What is beer? (Thinking about how we define beer as a category, not styles of beer)

Discussion in 'Beer Talk' started by elNopalero, Aug 1, 2020.

  1. elNopalero

    elNopalero Poo-Bah (3,883) Oct 14, 2009 California
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    Hi folks,

    I'm putting the tl;dr up front:
    I want to start a discussion around what beer is. What makes beer, beer?

    Call it #philosophicalFriday.

    Short story long to follow:

    I can tell you intuitively what makes beer, well, beer. More often than not, for 99% of the time, the image (taste/smell/experience) I conjure up in my mind matches what's in my glass. But for every rule or requirement that I think is common to every beer, and therefore part of the answer, I don't have to think too long to come up with a counter-example. Hops? What about gruits, or kvass? Malt? What about rice, sorgum, buckwheat beers? Yeast seems to be a given, as does fermentation, except that suggests the inclusion of a wider range of beverages. How about the process of brewing, then? I cannot even state this with certainty, especially when I think of traditional brewing methods around the world.

    I find the discussion on Nordic brewing fascinating (as in this essay via Larsblog, http://www.garshol.priv.no/blog/208.html). The sudden rise of kveik seems to have opened a renewed sense of interest and attention to this area of the world, and I am all for it!

    Beer Advocated reported upon chicha some time back (https://www.beeradvocate.com/articl...neous-fermentations-from-perus-sacred-valley/), which led me to think of its inclusion in the pantheon of what we would consider beer, at least for our purposes of advocacy.

    But what got me thinking about this particular question on this very night was reading about the wide variety of pre-conquest fermented beverages in Mexico. The article, in Spanish, describes nine popular styles and how to brew them (https://www.animalgourmet.com/2020/07/31/nueve-fermentados-mexicanos-y-como-se-hacen/). Some I've had, some I haven't, and a few of them I've even attempted to make. I want to try all of them! But--are they beer? If so, back to the question that started this post: what makes them beer?
     
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  2. draheim

    draheim Poo-Bah (2,805) Sep 18, 2010 Washington
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    I always thought beer just involved grain and water, fermented but not distilled. Are there exceptions to that simple rule?
     
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  3. Amendm

    Amendm Champion (805) Jun 7, 2018 Rhode Island
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    I think in terms of what makes a drink considered to be, or labeled as a Beer, not a Beer?
    It will be a while before I have a good answer for that one.

    Cheers.
     
  4. elNopalero

    elNopalero Poo-Bah (3,883) Oct 14, 2009 California
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    I don’t know! Clearly, I’m not an expert. I do appreciate the simplicity of that definition, however. All grains, any type of fermentation, and just add water.
     
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  5. draheim

    draheim Poo-Bah (2,805) Sep 18, 2010 Washington
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    I mean, I think the beauty of beer is how it lies at a nexus of incredible simplicity and unbelievable variety. For me that’s probably the most impressive and endlessly fascinating thing about it.
     
  6. beertunes

    beertunes Poo-Bah (7,361) Sep 24, 2007 Kiribati
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    Grain+water+yeast+time=beer.

    Spirits are made by boiling down beer.

    Wine and cider are made by adding yeast to fruit juice.
     
  7. elNopalero

    elNopalero Poo-Bah (3,883) Oct 14, 2009 California
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    That’s a wonderful description.
     
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  8. unlikelyspiderperson

    unlikelyspiderperson Meyvn (1,424) Mar 12, 2013 California
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    I think that "beer" is the word for the beverage made when you ferment a malted small grain tea. Primarily, barley, wheat, and rye. Other grains can be included, various herbs and spices can be added.
    Chicha isn't beer, it's chicha. That doesn't mean you can't have corn in beer, it just means if your beverage is made from fermented corn tea only then that's called chicha.
    Same thing with Sake. You can have rice included in your beer. If you make a beverage entirely from fermented rice, that is called Sake.
    To make it as concise as I think I can;
    Beer is the fermented tea.of malted small grains
     
  9. thesherrybomber

    thesherrybomber Devotee (411) Jun 13, 2017 California
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    Mmmmm
     
  10. PapaGoose03

    PapaGoose03 Poo-Bah (2,747) May 30, 2005 Michigan
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    I like the way you think...(that's only partially true).
     
  11. JackHorzempa

    JackHorzempa Poo-Bah (4,609) Dec 15, 2005 Pennsylvania
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    Yeast needs sugars to consume (eat) and procreate. The source of the sugars for creating beer is typically malted barley which has been mashed but there can be other sources such as converted starches from grains (corn, rice, sorghum) and other starch sources (pumpkin, parsnips,…) and even just sugars themselves (table sugar, molasses, etc.). A beer could be produced without adding ‘flavorings’ (e.g., hops, herbs, spices) but that beverage would be rather insipid.

    During the Revolutionary War General Washington provided a simple recipe for beer so that the troops in the field could brew it during encampments:

    “Take a large siffer [Sifter] full of bran hops to your taste. Boil these 3 hours. Then strain out 30 gallons into a cooler. Put in 3 gallons molasses while the beer is scalding hot or rather draw the molasses into the cooler & strain the beer on it while boiling hot. Let this stand till it is little more than blood warm then put in a quart of yeast. If the weather is very cold cover it over with a blanket & let it work in the cooler 24 hours then put it into the cask. Leave the bung open till it is almost done working. Bottle it that day week it was brewed.”

    You can read the handwritten recipe here:

    https://www.bonappetit.com/drinks/beer/article/george-washington-s-handwritten-beer-recipe

    Cheers!
     
  12. PapaGoose03

    PapaGoose03 Poo-Bah (2,747) May 30, 2005 Michigan
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    Someone has to bring the word 'government' into this discussion because it is that entity that defines a malt beverage for the purpose of the dreaded taxation.

    I'm not an expert on what that definition is, so maybe @jesskidden can enlighten us from that perspective. It's the feds that have the last say on how its defined (and the last laugh as they rake in the money :slight_frown:).
     
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  13. jesskidden

    jesskidden Poo-Bah (2,050) Aug 10, 2005 New Jersey
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    ...and wine (e.g., brandy) and cider (e.g., modern apple jack*/apple brandy).

    *Originally what was called "apple jack" was made by freezing cider, and drawing off the unfrozen, more alcoholic, concentrated cider, leaving behind the ice. Sometimes erroneously called "freeze distillation".

    Well, not sure I'd phrase it that way. It is the alcoholic vapor (steam) that comes off the liquid before it reaches water boiling temps which creates the distilled spirit once it becomes liquid again.
     
  14. jesskidden

    jesskidden Poo-Bah (2,050) Aug 10, 2005 New Jersey
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    That's not as simple as one would think, however (well, c'mon, it's the "gubmint", ain't nothing simple). The TTB uses the FAA's definition of "Malt Beverage":
    The IRS, however, says:
    So, the TTB requires both barley malt ("not less than 25% by weight of the total weight of fermentable ingredients") and hops "(or their parts or products) in an amount equivalent to 7.5 pounds per 100 barrels of finished malt beverage") but has no ABV lower limit - even near beer/NA's are "malt beverages").

    The IRS does not require hops and allows for "substitutes" for malt, but only considers 0.5%-up beverages. And, as even the TTB notes:
     
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  15. officerbill

    officerbill Zealot (528) Feb 9, 2019 New York
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  16. JackHorzempa

    JackHorzempa Poo-Bah (4,609) Dec 15, 2005 Pennsylvania
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    "Using both the skins and the fruit..."

    It sounds like the pineapple skins may be the functional equivalent of hops/herbs/spices for producing malted barley beer.

    Cheers!
     
  17. zid

    zid Meyvn (1,192) Feb 15, 2010 New York
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    While there is an undeniable attraction to coming up with a universal formula or rule for what makes something clearly "beer," I've personally come to the perspective that one doesn't ultimately benefit from doing so when one only looks at it from a process and ingredient standpoint. Culture should be a part of the thinking even if its inclusion feels messy to some... or even feels like a step backwards rather than forwards.

    Rather than devising or twisting a forced definition that includes something like sake... or excludes something like sake while including other beverages... it's not a bad thing to just consider sake as sake because the culture that spawned it doesn't call it beer. That thinking can be good enough (or even more appropriate) without needing to figure out something universal through the ingredient lens.

    For the opposite situation, we have various soft drinks with "beer" (or ale) in the name that consumers don't consider beer... and other related beverages involving fermentation with "beer" in the name that aren't made with grain. How are such beverages considered within the culture? Do we look past the name, or do we adhere to the name despite the ingredients? Can something be both "beer" and "not beer" simultaneously? We end up putting more weight on some elements rather than others. Things can get very blurry, but that's just the reality.
     
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  18. officerbill

    officerbill Zealot (528) Feb 9, 2019 New York
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    Schrödingerbräu?
     
  19. JackHorzempa

    JackHorzempa Poo-Bah (4,609) Dec 15, 2005 Pennsylvania
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    LOL! :grin:

    It took me a few seconds to get it but...

    Cheers!

    P.S. On a separate but related (?) note there is Schraderbräu:

    [​IMG]
     
  20. zid

    zid Meyvn (1,192) Feb 15, 2010 New York
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    I walked right into that. Well done. :slight_smile:
     
  21. unlikelyspiderperson

    unlikelyspiderperson Meyvn (1,424) Mar 12, 2013 California
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    It is both until you drink it, and suddenly it collapses into a single quantum state of either "beer" or "not beer"
     
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  22. mschrei

    mschrei Poo-Bah (2,501) Jul 4, 2014 Illinois
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  23. unlikelyspiderperson

    unlikelyspiderperson Meyvn (1,424) Mar 12, 2013 California
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    Would you say that culture could.be synonymous with "intent" in this case? Does intending to "make a beer" or not influence how we categorize the resulting product?
     
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  24. Insomniac

    Insomniac Initiate (125) Nov 5, 2019 Canada

    Whoa, dude, this is pretty gnarly for a Saturday afternoon. Perception might play a role for some. Brewmeister does Snake Venom, which clocks in at 67.5% ABV. While perhaps technically a beer, it is quite difficult for me to accept it as such.
     
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  25. zid

    zid Meyvn (1,192) Feb 15, 2010 New York
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    I don't know. My knee jerk reaction is that I'm thinking of culture as something related to the collective, and intent makes me think of the individual. If someone is "intending to make a beer" I would think that the idea of beer in that statement (as a target) is formed by culture. You can see this dynamic being played out and wrestled with on BeerAdvocate currently - where people talk about beer flavored beer. I might be straying from your initial thinking.
     
  26. unlikelyspiderperson

    unlikelyspiderperson Meyvn (1,424) Mar 12, 2013 California
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    I think I see the distinction you're drawing, I just wonder what it means to say that beer is defined culturally. If a culture that doesn't have a history of beer consumption starts producing a fermented beverage based around small grains is that not beer? Are there any examples of beverages that use the same ingredients as beer but aren't beer? I know that there is a history of barley tea (unfermented) in east Asia, and I know there are lacto fermented grain drinks throughout eastern Europe and central Asia, but those both lack key processes that distinguish them from beer regardless of the culture that makes them (primarily malting and fermentation with yeast).

    I suppose the blurry border lands would be things like the line between a beer brewed with rice included and a sake brewed with barley included (not sure of the latter exists). In that case I could see the value of considering the culture behind the production when deciding how to classify it.

    The same question could.be asked of chicha. If you include enough barley in the brew does it become a beer? If so, at what point?
     
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  27. rgordon

    rgordon Meyvn (1,065) Apr 26, 2012 North Carolina

    The chicken came first. It was all a cosmic accident that worked out well for some Egyptians storing grain in leaky bags. King Tut was drunk for days. But really, I want to try some pulque that I read about on occasion.
     
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  28. zid

    zid Meyvn (1,192) Feb 15, 2010 New York
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    Someone can call maize chicha "corn beer," apple chicha "cider," and grape chicha "wine." OR, they could just say it's all "chicha" - that chicha is chicha and wine is wine. What I'm getting at is: When looking at a beverage, one thing to do is to see what it's called by the people who make it and to give that some weight.
     
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  29. unlikelyspiderperson

    unlikelyspiderperson Meyvn (1,424) Mar 12, 2013 California
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    Ah yes, I completely agree on that front.
     
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  30. SFACRKnight

    SFACRKnight Meyvn (1,471) Jan 20, 2012 Colorado
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    I am ashamed that you forgot to include hops.
     
  31. SFACRKnight

    SFACRKnight Meyvn (1,471) Jan 20, 2012 Colorado
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    What are the chances it's like wave theory? It's only beer when you look at it, but if you don't it acts like it's not beer.
     
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  32. JackHorzempa

    JackHorzempa Poo-Bah (4,609) Dec 15, 2005 Pennsylvania
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    Yeah, but he still could dance!

    [​IMG]
     
  33. unlikelyspiderperson

    unlikelyspiderperson Meyvn (1,424) Mar 12, 2013 California
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    In my experience, all beer only acts like beer when you drink it. Until then it acts like soda
     
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  34. beertunes

    beertunes Poo-Bah (7,361) Sep 24, 2007 Kiribati
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    Hops are not required to make beer. They're seasonings. You don't need salt, pepper, and garlic to make roast beef, they're just seasonings.
     
  35. SFACRKnight

    SFACRKnight Meyvn (1,471) Jan 20, 2012 Colorado
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    One could make the argument that hops make beer, other seasonings tend to make a gruit.
     
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  36. draheim

    draheim Poo-Bah (2,805) Sep 18, 2010 Washington
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    @SFACRKnight, @beertunes, after some lazy and half-assed research on my phone I’ve determined that while hops are traditionally considered part of the brewing process, they might not be a required ingredient. Plenty of exceptions have already been mentioned. I think if we are considering broadly what makes a beverage “beer,” hops are not absolutely essential. They certainly make most beers (as we traditionally think of them) infinitely better though, and define the character of many.
     
    #36 draheim, Aug 2, 2020
    Last edited: Aug 2, 2020
  37. cavedave

    cavedave Poo-Bah (2,966) Mar 12, 2009 New York
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    Beer is what you have before you distill it into whiskey.
     
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  38. beertunes

    beertunes Poo-Bah (7,361) Sep 24, 2007 Kiribati
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    No. One could not. You clearly can make beer without hops. They are not a necessary ingredient. You don't need anything but grain, water, yeast, and time to make beer.

    All other spices, spruce tips, cheesecakes, milkshakes, pumpkin pie, frogs, eyes of newt, virgin sacrifices, and hops are just flavorings for the base beer.
     
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  39. draheim

    draheim Poo-Bah (2,805) Sep 18, 2010 Washington
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    [​IMG]
    Bourbon Barrel Aged Eye of Newt Imperial Stout ...
     
  40. thesherrybomber

    thesherrybomber Devotee (411) Jun 13, 2017 California
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    Millions would disagree with you. Technically correct, but what we've recognized as "beer" these last few hundred years have had hops (and especially these last few decades, especially here). Just like what ancient Egyptians drank was also "beer", while most folk today would say "wtf is this shit?!" if you handed them one after a request