What is Beer?

Beer is, in its essence, boozy barley juice. But there is considerably more thought that goes into beer. This page is to introduce the basic ingredients of beer, their purpose, and how they work together to create beer with different flavour. Hopefully by the end of this section, you will be able to drink a beer and better understand the flavours you are tasting, and where they came from.

The Basics of Beer

Beer is a simple beverage, generally containing just 4 ingredients: barley, hops, water, and yeast. Each ingredient has a purpose

Barley adds sugar to the beer.
Hops add bitterness to beer to balance out the sugar from the barley. The oils from hops also help preserve the beer.
Water makes beer a beverage, instead of an alcoholic porridge.
Yeast turns most of the sugar from the barley into alcohol.


The types of barley (malt) used for beer can be broken down into two broad groups: base malt, and specialty malt.

Base Malts

The purpose of base malt barley is not to add flavour to the beer (though it can), but to contribute most of the sugars to the beer. Some beers only use base malts, creating a very clean taste in the beer. Here at Mt. Lehman Brewery, we use two types of base malts.

Gambrinus Pale Malt: This barley is designed to impart very little flavour, allowing other flavours (from specialty malts and hops) to come through. This malt is used in nearly every beer that we make.
Gambrinus ESB Malt: This is an English style base malt, meaning it has a slightly bread-like flavour and malty flavour. It is slightly darker than Pale Malt, giving the beer a light amber colour. If we wanted to make an English style pale ale, tone down the bitterness of an india pale ale, or boost the sweetness/maltiness of a porter, we would use this malt.

Specialty Malts

Beer gain a large amount of its flavour and colour from specialty malts. Specialty malts are barley that have been roasted or caramelized to impart a certain flavour, ranging from sweet carmel and toffee to chocolate and coffee. These malts are almost always darker than base malts, and are responsible for giving the beer a certain colour. Specialty malts are used more conservatively than base malts. Specialty malts generally make up between 5 to 20% of the total grain used to make a beer. There are near endless amounts of specialty malts, and we use dozens of them at Mt. Lehman Brewery. The list below is not a complete list specialty malts; instead, it is sampling of some of our favorite specialty malts we use to make our beer more interesting. This lists the malts from lightest (causing little effect on the beer colour) to darkest (causing the beer to become near black).

Honey Malt: A sweet, honey like flavour and aroma without any of the carmel flavour of other malts. Can also have a nutty aroma and taste.
Carmel 30: Sweet, carmel flavours.
Carmel 70-80: This offers slightly sweet, rich carmel and toffee flavours, and creates a taste that lasts longer in your mouth.
Carmel 120: A deep toffee, nutty taste and a toast like aroma. A long lasting flavour.
Chocolate Malt: A dark malt that offers strong chocolate and coffee flavours and aromas. Does not have a strong bitterness like roasted barley.
Roasted Barley: A very dark malt that has bitter coffee flavours, and has a lightly burnt aroma. Essential in making stouts like Guinness.

(Starting clockwise from the top: carmel 70-80, carmel 30, honey malt, roasted malt, chocolate malt)

Other grains
Along with barley, other grains can be used to give a beer a unique flavour, appearance or aroma.

Wheat: Often used in summer beers, wheat gives beers a slightly tart taste, and often a very hazy appearance. Wheat often makes beer thicker.
Oats: Gives a beer almost a smooth feel, and often contributes a sweet flavour.
Rye: Offers a very unique, almost spicy taste to the beer.

(Starting clockwise from the top: Wheat malt, flaked wheat, rye malt, oats)


There is a common misconceptions that hops merely make beer bitter in an unpleasant way that turns many people away from beer. Hops actually contribute greatly to a beer’s aroma and flavour. For the sake of simplifying the vast amount of hop varieties, we will break hops down into 3 broad categories based on their flavour: citrusy, herbally/woody, and spicy/floral. Be aware that there are hops that have characteristics from two, or even three of these categories.

Freshhop(A hop growing in the field)

Citrusy (American Style)
These hops contribute a grapefruit like taste and aroma to beer, as if biting into a grapefruit peel. Often, the smells and tastes of other fruit are noticeable as well, such as peach, apricot, and orange. These hops are generally associated with ales from the Pacific Northwest. Probably the most famous hop of this style is Cascade.

Herbal/woody (English Style)
This style of hops is often considered a more English style of hops, as most of them were first cultivated in England. The flavour can be categorized as earthy, perhaps even a piney taste. Almost a pungent aroma comes form these hops when you smell them before putting them into a beer. East Kent Golding is the typical example of this style of hop.

Floral/spicy (German Style)
These hops are best described as delicate. You do not notice them too much. They are lightly spicy in that they tingle on your tongue, and have a pleasant, light aroma. They are commonly used in pale lagers like pilsners. Saaz is a lightly spicy and floral hop.

hops2(Dried hops waiting to be used)

How Hops Add Bitterness, Flavour, or Aroma
What a hop contributes to the beer depends on how long the hop is boiled. Hops boiled longer than 30 minutes will pretty much only contribute bitterness to the beer. Hops boiled between 10 and 30 minutes will contribute flavour to the beer. Hops boiled less than 10 minutes will contribute aroma to the beer.

hopfridge(We store all our hops in vacuum sealed bags in the freezer. This keeps them fresh and fragrant.)


There are two types of yeast: ale and lager. For tasting purposes, ale yeast produces a more fruity tasting beer, adding complexity to the beer. Lager yeast produces cleaner tasting beers. Lager beers are crisp, allowing just a couple flavours to exist in the beer, compared to ales which often have many flavours in the beer. For technical reasons, we mainly produce ales at Mt. Lehman Brewery (lager yeast needs to ferment at lower temperatures than ale yeast, and lager yeast takes up to 2 months to finish fermenting, where as ales generally only take up 2-4 weeks)

Beer Measurements

There are three common measurements you’ll see on the beer that we make (as well as other beers): ABV%, IBU, and O.G.

Alcohol by Volume: this is fairly straight forward. Its the amount of alcohol in the beer. The common beer is 5% alcohol. At the low end of the spectrum, mild ales can be around 3.5%, while barley wines, and imperial stouts can be as high as 12%.

Original Gravity: This is the amount of sugar in the beer before it ferments. Most beers are around 1.050. This means the pre-fermented liquid of the beer (wort) is 5% thicker than water. The wort is thicker because of the sugar in it, the same way syrup is this thicker than water. Generally a higher O.G. means the ABV of the beer will be higher because there is more sugar to be turned into alcohol. A light lager like Budweiser might have an O.G. of 1.040, while barley wines and imperial stouts may have an O.G. higher than 1.100.

International Bittering Units: This measures how much hop oils there are in the beer. A beer like Corona might have about 10 IBUs, while something like a Guinness might have around 40 or 50 IBUs. A common misconception is that a higher IBU means the beer is more bitter. This is not true. Bitterness can be balanced in a beer by the amount of unfermented sugar in a beer. Thus as the maltiness of a beer increases, the IBUs also increase, but the noticeable bitterness does not. We have made light blonde ales with 20 IBUs that taste quite bitter, but honey brown ales with 40 IBUs that are very sweet. So if you do not like bitter beers, do not simply reject the beer because it has a high IBU. Perhaps that high level of IBUs is just there to balance out some of the sweetness from the malt.


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