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5 Common Ingredients in Beer

Learn what’s involved in making beer, including common ingredients and their role in the process.

While archeological evidence suggests that humanity has been making alcoholic beverages for 13,000 years, beer seems to have first graced our species around 3400 BCE by the Sumerians.

Glasses with fresh beer and ingredients on wooden background

Chinese brewers created an alcoholic forerunner to beer nearly 4,000 years earlier, but the Sumerians of the Mesopotamian area were the first we know of to use barley.

That grain— or similar ones— stands as one of the common ingredients in beer, without which what you wind up with isn’t really beer at all. But, of course, there are other ingredients you need, too.

While there are many types of beer, at their core they all contain the same base ingredients. The five main ingredients are as follows.

Main Ingredients in Beer

While you can tweak the five common ingredients in beer, at its heart, beer contains all five. So, without further ado, let’s look at each one and how it contributes to the alcoholic beverage loved by billions.


Water

Recipes vary, but beer can consist of up to 95% water.

It stands to reason, then, that the quality of water used will directly affect the quality of the final product.

Some beer manufacturers even advertise where the water they use comes from, using its origins as a selling point.

But the water in the beer isn’t the only water used. Farmers must grow other ingredients in beer, and any agricultural undertaking requires water.

Brewers must also keep their equipment clean, and that requires frequent washing.

It can take up to eight gallons of water to produce one gallon of beer, so listing water as an essential part of beermaking is an understatement.


Hops

The flowers from the Humulus lupulus plant give us hops. Hops give our beer much of its aroma and help it keep its foamy head.

Depending on the amount used, you can get a “hoppier” beer, like an India Pale Ale (IPA).

Hoppier flavors mean a bitterer beer while backing off the hops yields a beer with a smoother finish.

Brewing beer without hops is possible, but many beer purists would likely not consider the concoction beer.

If you’re brewing your own beer, you probably don’t have your own hops nursery in your home.

You can purchase prepackaged hops specifically for homebrewing— something like the Amarillo Hop Flower Bag for Beer Brewing.

It bears mentioning here that Japanese hops— an invasive plant— is not the same thing as hops and lacks the properties needed to add flavor to beer.


Yeast

A single-celled organism is responsible for the alcohol content in beer, meaning many of us are eternally grateful for something we can’t see with the naked eye.

The yeast organism plays perhaps the most critical role in making beer.

It feeds on sugars found in the mixture of water, hops, grain, and malt— sugars like glucose, sucrose, and the like.

Like all living things, the yeast eventually releases by-products or waste once it eats something. In this case, the yeast converts these sugars into carbon dioxide and ethyl alcohol.

No yeast? No alcohol. No bueno.


Grain

Okay, yeast is important, but if it doesn’t have anything to feed on, it has nothing to convert to alcohol, and that’s where the grain comes in.

Your grandfather may have referred to beer as “barley pop” because barley is one of the more common grains used to brew the beverage. 

Much barley is malted before it’s used in brewing (more on malt in a bit), but malted barley is not a prerequisite.

Beer brewed from unmalted barley ends up opaque instead of clear and has a grainy flavor most of us associate with darker, heavier beers like stouts.

Other grains used in beer include:

  • Corn
  • Oats
  • Rye
  • Rice

Each one affects the flavor profile of the final product, and sometimes grains are combined to bring out or suppress individual tastes or qualities in the beer.


Malt

It may be somewhat confusing to include malt as an ingredient because malt is grain, as mentioned above, that’s been prepared for brewing.

This preparation— called malting— involves softening the grain and inducing the first stages of germination.

You don’t want it to germinate fully, but getting the process started means the yeast will have an easier time accessing the sugars in the grain.

The result is that the yeast can use more sugar and create higher levels of alcohol in the final product. Malting involves:

  • Steeping. Grains are soaked in water for a day or more to encourage them to begin opening.
  • Germinating. When the grains begin opening, they think they’re on the way to reproducing.
  • Kilning. We stop the germination process with heat in a kiln.

Malted grains go into the beer mixture, and the yeast goes to work.


Main Ingredients in Beer

  1. Water
  2. Hops
  3. Yeast
  4. Grain
  5. Malt 

Final Thoughts

Without these five ingredients, you can’t get a traditional beer. Sure, you can make a beer without hops, but will it really be beer? That’s debatable.

What’s not debatable is that without yeast, water, and grain, none of the fermenting processes can happen.

Throwing in malted grains and hops sets in motion a brewing process that yields the foamy quaff beloved worldwide.

Learn about different popular beers on our blog, like our favorite wheat beers to drink!

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Written by Erin Elizabeth

Erin lives in East Passyunk and enjoys checking out the local restaurants in South Philly and beyond. Her favorite restaurants are those with spicy food and outdoor seating so that she can bring along her dog, Miss Piggy.