Making beer involves constant challenge of sourcing ingredients
Brewing beer is one of the oldest trades, dating back thousands of years, but the ingredients used throughout those years have changed quite a bit and continue to evolve.
The four main ingredients to make beer are malted grain, hops, yeast and water. Believe it or not, a plentiful supply of quality ingredients isn't always available. Many of them come to us from around the world, as there are numerous factors that affect the supply.
First, let's talk about water. Water generally makes up more than 90 percent of the beer that you drink. Therefore, it is one of the most crucial ingredients to a great beer. Water - this sounds simple enough, right? It's just two molecules of hydrogen and one of oxygen.
If water is one of the most plentiful resources on the planet, why can it be sometime difficult to source for beer? Because brewing water can be very temperamental. Not all water is appropriate for brewing beer. Residually hard water makes brewing many styles of beer very difficult, as the high contents of minerals in the water can drastically affect color, bitterness, flavor and aroma. To account for this, most brewers filter their water to remove the chlorine and chloramines. Some take it as far as using reverse osmosis water to strip the water completely of its minerals.
At Southbound Brewing Co. here in Savannah, we just filter it. Many brewers will actually pick the location of their brewery based on the water quality of the area. Hence, sourcing good quality water is essential to brewing a great beer. Luckily for us, Savannah's water is pretty easy to brew with and only requires minor mineral adjustments.
One of the next ingredients for brewing beer is malted grain. This includes malted wheat and barley. Just any wheat or barley readily available won't do for brewing purposes. It must go through a very specific malting process where enzymes are developed that are required for modifying the grain starches into sugars.
There are several companies throughout the world who do this, and they are called "maltsters." To provide a good quality malt, they must use a good quality grain. They will source their grain from regional farmers for malting. Since the grain is being farmed, it is season dependent. Therefore just like any other crop, a bad growing season can affect the malt quality and supply. For smaller brewers, this means we may have to adjust our recipes depending on what malts are readily available and how the growing season produces. Luckily, this generally isn't too challenging but it is a factor we have to face on a regular basis. Sourcing quality malt is important.
Brewing yeast is a very specific type of yeast, developed over the last several hundred years and most recently refined into the quality strains available today. Brewing yeasts are available from quite a few suppliers. Some of the larger breweries even propagate their own yeast strains in-house and don't rely on yeast labs to provide it for them. For the smaller guys, it can be more difficult and expensive.
Yeast is a living organism that must be carefully maintained and grown. Beer brewing yeast provides specific fermentation characteristics that produce predictable flavors and alcohol percentages. Therefore, selecting a good yeast strain for a recipe is important. When it is time to source yeast, we place an order with one of the yeast labs. They will then grow the yeast cells up to our required volume.
Most of the time this doesn't present a problem, but sometimes it can. Yeast labs are virtually controlling nature, so there are some unpredictable variables that may be encountered. These can delay yeast orders, even sometimes result in bad beer being brewed due to poorly propagated yeast. This is another big factor in beer brewing that must be constantly monitored and adjusted.
The last main ingredient is hops. Sourcing hops is one of the more difficult challenges for any brewer today. Hops are acidic flowers that grow on a climbing plant called a "bine," much like a vine. They provide flavor, bitterness and aroma to beer. There are tons of hops varieties readily available to brewers at a moment's notice. However, most of the hops that create extremely flavorful beers aren't readily available. They are all contracted out by larger breweries in mass quantities because these are the most desired hops. Hops contracts are a huge part of the brewing industry.
Without them, most brewers wouldn't be able to brew many of the beers they keep around on a yearly or seasonal basis. When brewers create these contracts, they are basically agreeing purchase a specific quantity of a specific variety of hops. Most times the desired variety and quantity aren't available, so the brewer has to adjust recipes, or in drastic circumstances, they are unable to brew that particular beer. Sourcing hops is one of the most competitive aspects of beer brewing and remains a constant challenge that is never fully possible to overcome.
Ingredient sourcing for breweries is usually very challenging, especially for the smaller, local operations. It requires large commitments that very often don't come to fruition.
Next time you are drinking a locally crafted beer, please consider all of the hard work the brewers do to source the ingredients that make that fine beverage on your table. It's a never-ending battle we endure to continuously provide you with the best product made from the highest quality ingredients.
Smith Mathews (brewmaster) and Carly Wiggins (marketing director) are the founders of Southbound Brewing Company. Go to www.southboundbrewingco.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org.