For this blog, I chose to write about something that I would consider a hobby. And my timing couldn't be better; it's Beer Week in Toronto! I know...I'm a dietitian! I mean, health professionals don't usually write blogs about alcohol, right? Well, please note: I'm not endorsing over-consumption of alcohol. I do think about alcohol the way I do about food: mindfulness is key.


For about 3 years now, I've been part of a weekly beer club of sorts. Before this beer club, I drank beer rarely...and then, it was only Guinness. I knew nothing about beer, and I guess I was used to the big Canadian brands (no need to name them here)...and I really didn't like them. Guinness was very different, so once I tasted it, it was my safe choice. Now, I can't remember the last time I had a pint of Guinness! I think the reason I'm so into beer is that is pretty complex, both in the process of how it's made and in the different flavour profiles it can have. I have learned a lot about beer over the past three years, and now I'd like to share some of that with you.

A Little History of Beer

Please don't quote me on this, because I'm going on my memory of my early days at my beer club. Our beer sommelier taught me everything I know about beer. And I was an attentive student! No one can know for sure how beer was discovered, but it was quite by accident....Likely what happened was that grains (maybe even bread) were left out and got wet. Then the yeast that was in the ambient air dropped into the mush and fermented the sugars contained in the grains. Imagine being the person who thought: "this looks interesting...let me put it in my mouth". Yikes! (Nick, I hope I got that history correct!)

Traditional beer is made from 4 ingredients:

(1) Barley

This is the grain that contains the sugar that is fermented. It is malted to various levels, which imparts both flavour (sweet and bitter, caramel, chocolate, coffee) and colour (from very pale to black). The proteins in the barley provide viscosity in the beer and foam.

(2) Water

Water is heated in order to release the sugar from the barley. The better the water, the better the drink that's made with this water. Beer is no different. Nuff said!

(3) Yeast

Without the yeast, there will would be no alcohol in beer. Sugar combines with the yeast and ferments, producing alcohol and carbon dioxide. Yeast also imparts flavour to the beer (like sweetness, fruity, biscuity or spicy).

(4) Hops

This is my favourite ingredient in beer. Some people have called me a beer snob or beer nerd, but hop-head is a better description. I don't really like beer that isn't hoppy. So what are hops then, and what do they do? Well, think of hops as adding seasoning to the mixture. They can be quite bitter and herbal. They are also an ingredient that helps preserve the shelf-life of the beer.

Anything else in beer is an adjunct. Adjuncts are unmalted grains (such as wheat, rye, rice, corn, and oats) or other products (ie orange peel, vanilla, lactose, etc) used in the brewing process which are added to the malted barley mash, often with the intention of cutting costs, but sometimes to create an additional feature, such as better foam retention, flavours or nutritional value.

Two Types of Beer

Ale or lager...which do you prefer? Well the difference is in the type of yeast used. The type of yeast dictates how it is fermented. I'm an ale person all the way! Here's how I learned to differentiate between the two:

(1) Ale has 3 letters, just like "red" (as in red wine). The yeast is fermented on the top of the mixture, using warm water. It can have quite a complex nose and taste, and is usually higher in alcohol. It can produce quite fruity beer. My favourite type of beer is known as India Pale Ale (IPA) and each can taste quite different from the other depending on the hops and barley used. But that can be an entire blog on its own...

(2) Lager has 5 letters, just like "white". The yeast is fermented on the bottom of the mixture, using cold water and takes longer to brew than ale. Lager is generally quite "clean" tasting (just like white wine). Except it's not usually fruity (without the addition of adjuncts) and for me anyway, I find I really have to search for a smell that's not "beer".


That's my intro to beer 101. And to quote one awesome beer sommelier, "There is no bad beer; just good beer and better beer". Are you interested in trying some beer now? Well I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the guidelines to alcohol consumption in Canada. The recommended intake is a maximum of 10 drinks per week for women, with no more than 2 drinks per day most days and 15 drinks per week for men, with no more than 3 drinks per day most days. So try something new! Or something you love! Either way, please enjoy your brew responsibly :)


PS...Heineken is a pilsner (a type of lager)