Homebrewers have seen carbonation form and tasted alcohol in their homebrewed beer, both of which are sure signs of fermentation. But are all beers fermented? And what health benefits can fermentation provide?
All beer requires fermentation to allow the yeast to convert the sugars inside the wort into ethanol and carbon dioxide. Without the fermentation process, there will be no beer. Once fermentation is complete, the grain mash, sugar, hops, and other ingredients have completed the transition into beer as we traditionally define it.
Continue reading for more information on the fermentation process in beer, facts about fermented foods, and how fermentation can benefit your health.
Are all beers fermented?
In short, all beers are fermented.
All basic beer brewing consists of variable combinations of water, a cereal grain like barley or wheat, and yeast. It’s as simple as that. Yeast is a microorganism that converts sugar into ethanol and carbon dioxide, so since grains, which contain sugar, and yeast are both integral to beer brewing, then all beer is fermented.
It’s up to the brewer exactly what kind of beer they would like to make, and that decision is often shaped by the fermentation process itself. From there, brewers can add hops and other flavor agents, like fruit, spices, herbs, coffee – you name it. While there are as many styles as brewers can imagine, there are three basic types of beer: ales, lagers, and wild beers.
These categories are defined by the role yeast played during fermentation:
Ale: During fermentation, the yeast rises and settles atop the liquid. Fermentation can happen at a higher temperature than lagers, so ales tend to have higher ABV. This more aggressive process of fermenting typically leads to a sweeter, fruitier drink. Examples of ales include hefeweizens, India Pale Ales, and stouts.
Lager: The yeast settles at the bottom of the vessel after a slower, cooler fermentation. Its tolerance for alcohol is lower than that of yeast used in ale production, so lagers often have lower ABVs. This is usually a crisp, clean, and light style of beer, although dark lagers and bocks are made in the same fashion.
Wild: Yeast is present in the air around us, so a brewer could decide to take advantage of environmental yeast rather than adding commercial yeast to kick off fermentation. Spontaneous fermentation is responsible for gueuzes, lambics, and sours with varying ABV. One specific wild yeast called Brettanomyces contributes barnyard-y, earthy notes. Using ambient yeast doesn’t mean abandoning sanitizing protocols! It’s just substituting wild microbes for classic yeast.
All beer undergoes at least one cycle of fermentation. By allowing the beer to undergo secondary fermentation, brewers can create an even more complex beer with a higher ABV. The yeast has consumed all of the simpler sugars during primary fermentation, and the time afforded by secondary fermentation gives it the chance to feast on the more complex sugars that remain.
To do this, beer is siphoned into a secondary vessel in order to leave behind sediment that can create off-flavors and make the beer murky in appearance. This also gives the beer an opportunity to age, promoting mellower, more mature flavors. Because transferring the beer to another vessel opens the door for contamination, the practice is a little controversial among homebrewers.
Many homebrewers feel that leaving their beer in the primary vessel for a little while longer achieves the same result without the risk of introducing contaminants to the brew. They also find that just waiting for sediment to fall out of suspension provides the same clarity to beer as siphoning it into another vessel.
Which beers are double-fermented?
Stronger beers such as Westmalle Tripel, Hoegaarden, and Echt Kriekenbier are all double-fermented, which is not exactly the same as secondary fermentation. Double-fermenting is achieved by bottling the beer and adding a different yeast strain that produces bacteria-neutralizing acids right into the bottle. This yeast isn’t the same as brewer’s yeast, which is what is used during primary fermentation (except for spontaneously fermented beers that use wild or ambient yeasts found in the environment).
Does beer help gut health?
We’ve all heard of a ‘beer belly’, which is the extra abdominal fat or bloating that can happen when someone is regularly drinking traditional, single-fermented beers.
The liver will burn off alcohol before it burns fat, so consuming large quantities of alcohol means those calories will take a long while to be processed by the liver. It doesn’t help that alcohol consumption often leads people to eat higher-calorie foods while drinking, like burgers and pizza.
So what’s a beer lover to do? There’s growing evidence that double-fermented beers are rich in probiotics, microorganisms that promote good digestive activity. This is great news for gut health because they restore the natural balance of good bacteria in the digestive system. Good digestive health can ward off obesity, boost serotonin levels, and aid in getting a good night’s sleep.
Still, the author of the study that discovered the presence of probiotics in double-fermented beer, Professor Eric Claassen of Amsterdam University, advises restraint. “In high concentrations, alcohol is bad for the gut, but if you drink just one of these beers every day, it would be very good for you,” he says.
Even if it’s double-fermented beer, excessive drinking negates any benefits that could have been gained by drinking in moderation.
What happens if beer doesn’t ferment?
If a beer doesn’t ferment, then it’s not beer!
Fermentation is a critical step in brewing beer. If the yeast fails to convert sugars in the grains into alcohol and carbon dioxide, then you don’t have beer – you still have the wort you started with, which is just the grain mash and water.
This stuff isn’t very pleasant to drink, as it has none of the carbonation, flavor development, and, maybe most importantly, alcohol that’s created by fermentation. In fact, without the alcohol, the beer has almost certainly become infected and unsuitable to drink at all.
Thankfully, if the yeast isn’t doing its job at first, you can add more (this is called ‘repitching’ the yeast) to turn that unappetizing wort into beer as long as it has only been sitting for a day or two.
Is beer considered a fermented food?
Beer, wine, and cider are just a few examples of fermented beverages, and they’re in good company with dozens of other fermented foods and beverages, such as:
- Kefir (a dairy-based drink from the Caucasus mountain region)
- Pepperoni and other fermented sausages
Fermentation happens in food the same way it happens in beer: yeast converts carbohydrates (which are made up of fiber, starch, and sugar) into carbon dioxide and alcohol. This changes the food’s texture, aroma, and taste.
With fermentation, crunchy cucumbers become sour pickles, milk thickens into yogurt, and wort gains carbonation and alcohol as it becomes beer.
Fermented foods also contain gut-friendly probiotics which support a healthy immune system. Probiotics could also help prevent yeast infections, ease symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, and treat inflammation such as rheumatoid arthritis.
Is fermented food alcoholic?
Alcohol is a natural byproduct of fermentation, so anything that has been fermented contains varying amounts of alcohol. Most fermented foods contain such a small amount of alcohol that it’s unmeasurable.
If there is carbonation present – for instance, in a sourdough starter – the alcohol content is slightly higher. However, baking that starter into sourdough bread cooks off all the alcohol.
Things like sauerkraut and pickles will go through a stage where the liquid may be a little fizzy, but with time and oxygen, the alcohol will convert to acetic acid bacteria (which is a building block of vinegar) and the alcohol content will be negligible.