Nothing engages the senses quite like the humble beer.

Ever had a beer? Did you love it? If so, what did you love? The taught crack of the tin? The hops on the nose? The hops on the tongue? That cosy, deciduous spectrum of ambers and reds, chocolates and wheats? The way it all felt barrelling southbound through your parched system?

Here’s drinks writer and MFWF Legend Max Allen with everything you need to know about what it is, how it’s made, and how to get more pleasure out of drinking it.

What is beer?

Barley, water, hops and yeast. These are the four essential ingredients of every beer, whether it’s a pale golden lager or a dark black stout. Brewers take these four basic elements and either brew them on their own or sometimes add a host of additions such other types of grain, fruit and flowers (see below) to create any style of beer they want (also see below), pretty much whenever they want. That’s why there’s such a staggering diversity of beer styles out there: the potential is only really limited by the brewer’s imagination.

How beer is brewed

By far the most commonly used grain in beer production is barley, although some beers have other grains such as wheat, oats, rice and corn included in the recipe. The barley is malted – which means it’s encouraged to germinate and is then dried – to convert the starch in the grain into fermentable sugars. How the grain is dried affects the colour and flavour of the resulting beer – for example, lightly roasted pale malt produces light golden beer; roasted, brown malt is used in amber-coloured beer; heavily-roasted, chocolate-coloured malt is used to make stout. The malted barley is milled and mixed with hot water, resulting in a sugary liquid called “wort”. The wort is then drained off into another tank and boiled, with some hops added for flavour and bitterness.

The flowers of the hop vine contain aromatic, bitter oily resins that give beer its distinctive flavour and tang. Hops come in various forms: dried pellets, concentrated liquid extract, or fresh flowers. Different varieties of hop have different characteristics – some are more aromatic, some are more bitter – and Victoria is home to a few of the best-known hop varieties: Pride of Ringwood, bred in the 1950s for Carlton & United Breweries, is the hop used in famous beer brands such as Victoria Bitter; and a number of important varieties, including Galaxy – renowned for its tropical fruity perfume – were developed in the 1990s by Hop Products Australia, which has large hop farms in the state’s northeast.

After the boil, the sweet, hoppy wort is cooled and yeast is added. The yeast ferments the sugar in the liquid, producing alcohol and carbon dioxide. Different strains of yeast are used for different beer styles: some yeasts work at warmer temperatures and are used for ales and stouts; some yeasts work at cooler temperatures and are used for lagers and pilsners. Some brewers, like La Sirène in Ashburton, use yeast cultures imported from Belgium to emulate that country’s traditional “saison” farmhouse ales – and also practice wild fermentation, by leaving the wort exposed to the air, encouraging local yeasts in the atmosphere to settle on the liquid.

Other ingredients
A whole host of other things can be added to the fermenting wort – or to the finished beer – to enhance flavour, from fresh fruit such as cherries and citrus, to flowers and honey and chocolate – even more unusual savoury ingredients such as seaweed and salt. Sailor’s Grave in Orbost, East Gippsland, push the boundaries here perhaps more than anyone: some of their more adventurous brews incorporate bone broth, wild mushrooms or silage (seriously).

Most beer is sold (and tastes best) soon after fermentation has finished, when the flavours are freshest: filtered and carbonated and packaged in cans or bottles, or put into kegs and sold on tap in pubs. Some beers, though, are matured in barrel before bottling, a little like wine – a few breweries like Boatrocker in Braeside specialise in barrel-aged styles – or are “bottle-conditioned”, which means they go through another fermentation in bottle, and are best drunk after a few months. And some beers – particularly stronger styles, with alcohol content nudging up to 10 per cent, such as Red Hill Brewery’s Temptation from the Mornington Peninsula – can even age well in the cellar for five years or more, developing intensely rich, complex flavours.

What do all the beer words mean?

Ever stood in front of a beer fridge in your local bottle shop and wondered how to choose between all the different styles? This quick explainer might help.

Australia’s most popular beer style, this is a pale, crisp, clean beer, lightly hopped, not too bitter, easy to drink, refreshing. Well-known big commercial lager brands born in Victoria include the mighty VB and Crown, but most smaller, indie brewers also make lagers, from Burnley Brewing’s Viennese-style lager to Bandolier Brewing’s Number Juan, inspired by Mexican beers and made using corn as well as barley (corny name – ouch – lovely beer).

Pale ale
Pale ale is usually more amber-coloured than lager, with a fuller hop flavour profile and more marked bitterness. Lots of Victorian craft breweries such as Hawkers and Mornington Peninsula Brewery have established their reputations with really flavoursome pale ales. Variations on the “pale ale” theme include amber ale (a bit darker in colour), and summer ale (fresher in style, a little less hoppy).

IPA, XPA, NEIPA, hazy IPA, etc
“India pale ale” or IPA is a style that dates back to the UK’s colonial era when beer was brewed with extra hops to help preserve it for the journey to the subcontinent. In recent years, Victorian brewers have been pushing the hoppy IPA style even further: Wolf of the Willows helped introduce the XPA (extra pale, but also extra hoppy) and 3 Ravens helped popularise the “New England IPA”, or NEIPA, with its characteristic hazy appearance and super-citrusy aromatics. Now variations on the hazy IPA style are all the rage.

Stout and porter
Rich, dark ale made from heavily roasted malt, with characteristic brown foam; Holgate’s Chocolate Porter from the Macedon Ranges is a particularly indulgent example that includes cocoa and vanilla in the recipe. Variations on the style include oatmeal stout (oats are added to the brew), oyster stout (oysters are added – no, really), and imperial stout (extra strong, often topping 10 per cent alcohol).

Along with the rise and rise of IPAs, one of the biggest trends in craft brewing is sour beers, made with funkier-tasting yeasts and bacteria in an intentionally tart, tangy, style, often barrel-aged – such as the “Learning to Breathe” golden sour from Ballarat’s Dollar Bill Brewing – or with fruit added to enhance the tartness, such as the Raspberry Sour from Footscray’s Hop Nation.

Hybrids and collaborations
Another exciting trend is brewers collaborating with winemakers, coffee roasters, distillers and other non-beer people to create new drinks that push the boundaries of what beer is or could be – like Bridge Road Brewers in Beechworth making beer with wild yeasts from barrels of fermenting local chardonnay.

No-lo beers
One of the best things to happen to beer in the last few years is the emergence of brews with little or no alcohol in them that are also really tasty, like Brick Lane Brewing’s Sidewinder Hazy Pale, which only has around one per cent alcohol.

Beer: a Victorian story

Talk about history repeating. Back in the second half of the 19th century, breweries popped up across Victoria, slaking the thirst of the rapidly expanding population: from the goldfields of Ballarat to the suburban streets of Brunswick, there was almost a brewery on every corner. The late 19th and early 20th century saw massive consolidation, with big breweries gobbling up smaller ones, until only a handful of large companies remained, dominated by the huge Carlton & United Breweries in Melbourne. Boutique breweries began to re-emerge in the late 1980s and 1990s – small players such as Mountain Goat in Richmond and Grand Ridge in Gippsland – kick-starting a craft beer revolution that shows little sign of fizzing out. Now, with over 100 Victorian beer producers to choose from, it feels like there’s a brewery on every corner again – not to mention the plethora of craft beer bars and bottle shops that have opened up, from Otter’s Promise in Armadale to The Great Beyond in Coburg. Indeed, the success of this new craft market has led to more historical deja-vu, with pioneering craft breweries such as Two Birds and Mountain Goat now owned by major drinks giants Lion and CUB/Asahi respectively.

How to get more out of every beer you drink

Put beer on your dining table. I probably don’t need to tell you this, but beer isn’t just for drinking on its own, with your mates, in a pub. It’s also delicious with food. But don’t just fall for the clichéd options of cold lager ‘n’ tacos, or hoppy IPA ‘n’ barbecue: some of the most unexpectedly mouth-watering food and drink experiences I’ve had have involved beer, from a yeasty saison with a stinky washed-rind cheese to a sour cherry ale with roast duck.

Go the fancy glassware. Yes, most of the time, beer tastes great straight out of the stubby or can – especially if you’re at a concert or picnic or on the beach on a hot day. But pouring that beer into a nice glass – big-bowled wine glasses are particularly good for really aromatic hoppy beers – helps you really appreciate all the complexity and flavour of what you’re drinking.

Follow The Crafty PintThis Melbourne-based web site has been tracking developments in Australian brewing since 2010 and is an invaluable source of in-depth information, reviews, insight and tips on all things craft beer.

Max Allen’s Intoxicating: Ten drinks that shaped Australia, filled with stories of beer – and other delicious booze – is out now, as is Beggars Belief: Stories from Gerald’s Bar by Gerald Diffey, which Max edited and illustrated, often with a beer in hand.

By Max Allen