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November 2018: The Brief Botany of Beer

Sample glasses with different types of beer in each

Most good things come from plants. Beer is one of them.


The varieties and styles of beers are nearly endless, making it one of the most universal drinks in the world. According to a 2017/2018 study done by the Barth-Haas Group, in 2017, 1.95 billion hectoliters of beer were produced worldwide, making it the most popular alcoholic beverage worldwide, and the third most popular drink overall after water and tea.


Beer has a rich history: both in terms of its culture and its ingredients. To put it simply, there are four main ingredients of beer that compromise its union: water, yeast, malt, and hops. (McCallum-Cook, 2018). Other ingredients are often added in order to improve its flavor; such as various fruits, herbs, and spices.


Barley is generally considered  the preferred grain to malt for beer production. Barley is a type of tall, tough and resilient grass that can be grown around the world. (USDA) Evidence suggests that barley has been used as a staple ingredient in beer for centuries. When Patrick McGovern, archeologist at the University of Pennsylvania Museum, analyzed pottery fragments at the Godin Tepe site in Western Iran, he detected the residue of barley beer on the presumed drinking vessels, dating from 3400 to 3000 BCE. (Stewart, 2013)


An ancient pot and vase. The pot and vase both look worn. They are tan with brown designs on them.


Barley is classified as two-row or six-row. Two-row barley has one row of grain on either side of its seed head. Many brewers consider two-row barley perfect for brewing because it contains less protein and more starch to convert to sugar. (Stewart, 2013) Six-row barley has three rows of grain on each side, therefore producing more grain per acre and containing more protein. (Stewart, 2013) When considering the flavor profile, a two-row barley is known to produce a fuller, maltier flavor, while a six-row is said to create a grainier flavor in the finished beer.


A close up image of barley (a yellow, straw like plant)

Hops are a fragrant, green, cone-like flower of the Humulus lupulus. (McCallum-Cook, 2018) Hop plants are dioecious: meaning they can be either male or female. However, only the female plants are able to produce the flowers that are used in brewing.


Light green hops hang from a vine

There are roughly 80 types of hops commercially available today. Generally, those hops will fall into one of the three main categories: bittering, aroma, and dual.
Bittering hops have a high acid range and are more bitter. Bittering hops are what give the beer its recognizable flavor.
Aroma hops have less acid but give a more pronounced flavor and aroma. Their purpose is to make the beer smell and taste a certain way.
Dual hops have a mid to high range amount of acid and can help alter the taste and aroma. Dual hops are recommended for those that want to brew beer using their own hops.


There are various stories that allude as to how hops made their way into beer, but the first time hops are seen in written history (in regards to beer) can be dated back to 1150 AD in Germany by Abbess Hildegard of Bingen. In her writings, Bingen describes hops being used as a preservative. Today, hops are not only used as a preservative, but also as a bittering agent and as an aid in head retention. (McCallum-Cook, 2018) 


In addition to hops, mixes of spices and fruits, commonly referred to as “gruit” or “grut” are used to enhance the flavor of beer. Recently, trees have been added to the mix of assorted beer flavors. Ingredients such as sap, needles, and cedar branches are being increasingly used to flavor beer.


If you are interested in learning more about beer and its ingredients, check out some of the resources from the Sterling Morton Library:

Beer: A Global History by Gavin D. Smith*

The drunken botanist : the plants that create the world's great drinks by Amy Stewart

The cultural history of plants by Mark Nesbitt


Fermenting For Dummies by Marni Wasserman and Amelia Jeanroy*


The Complete Guide to Growing Your Own Hops, Malts, and Brewing Herbs : Everything You Need to Know Explained Simply by John Peragine*
Hop Production : Hop Production by Vaclav Rybacek*
Tinged with Gold : Hop Culture in the United States by Michael A. Tomlan*


Barley : Production, Improvement, and Uses by Steven E. Ullrich*
Diversity in Barley (Hordeum Vulgare) : (Hordeum vulgare) by Roland von Bothmer, H. Knüpffer, K. Sato, T. van Hintum, K Sato, and H Knupffer*

The Yeasts : A Taxonomic Study by C. P. Kurtzman, J. W. Fell, and J W Fell*


*Access the Library’s e-book collection by entering the number on the back of your Sterling Morton Library card.


On Friday, November 16, join The Morton Arboretum in its new IllumiBrew Opening Night event! Kick off the new season of Illumination at our new IllumiBrew event, just for adults. Be among the first to see Illumination’s newest features while you sample seasonal beer from more than a dozen of the area's best local breweries, stationed outdoors along the path. Afterwards, warm up and enjoy live music inside the Ginkgo Restaurant. 21+ only.


History of barley production in the USA. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.mbaa.com/meetings/archive/2011/Proceedings/pages/P-50.aspx

How Many Types of Beer Styles Are There & How Are They Produced? (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.alcohol.org/statistics-information/beer-styles/#_ftn1

Barth-Haas Group. (n.d.). Beer production worldwide from 1998 to 2017 (in billion hectoliters). In Statista - The Statistics Portal. Retrieved October 24, 2018, from https://www-statista-com.pnw.idm.oclc.org/statistics/270275/worldwide-be....

The Botany of Beer. (2018, July 25). Retrieved from https://longwoodgardens.org/blog/2018-07-25t000000/botany-beer

The Short and Bitter History of Hops. Retrieved from http://www.beerscenemag.com/2010/04/the-short-and-bitter-history-of-hops/