, Haines Brewing, and Skagway Brewing, and imported varieties.
(Yes, that’s right. We said bacon.)
Please enjoy this article responsibly.