What is beer? The answers to this question are numerous. Personally for me, it is my preferred drink of choice which I have a deep interest in and a product I search out interesting variations of.  It is also what enables me to write the 750 words that fill this column each week.  For other people it is how they make their living, as a brewer, publican or in any number of supporting roles.  For many it is just a way to relax and socialise or something which accompanies any number of social or sporting activities.  Sadly for some it is a contributor to the causes of serious problems both mentally and physically.

The last few weeks I have focused on the more commercial and business related elements of the beer trade as well the internal debate between those who have more than a social interest in beer generally.  But there is no beer trade without beer and when broken down to the most basic level, all we are talking about is 2 plants, a fungus and water.  It doesn’t sound a promising start, it’s like being given 4 eight stud lego bricks, but consider that just 3 of those bricks can create over 1000 different shapes.  When you take into account the different coloured bricks, the number of combinations increase exponentially.

The same can be said of the 4 basic ingredients, use of soft or hard water, the choice and combination of hops, the selection and preparation of the maltings all contribute to the differences between beers.  This is before you even consider techniques such as double hopping the beer, one tool among many the brewers employ to alter the flavour and aftertaste.  The yeast also makes a critical difference as the selection of strain can add distinctive tastes. Many long established brewers will have their own strains, for example Heineken’s yeast is a strain that is over 100 years old and descended from the first batch of the beer in the late 1800s.

Beer, when viewed as a combination of physical elements is more complicated that most of its other contemporaries, Wine has one core ingredient, a single fruit, as does cider and perry.  With wine the focus is on the growing conditions of the grape, the type of soil, if it was grown in a certain area of the estate, the weather conditions etc.  In essence, the wines core flavours are decided before the crop is picked, and then the blending and storage finalises the products taste.  With cider and perry, there is a similar principle, although with significantly less politics than between rival wine regions.

With beer you need the same set of good quality ingredients as an starting point, but after that, those ingredients can take a multitude of paths before they reach your pint glass.   The brewer is the kingpin of all this, the Willy Wonka of the hop and malt.  For every “Everlasting Gobstopper” or “Meal in a Chewing Gum” of the fictional confectionery maker, the brewer has the opportunity to make a Brewdog Punk IPA, Dark Star Espresso or Fuller ESB.  The same ingredients could also make you the equivalent of Carling or John Smiths in the “right” hands.

The imagination of brewers when it comes to flavouring beers outside of its core ingredients is second to none, you can find on the shelves beers with elements of banana, ginger, chocolate, cherry, raspberry or coffee, as well as the different citrus tastes introduced by hop mixtures naturally during brewing.

Why is beer not credited for this inventiveness in the wider picture.  Beer enthusiasts, real and craft ale fans all enjoy the variety of taste that the brewers techniques and ideas give us when the ale is sampled.  But wine has a lot more written about the differences and subtleties between the different bottles and regions.  For every Oxford Companion to Beer, a dozen substantial wine guides are written and updated every year, spirits are held in higher esteem in this regard as well.

I think this is social class issue, wine and good spirits were the domain of the middle and upper class until after the second world war, where as beer was the drink of the people.  The upper two classes had the money and inclination to buy the wine books, as well as the literacy to read them, something which only started to be made available across all classes in the second 25 years of the last century when the education system had been given time to influence two generations.  It is only the last 25 years where there has been a real commercial interest in the real ale book market.  There is still a lot of catching up to do.