Alberta Beer: A Thought Experiment

What makes beer “local”? Is it simply that it’s brewed in Edmonton? Do the grains and hops have to be from Alberta? Do the water and yeast? Could it be that the origin of the ingredients is only one part of the equation? What about how we brew and bitter our grains?

In modern practice, beer is made of grains that are malted, roasted, mashed, bittered with hops, fermented, and carbonated. Which of these processes are necessary, and which are a matter of cultural preference?

Strictly speaking, malting isn’t required, though something must be done to break down the cell walls of the grains, and to convert some of the starches to sugars. Malting prompts the germ of the grain to produce enzymes that accomplish these tasks. However, there are also enzymes in our saliva that Incan women once used to break down cornmeal so that it could be fermented. Certain types of mold produce similar enzymes that the Chinese have used for thousands of years to produce rice wine.

The roasting, or kilning, of the malted grain serves a few purposes. It kills the germ, arresting the production of enzymes and fixing the sugar content. It also generates colour and flavour by caramelizing some of those sugars. Finally, roasting also preserves the grains; kilned malt can be kept for months before being used in brewing.

Mashing, that is, mixing the roasted malt with hot water, draws the starches, sugars, and proteins out of the grains and into solution. It also reactivates the enzymes that convert starch to sugar and proteins to amino acids.

The next step uses hops to imbue bitterness and aroma to the mixture. In Europe, beer has always been flavoured with herbs, but before hops became the norm, a mixture called gruit, which might include rosemary, bogmyrtle, yarrow, coriander, and juniper, was used. Hops was first used in Bavaria, and it spread throughout Europe because it preserved the beer better than other bittering agents.

This is a point in the brewing process that could define an Albertan beer. While hops can definitely be grown in Alberta (actually it grows like a weed…), I don’t think it’s harvested commercially, and I’m certain that local brewers don’t use local hops. Why not add the aroma and flavour of something else?

A pint of homebrewThe first thing that comes to my mind is juniper, which is similar to hops, with sweet pine and citrus notes, though it lacks the pronounced bitterness.

I experimented with these flavours when brewing a Christmas beer. Actually that statement gives me more credit than I deserve. What really happened is I botched a batch of beer that I was making from a store-bought wort concentrate.

For some reason the ale finished extremely bright and fruity, with almost no hints of caramel or hops or really any balancing flavours. I was seriously considering throwing out the entire 20 L batch. I wondered if there was a way to bitter the beer at this stage. Could I make a juniper infusion to mix into the beer? I boiled juniper berries for an hour before realizing that I already had the very essence of juniper in my cupboard. I poured gin into my beer.

The taste of pineneedle and fruit, along with the high alcohol content, make this a fantastic Christmas beer.

While I’m happy to stir some gin into my beer simply so that it doesn’t go to waste, I now know that the flavours of roasted malt and juniper berry work well together, and my goal this spring is to brew a beer from scratch that incorporates juniper in the traditional boiling method.

Anyways. Continuing with the list of beer processes, obviously fermentation is necessary. I define beer as a drink made from fermented grains.

Finally is the issue of carbonation. Before modern bottling techniques were developed in the 1600s, no beer was carbonated. Once bottled, if fermentation persisted, carbon dioxide was trapped in the solution, and the beer became fizzy when opened. After many years, this effect is now expected by beer-drinkers the world over. Conventional modern commercial brewers are careful to ensure fermentaion has stopped before they bottle their beer. They inject carbon dioxide into the mix at bottling.

Don’t misunderstand me: I don’t like being served flat beer when I know it’s supposed to be carbonated, but carbonation is definitely something I’ll be playing with this spring.