Beer has been an integral part of human culture from the beginning. It has been argued that yeast domesticated humanity rather than vice versa. Despite what a Texas cattleman will tell you, Homo sapiens are primarily a gramnivorous or grain-consuming species. Because the prehistoric population was controlled by the availability of grains, there was, by definition, just enough grain to feed it. There was enough until some genius invented beer, that is. Early man then faced a conundrum; he could drink beer or he could eat. One faction cried, “Beer is magnificent!" while the other whined, “But there won't be enough food!" Thus began a debate over beer that survives to the present; Tastes great vs. Less filling. A bloody war erupted, reducing the population enough to have both food and beer for a while.
Although a war was an effective short-term solution to the problem of allocating limited grain resources, our intrepid forebears decided to try a less painful approach. The “Let's talk about this over a few brews" approach to creative conflict resolution is a time-honored tradition today because of its extraordinary effectiveness at this critical prehistoric moment. Instead of fighting over how to use the grain they had, they discovered that the real problem was how to get more grain. This idea spawned agriculture, and the rest is... history.
Beer is a beverage made from malted grains, hops, water, and yeast. Malting is a controlled germination and subsequent drying of the grain. This produces enzymes that are later used to convert the grain's starch reserves into fermentable sugar during the brewing process. The malt of choice for beer is made from barley, but millet, wheat, rye, and other grains are malted for specific styles. Any other ingredients such as corn, rice, oatmeal, sugar, honey, black-eyed peas, or strawberries are called adjuncts (some say “add junk", but we're not that stodgy). The malt is crushed and steeped in hot water to form a mash. The temperature of the mash is controlled to maximize the conversion of starches to fermentable sugars by malt enzymes. A sweet liquid called wort (pronounced like work, word, or worry, not like wart) is extracted from the mash and is brought to a boil. Hops, the dried ripe female cones of a plant classified as a “bine" called Humulus lupulus, are added to act as a natural preservative, add bitterness and other flavors, help in clarification, and aid in head retention. The hopped wort is then cooled and yeast, a domesticated single-celled fungus, is added. The fermentation by yeast converts sugars into ethyl alcohol and carbon dioxide, transforming mild-mannered wort into our beloved hero: BEER.
Beer falls into two categories: Lagers and Ales. Stylistically, ales tend toward higher complexity of flavor, whereas lagers have a more singular palate. Ales are fermented by the yeast species Saccharomyces cerevesiae, strains of which are also used to make bread and wine. In traditional ale fermentation vessels, this yeast rises to the top. Ale yeasts are noted for adding a significant aromatic component to the finished beer, often as a fruity or floral note. Many of today's ale styles originated in Great Britain, such as Pale Ale, Porter, Bitter, ESB, Scottish Export, Stout, and Barleywine. The Belgians gave us Lambic and Wit. German ale styles include Kölsch, and Hefeweizen.
Lagers are made with the yeast species Saccharomyces carlsburgensis. Lager yeasts thrive at cooler temperatures than ale yeasts, and tend to settle to the bottom of the fermentation vessel. They are noted for the low levels of side flavors contributed to the finished product. Lagers have been made only for a few hundred years. Styles originate from Denmark, Czechoslovakia, Germany, Austria, and America and include Pilsener, Bock, Octoberfest, Vienna, Schwarzbier, Malt Liquor, Märzen, and Light Lager.
Beer is a diverse, dynamic product. There are upwards of 3000 breweries, each producing, on average, 6-7 individually named beers for sale in the United States alone. These are as different from one another as sourdough is to pumpernickel, as Irish soda bread is to challah. It is the unshirkable duty of anyone who would be a beer connoisseur to seek out and try as many different beers as possible. After all, someone who can intelligently discuss only Sunbeam® slices and Wonderbread® would be laughed out the door of the Bread Fancier's club...