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My wife asked me what the definition of beer was, and my best response was my understanding of Reinheitsgebot definition (which may or may not be correct).

Beer contains:

  • Malted Barley
  • Hops
  • Water
  • Yeast

This definition however excludes many things that I would also consider beer, for instance, the entire BJCP category 15 - German Wheat and Rye Beer, nor would it include beers with fruit or coffee beers, or winter ales (with coriander etc...)

So what is a good definition of beer? Is there one?

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Beer is that stuff at a minimum. The extra stuff is exactly that...extra. –  brewchez Jun 24 '11 at 20:17
    
Interesting question. –  Poshpaws Jun 25 '11 at 17:14
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5 Answers

up vote 12 down vote accepted

The definition of beer is a fairly wide one. I'll quote from wikipedia:

[Beer] is produced by the brewing and fermentation of starches, mainly derived from cereal grains—most commonly malted barley, although wheat, maize (corn), and rice are widely used. Most beer is flavoured with hops, which add bitterness and act as a natural preservative, though other flavourings such as herbs or fruit may occasionally be included.

So, mainly, beer is a fermented beverage based on grain. Hops are optional, and, in fact, there is no record of their use in beers brewed before 822. Again, from wikipedia:

What they did not contain was hops, as that was a later addition first mentioned in Europe around 822 by a Carolingian Abbot[24] and again in 1067 by Abbess Hildegard of Bingen.

Hope this helps!

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+1 I like this definition. –  Poshpaws Jun 25 '11 at 17:14
    
If we are looking for a contemporary definition beer includes hops. If you make a fermented beverage with grains and use herbs for bittering like was done in some historical examples... I call that gruit. From a contemporary standpoint mind you. –  brewchez Jun 25 '11 at 21:20
    
Ale was originally the word used to denote no hops (vs beer which did have hops). Gruit could be an acceptable word though I don't think you'll find Sahti brewers will agree that they're making Gruit. –  Mattress Jun 27 '11 at 19:40
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The definition of beer lies in the -process- used to make it. Beer is a fermented alcoholic beverage created by mashing grains to convert the starches contained within to fermentable sugars. Technically Sake is a type of beer, not wine, as it mashes grains (rice) to convert the starches to fermentable sugars and is then fermented to an alcoholic beverage. Associating Sake with wine is simply a good marketing move.

Wine is wine, no grains are mashed, the sugars are provided by grapes without requiring a conversion to fermentable sugars.Mead uses Honey to provide the sugars instead of fruit or mashed grains. Cider uses apples, typically, but sometimes other closely related fruits such as pears. Then there's flat out crazy stuff like Braggot to confuse the issue even more.

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Beer is malted grain, hops, water and yeast at is most basic. Category 15 used malted wheat or rye... that's german Reinheitsgebot friendly. Otherwise it wouldn't be GERMAN Wheat and Rye Beer.

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The Reinheitsgebot is no longer the law of the land in Germany. Wheat beers would not fit within it, according to this translation: brewery.org/library/ReinHeit.html –  Dustin Rasener Jun 24 '11 at 20:34
    
I thought the restriction was to only barley, [from wikipedia] "...The restriction of grains to barley..." I am very likely misunderstanding the law. Do you have any clarification? –  Nathan Koop Jun 24 '11 at 20:43
    
@Nathan: From my link above: "[...] the only ingredients used for the brewing of beer must be Barley, Hops and Water." –  Dustin Rasener Jun 24 '11 at 21:07
    
I don't think hops are mandatory, to call it beer @Dustin Your quote states 'most beer'. I think the most important aspect ofthe definition of beer is the conversion of sugars from a grain to alcohol and CO2. The rest is just flavouring/preservative. –  iWeasel Jun 25 '11 at 20:52
    
I agree -- the Reinheitsgebot is just a German definition of beer; and one I find quite stultifying and, well, very "German". It really has nothing to do with the overall definition of what beer is. –  SimonH Jun 26 '11 at 14:38
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I have just started reading a book, 'Brewing' by Dr Ian S Hornsey (Published by the Royal Society of Chemistry). Aside from being a lecturer in Botany and Microbiology, he is a practising brewer. The opening chapter is called "The definition of Brewing". Not quite what the question asks but I thought this was worth an answer. The chapter begins:

"In the broadest sense of the word 'brewing' may be defined as 'The combined processes preparing beverages from the infusion of sound grains that have undergone sprouting, and the subsequent fermentation of the sugary solution produced, by yeast - whereby a proportion of the carbohydrate is converted to ethanol and carbon dioxide.'"

He goes on to say...

The modern connotation of the word would imply 'production of beer', in all its various forms - and this is how the author has interpreted it.

It seems to cover all bases.

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I like Dustin's definition. The German "law" is unnecessarily restrictive in my opinion.

If we talk about "lager" or "ale" we can get more specific (a beer that has been lagered, or a beer based upon malted barley and warm-fermented), but for beer I'd go with

So, mainly, beer is a fermented beverage based on grain.

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So is Sake beer? –  Mattress Jun 27 '11 at 19:41
    
I did say "mainly". Why ask a question if you already know the answer? Sake is clearly not beer. Offer a better definition. –  Poshpaws Jun 27 '11 at 20:26
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