The very question is heavily debated right now with different entities all trying to define, and possibly shape, the culture, process, and even volume. There is plenty of time to debate craft versus non-craft and eventually I’ll offer my two cents, but today I am going to be completely objective.
What IS beer?
Beer is a fermented, malt-based alcoholic beverage; the composition of which includes water, fermentable sugar from starch, yeast, and hops.
Water is the simplest ingredient in beer. Mineral content varies from location to location but for our purposes today, water is H2O and the number one ingredient in beer.
Almost all beer is brewed with cereal grains like wheat or rye but the most common, by far, is barley. Barley is considered integral to brewing due in large part to the German Reinheitsgebot, or Purity Law. The German influence in America is very evident in our brewing style but beer can also be made from rice, sorghum, corn, and other “non-standard” ingredients that brewers call adjuncts. Whether cereal grain or adjunct, all beer must have a starch-based fermentable sugar. Without getting too technical (that comes later), the starches used in beer are converted to sugars in a process called saccharification. That is where our next ingredient, yeast, enters.
Yeast are microorganisms that are used to consume the fermentable sugars during the beer making process. That is fermentation, the conversion of sugars into alcohol and carbon dioxide. Yeast can impart flavor and aroma to a beer as well.
The last ingredient, and perhaps the most defining, is hops. Hops are the flowers (usually called cones) of the humulus lupulus plant. Hops are added to beer to impart flavor and aroma but also act as a natural preservative. Hops are best known as the bitterering agent in beer.
The fermented combination of water, saccharified starch, yeast, and hops yields beer in the broadest possible sense. This is my definition of beer but every entity related to beer defines it by much narrower definitions. The Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission uses one of the most strict definitions:
“Beer is defined as a malt beverage containing 1/2 of 1% or more alcohol by volume and not more than 4% of alcohol by weight.”
There is absolutely no mention of the ingredients used in the TABC legal definition (source) yet anything outside of those parameters is not beer.
I promised to remain objective today so I’ll stop here. Next week, I’ll discuss the history of beer. I’ll also go more in depth on things like adjuncts and the Reinheitsgebot in the coming weeks so stay tuned.