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So what is beer, anyway?

I’VE been giving beer a lot of thought lately. With the state of Georgia messing around with how breweries can sell their beer, and my recent pieces about the history of beer and gruits, I started to wonder what this thing we call beer really is.

Can beers be limited to water, barley and hops as in the German Purity Law? What of all those specialty beverages like barleywines, ciders and wheat wines? Are gruits beer? The answer to what should be a simple question has a decidedly complicated answer.

If you read online forums that address this question you will quickly come across a wide range of solutions. Many suggest hops ARE a defining beer ingredient. Others, our gruit devotees, disagree. You would also learn that even Germany has dropped the purity laws that were so long in existence. You could quickly become bogged down in a sea of terms that are regularly misused and certainly misunderstood.

Let's start with ales and lagers. These two terms come with a lot of confusion. Many think because lagers are the most common type of beer that they are the only beverages that should be called beer.

In fact, ales and lager are both types of beer. Their defining characteristic is the yeast used in the fermenting of the beer. Fermenting is the part of the brewing process that comes after all the cooking. This is when living yeast is introduced into the result of the brewing process. That sugar rich liquid is called wort.

Once the wort is cooled the yeast is mixed in to do their work. The yeast slowly converts the sugars into alcohol while producing carbonation as a byproduct - turning it, officially, into beer. The difference between lagers and ales lies in the different types of yeasts used and the environment they like to live in.

Ale yeasts tend to do their work toward the top of the fermenting liquid and prefer a warmer climate to live in. Lager yeasts tend to enjoy a cooler climate and tend to live toward the bottom of the fermenting liquids. There are a few ale yeasts that work bottom up and lager yeasts that work top down, but those are the exceptions that prove the rule. Ales and lagers are both just subdivisions of beer.

If lagers are beer and ale is beer and some think hops is a defining characteristic but gruits (hopless beers) are the original beers then maybe instead we should turn to the law to define beer.

According to the Code of Federal Regulations, US Department of the Treasury, Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau beer is defined in the following way: §25.11 Meaning of terms: Beer. Beer, ale, porter, stout, and other similar fermented beverages (including saké and similar products) of any name or description containing one-half of one percent or more of alcohol by volume, brewed or produced from malt, wholly or in part, or from any substitute for malt.

So beer has to be made from malt, unless it is sake, which is made from fermented rice, well that’s not confusing at all. Further definitions and a little clarification follows.

§25.15 Materials for the production of beer. (a) Beer must be brewed from malt or from substitutes for malt. Only rice, grain of any kind, bran, glucose, sugar, and molasses are substitutes for malt. In addition, you may also use the following materials as adjuncts in fermenting beer: honey, fruit, fruit juice, fruit concentrate, herbs, spices, and other food materials.

That actually does clear things up some. By this definition anything brewed using malt or a malt substitute (that takes care of our macro brewing friends and their rice adjunct lagers) and then fermented. Perhaps as nod to the original German purity laws yeast isn’t mentioned, though it is implied in our modern understanding of fermentation.

Perhaps most interestingly hops is NOT included in the legal definition of beer. I should point out that individual states will often have even more restrictions on what beer is, but we’ll talk about malt liquor some other time.

All this is a technicality of course. The remarkable nature of beer is its variety. Variety breeds ambiguities and a good brewer will play to the nooks and crannies in that ambiguity. Grab a friend and good beer and keep the friendly debate going.