Variations on Fermented Barley Water

A beer’s final taste emerges from an endless permutation of variable options. How do brewers find the right flavors?

January 5, 2017

Baja BrewsIssue 22: January/February 2017

Centuries ago, beer drinkers drank beer because it added calories to unstable diets and because beer was more reliably sanitary than water from creeks or wells. The world has since changed. For much of the last century many Americans watered their lawns with fluoridated water, and most of us need to watch calories, not add them. Thus, and for a long time, Americans drank beer because it was cold, or because it helped wash down the pretzels, or because beer commercials promised bawdy glory, athletic prowess, and nearly nirvanic refreshment.

These days, many Americans drink beer because it’s delicious. The craft beer boom has introduced new and widely varying flavors: oozy malts, tangy grapefruit, milky oats. But how do brewers highlight, balance, and introduce these flavors—intricacies such as sweetly warm mesquite, piney hops, or creamy coffeeness? How do they bring out the wondrous depths of malted grains or let yeasts sparkle a citric blast into our mouths? What subtle balancing of barley types, timed pitchings of yeast, temperature modulations, or Bill Nye-ish laboratory concoctions lead to the drinkable, surprising, wonderful beers increasingly common in Baja Arizona?

Catalina Brewing Company’s Steven Peterson, Hank Rowe, and Eric Fairfeld experiment with ingredients like mesquite—and chocolate.

Catalina Brewing Company’s Steven Peterson, Hank Rowe, and Eric Fairfeld experiment with ingredients like mesquite—and chocolate.

To learn more about the curation, addition, and distillation of ingredients, I started by talking with Cody Van Haren and Mike Gura of Public Brewhouse. We zoned in on their Exposé IPA. Van Haren told me he wanted to brew a “fallish IPA,” with a darker color and slightly toastier hops than you’d find in a standard American IPA. (This color twist is typical for Public—their Saison Noir is one of only a few black saison beers in the country, and—smoky, hoppy, and slightly caramelly sweet—is one of the most original and delicious beers in town.)

To achieve that autumnal taste-vision, Van Haren used six types of malt (the germinated-and-toasted barley grain that’s the base of most beers): Pilsner, Maris Otter, Dark Munich, Crystal Rye, Vienna, and Acid. I asked him how deliberate his selection was. To explain, or to begin explaining, he showed me Public’s mill, which they use to mill their malt. The idea is to crush the grain in a specific way to keep the husk partially intact while exposing a desired degree of surface area of the grain so that enzymes, dancing in the mash tun, convert the starch from the barley grain into sugar, which will be food for the yeast, which excretes, basically, alcohol. If the husk of the malt remains too intact after milling, brewing will release more tannins than sugar. A touch of tannin is a good thing, but too much and your beer will taste like steeped shoe-leather.

And the complications are only beginning: there are hundreds of varieties and subvarieties of malts, with tens of thousands of possible combinations. Van Haren defended his choice of the six malts: the Pilsner was a nice, everyday base. The Maris Otter was “darker-kilned, from English winter barley, with a lot of English character, including nut and biscuit notes.” The Vienna malt added more darkness, with breadier/toastier notes. “We wanted its richness.” And the Crystal Rye malt is “hot-kilned,” adding “a touch of sweetness.” After the malts come the hops: Public selected Magnum, 07270, and Denali (which Van Haren described as smelling like “a bag of weed with blueberries in it”).

Public Brewhouse’s Mike Gura says his brewing philosophy is to “respect the yeast.”

Public Brewhouse’s Mike Gura says his brewing philosophy is to “respect the yeast.”

The goal is to conduct all the million little variables into a catchy, beautiful melody that plays in your mouth. “My brewing philosophy,” Gura explained to me, “is to respect the yeast. They’re the ones who make the beer.” Yeast responds to the baton of temperature, density, and pressure to “give off different fermentation characteristics.” Even the fermentation vessel affects the flavor profile: a rounded fermentation tank more uniformly distributes the yeast, whereas a square tank creates pockets with varying degrees of yeastiness. The number of variables in terms of ingredient selection, I was finding, is nearly overwhelmed by how many ways there are to cook, cool, mix, and ferment the ingredients. (Not to mention the ways to bottle, store, pour, and drink the end product.)

Wonderfully, alchemically, the end result of Exposé IPA was a beautiful amber (pine-sappy brown), with a foamy, slightly off-white head, and a toasted pine, sweetish, nutty, biscuity taste, with a politely bitter finish. Damned delicious, and, as Van Haren had hoped, very “fallish.”

Public was toying with the four standard ingredients in beer: barley, hops, water, and yeast. If they were based in Germany, that would be all they would legally be allowed to add to their beer. The 500-year-old Reinheitsgebot, better known as the purity law, limits German brewers to using four, and only four, ingredients to make beer. German brewers, of course, can add in grapefruit or coffee or chiltepins, or whatever they want, but they wouldn’t be able to call their end product beer. And “fermented barley water” doesn’t have quite the Pavlovian ring to it that Bier does.

In the United States—a liberal bastion, liquidly speaking, compared with Germany—beers come flavored with everything from tangerines to tarragon, though there are a few standard ingredient complements, such as chocolate, raspberry, or coffee.

Chris Squires is the co-owner of Ten 55 Brewing; their XOXO Coffee Stout is made with Exo’s cold brew coffee.

Chris Squires is the co-owner of Ten 55 Brewing; their XOXO Coffee Stout is made with Exo’s cold brew coffee.

To learn how Ten 55 Brewing selects its coffee beans to add into its popular XOXO Coffee Stout, I attended a coffee cupping with Ten 55’s JP Vyborny and Exo Coffee’s Doug Smith. In Exo’s new Southern Arizona Work Space, Smith guided us through five distinct coffee types, nudging us to sniff bowls of ground beans, slurp coffee off a spoon—aspirating it into the back of our throats—and pick out the notes of mushroom, tobacco, lemon, and black tea. (Vyborny and Smith were much more flavor-attuned than I was.) But careful bean selection, along with deliberate blending, and subtle roasting, isn’t all that makes Ten 55’s stout stand out. Ten 55’s stout is lower in alcohol volume, so it tastes nearly like drinking a cold brew coffee, and yet has a sweet, zippy, slightly hoppy finish.

To make their own toddy, Ten 55’s brewers steep five pounds of coffee (coarse ground and preselected by Exo’s Smith) in cool water for 24 hours. Vyborny told me that the coffee toddy is so good they usually sneak off a glass or two to enjoy for themselves. Each final pint of the stout has enough caffeine to equal about one-eighth of a cup of coffee.

As Vyborny and I sipped one of his stouts, I asked him to explain what I was tasting. “First and foremost,” Vyborny said, “is the cold coffee. Followed by roastiness and toast. Then there’s an umami meatiness, the crunch of carbonation, then residual bitterness. The finish is hoppy, then the lingering lactose sweetness.”

Smith told me that he often selects for Ten 55 a coffee from the Huila region of southern Colombia, one of his “favorite coffees to source.” It’s a co-op run coffee project, which puts money into social and educational infrastructure. The coffee is “round-bodied,” as Smith described it, “with a good chocolate note.” He explained that brewers want coffee beans with “enough brawn to get through the beer, but which are still delicate.”

I recently tried an XOXO Coffee Stout at Prep and Pastry, where you can order it as a pint or, my recommendation, served as a beerback to Prep and Pastry’s Bloody Mary. The mustard and spice of the Bloody Mary are soothed by the cool coffee of the stout, with the hops complementing the pickle. The match is so flavorsome, so roundly taste satisfying, that a few sips seem to sate my hunger, making brunch an almost gratuitous afterthought.

Kyle Ratcliff (left) and Allan Conger, 1912’s owner and brewer, say they like to experiment with the complexity of sour beers.

Kyle Ratcliff (left) and Allan Conger, 1912’s owner and brewer, say they like to experiment with the complexity of sour beers.

Although sometimes roasted locally, coffee doesn’t grow anywhere near Baja Arizona. The standard beer ingredients, however, can be found in these parts, though hops are rare, and even the most important ingredient—water—is definitionally scarce (this is a desert, people—turn off your faucets). And yet, last year Ten 55 made probably the first ever all-Arizona beer, sourcing hops from Sonoita and grains from Marana. It was a one-off, and currently it’s not practical for long-term brewing. Arizona, however, is bounteous in potential beer flavoring additives.

Catalina Brewing Company is one brewery benefiting from distinctly Sonoran ingredients.

If you cruise the loop, you probably want to swing up to Catalina Brewing Company, nestled in an industrial pocket just south of Ina, to try the Twin Pole Porter, which is made with local mesquite flour harvested by La Madera Mesquite. It’s a balanced, slightly chocolatey, smooth dark porter, with the terroir earthy-sweetness of the mesquite rounding out the hops and lingering on the back of your tongue. The beer has been years in the making. Hank Rowe, Catalina’s owner and brewer, started working mesquite into his home-brewed beers about five years ago. He first produced a light amber Mesquite Agave. After numerous batches, and once he’d found out how best to bring out the distinctively sweet desert notes, he started putting the flour into his porter. For Edible Baja Arizona’s second Baja Brews event, in late September, he dry-hopped some chiltepin into the beer, which complemented the sweetness in the back of the throat.

The other local ingredient Catalina loves to use is prickly pear. Their La Rosa Prickly Pear Cream Ale might be the most beautiful beer in town, a pinkish-yellow blush when held to the light—a sunset settling in Saguaro West—with tiny bubbles lacing all the way up from the bottom of the glass. It’s a sweet beer, but not cloying, and the cream (not from actual milk cream, but rather from rice shavings, which add to the body and mouthfeel of the beer) delays your want to swallow, so you linger and enjoy the Champagne-y bubbles and let the tiny sting of hops crest up through the prickly pear.

Some of the most original and surprising ingredients you’ll find in local beers are bubbling away in the back of 1912 Brewing. Allan Conger, 1912’s owner and brewer, likes to experiment, and his specialty—sour beers—lends itself to weird flavors. 1912’s Demonic Chocolate, for example, is a rare dark sour beer. Conger used a Honey Vanilla Yogurt culture to give a sour edge to the darker, chocolate-noted malts. He also added Mexican vanilla bean, resulting in a concoction he described as tasting like a “wine-infused chocolate cherry,” with a pleasant sting of sour from the yogurt.

The modulations that go into sour beers reach another level of complexity. For 1912’s Naughty Naranja, Conger used the house strain of sour culture (a family secret, but which comes in part from wild yeasts), which already has citrusy notes, and then mixed in salt, coriander, and blood oranges. This is a high ABV sour, with unmalted wheat from Marana’s BKW Farms, which adds to the texture, without increasing alcohol content.

1912 also produces its own coffee, Mescalero Stout, using Presta coffee beans, as well as adding Oaxacan cacao nibs, salt, and piloncillo. Instead of making and adding a cold brew, Conger dry-hops whole coffee beans into the beer (adding after fermentation). The result is a thicker stout than Ten 55’s, higher in ABV, and much more chocolate-forward: delicious, complex, and more like a meal replacement than a quick-sipper.

At 1912, blood orange purée is added to a brew of Naughty Naranja Blood Orange Imperial Gose.

At 1912, blood orange purée is added to a brew of Naughty Naranja Blood Orange Imperial Gose.

1912’s weirdest beer (and they pour some of the wackiest and most daring in town) is their Funk Seoul Brother, which is brewed with a Kimchi culture made by Eric Erman from Ermanos.

Any reader who has read this far, and I hope you’ve cracked a beer by now, I want you to slow your guzzle, look down into your glass, and think about the love and the sweat and the science that has gone into that beer—the calculations, the time, and yes, the ingredients. Beer is basically yeast eating grains steeped in water, with hops and maybe one other ingredient adding flavor. It’s simple, but it’s also not simple, and brewers learn, experiment, and toil to feed the yeast, to bring out flavors, body, head, and color—and to lighten up your day a little bit, to quench your thirst, to impress your palate. Or, at least, to give you a sanitary alternative to creek water. We can all drink to that.

John Washington is a writer and translator.
Visit or find him on Twitter @EndDeportations.

Previous Post

Cider Revival

Next Post

A Citrus Winter