Best we should start mired in confusion, what we’re talking about here is the raw ingredients that provide the nuances of some of the world’s great beers (and some of the less-acclaimed ones) rather than cornflakes or Weetabix.
Malted barley is the predominant cereal type used in making beer and has already been the subject of an “Everything you need to know…” all of its own, but what of the rest?
Wheat is probably the most important, and, although used widely in the brewing world, it is associated primarily with Belgium and Germany. For straight white or wheat beers, which go under the names Wit, Weisse, Weizen or other regional and national variations, the wheat is malted as it is (normally) with barley.
Wheat beers are normally made with a proportion of malted wheat in addition to the malted barley, and they can change the flavour according to the amounts used and other ingredients. In Belgium, the challenging wheat content is softened and balanced by the addition of fruit and spices. Hoegaarden, a current United Kingdom favourite, uses coriander and curacao orange peel. The result is a beer with a bitter, medicinal tang, but a citrus fruit smack.
German wheat beers are arguably drier and more austere because the Rheinheitsgebot (brewing purity laws) do not allow the addition of fruits and spices.
In fact, they’re often recounted only to permit the use of water, yeast, hops and barley, though wheat is included as an alternative or addition to barley. In Berlin the Berliner Weisse, the local wheat beer, is often served with herbs and fruit to mask its sourness, and this has the questionable benefit of turning the beer to a bright colour. The practice of dunking bits of lemon and lime in places like the United Kingdom apes the Berlin experience but is gradually being stamped out by brewers and purists, because it (a) ruins the beer’s head (b) stops it tasting as it’s supposed to taste.
Belgium’s traditional fruit beers are based on the lambic style – made with unmalted wheat by a process of spontaneous fermentation. Wheat is a good source of protein, a nutrient that helps to foster head stability in beers.
But enough about wheat, what else?
The collective brewing term for all the other types of cereals is adjuncts, and includes maize and rice, both used where the brewer wants an additional source of carbohydrate to convert starch into fermentable sugars, but without wanting to greatly influence the flavour of aroma of the beer.
Both soften and lighten beers – as well as doing their bit to reduce brewing costs. Another reason for choosing a particular adjunct is simply that it is in abundant supply where the brewer is located, one reason why rice is used in many Far East beers, with a resultant softer lager style.
Oats are sometimes used to impart a smooth, creamy mouthfeel to beers, particular oatmeal stouts, but usually only in small quantities to supplement the malt.
Other parts of the world also have their own unique beer styles in which the cereal content plays a part.
The traditional Finnish beer style sahti is brewed with barley and rye and filtered through branches of juniper bushes and straw. The Russian peasant beer Kvass is made with barley, rye and wheat, with the latter often substituted with bits of old bread to keep the costs down.
Some beers from the United States are made with cane sugar as a cheap but effective way of lifting the alcohol content.
US micro Rogue Ales uses buckwheat to make its Morimoto Soba ale.
And so to Africa, where the tropical cereal grass sorghum is a key brewing ingredient, largely because it’s both drought-resistant and able to stand periods of water-logging. This hardiness makes it ideal for cultivation in parts of Africa and Asia where other cereal crops would struggle, though it is also grown in Australia, and North and South America. Grains typically contain around 75 per cent starch and 12 per cent protein, which means there’s sufficient available potential sugars for the fermentation for beer.
When sorghum is used in beer production, which is mainly in Africa, a yeast fermentation is carried out along with fermentation using lactic acid bacteria, a process similar to yoghurt making, which acts as a preservative in the finished product.
Beers made using sorghum, like some African stouts, can have a sour tang to them. They are also often heavy, with classic sorghum beers having a porridge-like consistency. These are broadly appreciated in their domestic markets but less so in western ones, though that hasn’t stopped multinationals recognising sorghum’s potential with hybrid brands such as SAB Miller’s Eagle lager in Uganda, a cross between a conventional lager and a local sorghum brew. Sorghum used for brewing is malted in the same way that barley is in Europe and North America, that is to release enzymes for fermentation and to turn starches into fermentable sugars.
And finally… chicha.
This is a maize-based beer, made with regional variations across central and South America. It’s often drunk while still fermenting and the alcohol levels are relative low, and with other additives to mask its underlying sour taste. If left to ferment fully it takes on a drier taste.
In Cuzco in Peru, strawberries are added, while the Colombians tend to flavour their chicha with yucca and pineapples.
In Chile, chicha is made using grapes and apples and is a staple drink of the country’s Independence Day celebrations.
The origins of this drink are said to date back to the Inca empire, when the secrets of its manufacture were taught in women only schools.
The Incas are thought to have produced it on a commercial scale, though these days it is very much a cottage industry, with brewing still done mainly by the women within a family. If you ever find yourself enjoying the hospitality of such a family, think carefully before accepting a glass of chicha.
The traditional method of germinating the maize by grinding it and then chewing it – using the enzymes in saliva to release the starches – is still practised in some parts of South America