Beer's Ingredients

Ingredients play a large and very important role in creating the wide spectrum of aromas, flavours and overall impression in beer. The foundation of all beers includes four natural ingredients: malt barley, hops, yeast and water.

Today, beers are designed and developed using a plethora of ingredients that give us more varieties of beer than ever before.

It requires both creative artistry and a dedication to science in order to craft the perfect beer. Let’s take a closer look at the natural ingredients a brew master has to work with.


The flower of the perennial plant, Humulus Lupulus, is responsible for creating aromas, some flavours and bitterness in beer.  Hops are critical in creating a balanced beer – bitterness is needed to reduce the impact of the sweetness of the malt.  These incredibly robust plants grow up to 6 metres in one year and quite often grow 30cm in one day.  Most of the hops that are used in brewing are bred and grown in the United States or Germany but many other countries including Canada contribute to the overall global hop agriculture.

The bitterness and aromatic characteristics in hops come from oils and resins (alpha acids) in the female flower of the hop plant.  Hops with low alpha acid percentages are generally used to create fine aromas and are added in very late in the brewing stage.  Hops with higher alpha acids are viewed as bittering hops and are added very early in the kettle during boiling.

Modern brewers often refer to IBU’s as a measurement of bitterness in beer. The International Bittering Unit (IBU) measures the remaining alpha acids after boiling. The scale normally runs from 0-100.  Lighter beers will generally measure between 6-17 IBU’s, while North American IPA’s may often achieve IBU’s greater than 60.  While this is a scientific measurement, it does not measure perceived bitterness. For example, a beer with a high level of malt may have an IBU of 80 but it may only be perceived as 40 due to the balance between malt and hops.

Hop flavours and aromas are largely determined by terroir (the impact of soil, water, weather and sun). Brewers choose the type of hop they want based on the beer style and whether the aromas and flavours will attract the interest of the beer drinker. 


The backbone of beer is derived from malted grains.  Malting is a process where the valuable parts of a cereal grain are awakened and utilized to create flavour, colour and mouth feel in beer. The malting process begins with soaking the grains in water for several days. This process (steeping) is designed to replace nature by providing water and oxygen necessary for the grain to grow. After several days, the grain is allowed to grow naturally at controlled temperature and humidity conditions (germination). The final stage in malting is heating the grain to reduce moisture, create colour and flavour and to stabilize the malt. 

Many brewers see barley as the soul of beer. Barley has unique features that make it a preferable ingredient over other grains. It is a natural and easy source of soluble starches that are necessary for conversion into sugars for fermentation.  The hard, outer shell is ideal for creating a great filter bed during lautering (the step in brewing designed to create clarity) and the moderate levels of proteins allow for increased foam stability and greater mouth feel.  In addition, malting barley in Canada is approximately 20% of all the barley produced here and is valued as a speciality crop.

Other grains that can be used include wheat, rye, oats and sorghum. Each of these has benefits but barley continues to be the majority of all grains used in brewing.  Even in wheat beer, the proportion of barley is generally over 50%. This is due to the reality that other grains are malted without husks and are difficult to filter by themselves.

Malt provides a spectrum of colour to beer that ranges from pale straw to black.  Pale malt creates the lighter colour and flavours seen in most easy drinking and thirst quenching beers while dark malts are responsible for the richer, more robust colours in porters and stouts.  A variety of caramel coloured malts are using to impact colour but more so to create complex flavours and aromas in beer.


The largest volume ingredient in beer also has a significant impact on the end product. Brew masters often view water used in beer as either ‘soft’ or ‘hard’.  Hard water has higher levels of mineral content (generally calcium and magnesium) while soft water is largely mineral free.  Each type of water has an impact on the other ingredients and changes the way a beer drinker enjoys their beer.

Soft water allows a beer to gently arrive in the mouth and also extends the finish.  Hard water, on the other hand, can increase the characteristics of hops, arrive with a distinct sharpness and exit your mouth quickly. 

Burton-upon-Trent in England is renowned as having the hardest brewing water in the world and because of its impact on the creation of Pale Ales and India Pale Ales has also created a unique word for re-mineralization.  ‘Burtonization’ is now an accepted term in brewing for the addition of calcium sulphate and magnesium sulphate to brewing water. In Canada, there are many locations with hard water.

Many brewers filter their water before brewing. It’s very important to remove chlorine, fluoride and any other component which may negatively affect the flavour of beer.


This micro-organism is the engine that creates beer. By adding it to a sugar-rich solution called ‘wort’, brew masters are able to metabolize the fermentable sugars into alcohol. It’s crucial for the brewer to also supply pure oxygen to the yeast. Yeast requires sugar to digest and oxygen to breathe before it starts to reproduce and provide us with alcohol.

Most brewing yeasts belong to a family called Saccharomyces. These pure yeast strains are the key to consistent beers. Each of the hundreds of families of yeast has unique characteristics that also help to create flavours and aromas in beers. Delicate bright fruit aromas such as apple and pear are often the signature of many different styles of beers while many European beers offer spice notes along with hints of banana.

Ale yeasts work best at warmer temperatures and therefore take longer to ferment.  Lager (a German word for aging) yeasts are best utilized at colder temperatures and fermentations take almost twice as long as ales.

While many smaller brewers buy their yeast from reputable suppliers, larger brewers actually propagate their own, proprietary, pure yeast strains.

Other Ingredients

Modern brewers explore a world of ingredients in order to add complexity to their beers.

Any carbohydrate (other than malt) is considered to be an adjunct in brewing terms. This word is defined as an alternative source.

Ingredients like dried fruit and spices have been used for centuries to create flavour and aroma in beer. Examples of this include orange, coriander and unmalted wheat.

Some beers will use other cereals such as rice and corn as a supplement to malt. The purpose behind these lighter flavoured cereals is to create a beer with a lighter body and softer flavour.  This way of brewing is designed to produce light and easy drinking beers.

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