Here’s food for thought: Beer is food. We may think of it as a refreshing accompaniment to a slice of pizza (and don’t get us wrong – it is), but beer is an agricultural product, and considerable resources – mostly grains, and lots of water – go into its production, and sustenance, in the form of calories, results from it. Beer has a significant impact on our food system – take hops for example. This key ingredient in beer (especially today’s) is grown predominantly for the production of the beverage. Find out why this ancient formula for good times has endured and how it’s evolved today.
A Brief History
Well, some folks say that beer was the catalyst for civilization in Western history itself—the raison d’etre for hunter-gatherers to become farmers. The cultivation of ancient cereal grains, including barley, necessitated the stable societies that popped up during the Neolithic period. There is some debate over whether these first cereal crops were grown for the production of bread, beer or both, as evidence of yeast dates back to 4000 BCE and could have been used for either.
Beer has maintained an important place in Western culture over time, from Mesopotamia to the time of Charlemagne. In the Middle Ages, the methods used to produce beer were refined over the centuries by brewing guilds and monasteries. In Belgium, the styles produced by different orders of Trappist monks have remained popular. While wine made from grapes was drunk in the warmer, Southern regions, beer from grain was a staple of the diet throughout much of Northern and Eastern Europe up to the modern era.
European settlers in America brought with them their beer-making heritage, and it was still commonly brewed at home up to the 20th century. After the Industrial Revolution, though, the mass-produced styles of beer that had taken root in Germany began to replace the English-style ales and porters favored by colonialists. The industrialization of beer resulted in the predominance of pale, top-fermented lagers, which are difficult to produce at home, for much of the 20th century. Breweries merged to form large conglomerates, putting smaller breweries out of business throughout the country.
The American craft beer movement has been lauded for helping revive not only heritage styles of beer, but also a sense of pride in locally made products. Begun by a number of small breweries in the 1970s, it has spread throughout the country and stands as a model of the viability of small-scale food and drink production. For instance, craft beer has continued to eat away at the market share of once impenetrable monopolies such as Miller-Coors and Anheiser-Busch. Furthermore, the craft of brewing beer at home has fostered a better understanding of the ingredients and production methods used to make this favorite beverage.
- The Reinheitsgebot, or purity decree mandating that all beers be produced with only four ingredients (water, barley, hops and yeast) in Germany is the oldest known food regulation in the world. It has been practiced by German brewers since the 15th century.
- It’s widely rumored that the Mayflower landed at Plymouth Rock because it was running low on beer. In fact, it was running low on supplies in general, including beer, which was safer to drink than water.
- The earliest known beers, such as those enjoyed in Ancient Egypt, were likely thick porridges incorporating old bread, and not very intoxicating.
- George Washington was very fond of beer and wrote a homebrew recipe.
- IPA stands for “India Pale Ale,” and the style is heavily hopped because hops helped prevent beer from spoilage over the long trip to British colonies in India.
- Pumpkin ale spun off a hardscrabble tradition of using locally found ingredients in the New World to help ferment beer.
Beer as we know it is made primarily with malted barley grains, hops and water. It can also be made with other grains such as wheat and rye. These grains are harvested in the fall and undergo a malting process by soaking them to germinate the grains, then drying them out. The starches are converted to sugars, which is why malted barley is sweet and used in candies, too. These grains are then often roasted to varying degrees to achieve different flavor profiles.
Hops are the female flowers or cones of the perennial hop plant, a winding, leafy vine. It grows best in temperate regions in the Northern Hemisphere, where it is native, and requires tall stakes or rope structures for climbing to produce sufficient hop flowers for cultivation. It is harvested in the late summer or early fall. Hops used for commercial beer production are processed to remove the husks from the sticky, resinous centers, which are pressed into pellets. These are kept refrigerated in airtight bags to preserve their flavor.
Storage and Seasonality
The hops and alcohol content of beers today make it a shelf-stable product when properly bottled or canned. Unlike wines, however, it does not generally improve in flavor by aging. For best flavor, many breweries and point-of-sale places such as bars, stores and distribution centers prefer to keep beer refrigerated. (Air and sunlight can also spoil beer, which is why kegs are kept under pressure.) Beer is hence produced year-round, but is best enjoyed as fresh as possible.
A cold chain of refrigerated warehouses and refrigerated trucks is required of beer when it travels from the brewery to its different points of sales. Then, the carbon emissions of shipping beers in trucks alone contributes to its environmental impact. This is part of why locally made beers and microbreweries have risen alongside the local food movement.
Beer also requires a lot of clean water to produce. One 12-oz bottle of beer requires a whopping 28 gallons of water (that’s 37 gallons of water per pint for you draft-only folks, too). According to global estimates today found by GRACE Communications Kai Olson-Sawyer, the water used directly in the brewing process is actually more efficient in mass conglomerate breweries than smaller craft breweries. But no matter who is brewing, it takes a considerable amount of water to produce beer.
The opportunities for greater operational sustainability in beer goes beyond water efficiency, too. As mentioned in a previous article, the Alaskan Brewing Company found a way to recycle CO2 from its fermentation process. Stone Brewery has been recycling more than half the water it consumes for its heating and other operational needs. Other breweries have implemented solar energy. Spent grain—a massive byproduct of beer making—has been historically been shucked away to farms as livestock feed, and this tradition continues on.
In the US, the production of both grains and hops has shifted from what was once smaller, local industries to certain regions in the last century—the Midwest has become the grain belt, and hops are primarily grown in the Pacific Northwest. This means that even though smaller breweries have re-emerged throughout the country, their ingredients must still be trucked in. However, there have been recent efforts to revive grain production elsewhere, such as New York State. And hops, too, have made progress in the Northeast, with industry groups and programs to promote its cultivation for commercial use.
Strong, hoppy, crisp, cloudy—there are endless styles and characteristics attributed to beers. But one thing beer generally has in common is its effervescence, produced naturally through the brewing process. (Yet still some beers, particularly those served on cask, are not quite as fizzy.) Depending on the style and process, one can sample beers that have a distinctly sour taste of lactic acid (often marketed as “farmhouse” style ales), or a funky note of brettanomyces (a “wild yeast” that has enjoyed fringe popularity). Some beers are unfiltered, creating a hazy complexion rather than crystal-clear. Others are thick and syrupy thanks to a profusion of brewing grains (think Guinness). Beers may be flavored not only with hops for added bitterness, but spices, fruits and sometimes, chemical flavoring agents, adding to nuances in taste.
Nutrition and effects on the body
Beer contains anywhere from less than 3 to 30 percent alcohol by volume (ABV), but most pale lagers have around 4-6 percent. As an alcoholic beverage, it’s strongly recommended by doctors to enjoy in moderation. Women who are pregnant are advised against drinking alcohol and increased use can lead to liver damage. It should come as no surprise that increased use is not particularly good for your gastrointestinal system, either, as with any other alcohol, and causes nausea and impaired judgement, sight and speech. But having one or two beers a day might just have benefits, some studies suggest. It may help increase good cholesterol, lessen the risk of heart disease and promote kidney health. The natural ingredients in beer also provide you with some fiber and B-vitamins, although it’s not generally considered a good way to get one’s vitamins and minerals.
Unfortunately, the number of chemical additives used in some commercial beers is not readily known, as brewers today aren’t legally required to disclose ingredients. There have been reports of chemicals lurking in brewing procedures, and there have been efforts toward transparency on labels. Until more information is known, however, it’s difficult to determine what effects these chemicals might have on the body.
How to Make It
Homebrew supply stores were once a rare specialty shop, doomed to dwindle much like the number of sewing and craft-supplies shops in any town. But thanks to the Internet, a new generation of homebrewers can order supplies online and become inspired to brew. You can even get homebrew kits to make a certain beer recipe from many suppliers.
Homebrew recipes aren’t as easy to follow from a book if you haven’t worked alongside another brewer, learning its process from observation or practice before. But those looking to get into the craft can find many books and online resources, and clubs to join in their area. A good place to start might be the Homebrew Association of America’s website, which also has a fountain of user-submitted beer recipes.
So instead, we thought we’d provide a recipe for cooking other foods using beer. Beer can add a subtle touch of magic to your favorite chili recipe, or a hearty beef stew. It’s also great for flavoring baked goods, adding leavening power to cakes. As an alternative to those classics, here’s a recipe for a vegetarian dish that’s hearty and flavorful, thanks to the addition of beer.
Spiced Chickpeas with Sweet Peppers, Onions & Saison
(from Lunch at Sixpoint)
4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 large onions, chopped
about 2 lbs red, yellow and orange sweet Italian peppers, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon berbere spice mix (or try making a blend using cayenne pepper, ground ginger, cardamom and anything else you like)
15 oz. can chickpeas, rinsed well and drained
1 cup light-colored beer, preferably a Saison
1⁄3 cup water
salt and black pepper to taste
juice of 1 lemon
1⁄2 bunch parsley, finely chopped
- In a large pan with a lid or pot, cook the onions in olive oil over medium-low heat, until soft. Add the peppers and garlic, and continue to cook, stirring, a couple minutes. Add the spice mix, a pinch of salt and pepper, and stir. Increase heat to high and add the beer and water. Bring to a rapid boil and cook, stirring, a couple minutes. Add the drained chickpeas. Reduce heat to a simmer and cover. Let cook 10-15 minutes, stirring occasionally if desired.
- Taste for seasoning, and add salt and pepper as desired. Add lemon juice, and an extra drizzle of olive oil (optional). Serve with the chopped parsley as garnish and with bread (optional).
Makes about 6 servings.