What is Beer?

I think Ben Franklin gives us the best definition of what beer is….

"Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy."

If you need to know more than that.. read on.

Simple Definitions

According to Webster’s online dictionary, "beer is a fermented alcoholic beverage brewed from malt and hops."  Other definitions have expanded on this slightly by discussing other ingredients (yeast, water, etc.), but the simple definition above is accurate.

Wikipedia (as you would expect) has a more detailed definition that I rather like:

Beer is the world’s oldest and most popular alcoholic beverage. It is produced by the fermentation of sugars derived from starch-based material — the most common being malted barley; however, wheat, corn, and rice are also widely used, usually in conjunction with barley.

"Beer" is also a crater on Mars (located at 351.8°E 14.5°S) that was named after the German astronomer Wilhelm Beer (not really relevant to our discussions here but it could help you win a game of Trivial Pursuit someday).

Further Reading

Of course, the above definitions do not do justice to what I think is the single greatest beverage known to man.  In fact, if that was all we had to say about beer then this site would hardly be necessary!  Therefore, if you REALLY want to learn "What is Beer?", you will need to keep reading… the entire site… every page.  C’mon, don’t owe it to beer?

To get you started, here are a few of the FAQ’s that will get you up to speed quickly.

What are the main ingredients in beer?

What is the difference between an ale and a lager? 

What is meant by beer styles or beer types? 

You can also go to the FAQ Page to see all of the other answers we have created thus far.  Cheers!


Is there formaldehyde in beer?

formaldehyde-beer-smThis question was recently submitted by a reader, and to tell you the truth I did not know much about the formaldehyde in beer issue.  My initial reaction was “of course there is not formaldehyde in beer”, but as I dug deeper into the research I began to grow concerned.

Now when I hear “formaldehyde” I think of preserving corpses… not exactly getting me in the mood for a cold one.  So to start off I figured a definition of formaldehyde was in order:

Formaldehyde: a chemical used in manufacturing and chemical industries, and as a preservative by anatomists, embalmers, and pathologists. Being exposed to formaldehyde may increase the risk of developing leukemia and brain cancer.

So not only do I now think of corpses, but now I have brain cancer on the brain…. I am really hoping this does not turn out to be true at this point.

As I began my research into this question, a few things became clear:

  • There appears to be some truth to the rumor in Chinese beers,
  • There does not seem to be strong evidence of this rumor outside of China
  • There does not seem to be a definitive answer on the subject

China appears to use formaldehyde

First of all, why on earth would breweries knowingly use formaldehyde?  As it turns out it is a very inexpensive clarifying agent that lightens the color of the beer and extends its shelf life.  Although some Chinese breweries claim that they have discontinued the practice, there are a number of beers sold in China that are very cheap and low quality (intended to be affordable to the masses), and it has been stated that these lower quality brews still use formaldehyde to keep costs down.

So how widespread is the use of formaldehyde in Chinese beer? I found a few articles dating back to 2005, where a representative of the China Alcoholic Drinks Industry Association (CADIA) is quoted as saying that 95% of the domestic beer in China has formaldehyde.  What was that?  Did you say 95% of domestic beers in China have a known cancer causing agent in them?  Not really making me want to drink a Chinese beer.

Furthermore, an article in the “People’s Daily Online” reported in 2005 that:

Chinese brewery giant Tsingtao has confirmed the safety of its product, saying the per-liter formaldehyde content of its product is much lower than the standard set by the World Heath Organization (WHO). The Tsingtao Brewery Co., Ltd. made the remarks in a statement it issued Friday in response to earlier domestic media reports putting Tsingtao beer’s formaldehyde content under suspicion. China’s State Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine (SAQSIQ) also said that Chinese beer, including big-name Tsingtao beer, is safe to drink.

However, I did find some more recent resources stating that this practice is dying off (no pun intended) and that only some breweries are still permitting formaldehyde in the brewing process today.  I was also not able to find any reference to formaldehyde in any beers that China imports to other countries, as it appears to only be used in their domestic versions.

Finally, I came across a research study done in 2006 which concluded that:

Formaldehyde was measured in 29 beers [out of 84 tested] (including 7 imported brands) using solid-phase microextraction with on-fiber derivatization. Formaldehyde levels were between 0.082–0.356 mg/L. None of the beer samples exceeded WHO drinking water criteria for benzene, trihalomethanes or formaldehyde.

No Evidence of Formaldehyde Use Outside of China

While I did come across a lot of discussion in online forums about formaldehyde in non-Chinese beers (especially beers from Southeast Asian countries), I was not able to find any evidence if this.  There is a great article I found that discusses this (specifically in reference to a Thai beer called Singha) located here: http://lewbryson.com/formaldehyde.htm.

No definitive answer

In all of the research I conducted online, I was not able to find a clear definitive answer on the subject (besides the info on China).  There was a ton of forum discussions full of opinion and conjecture, but not much in the way of evidence.

Many folks felt certain that some Asian countries used formaldehyde in the brewing process, while others questioned the assertion and compared it to the rumor about urine in Corona.  Some of the most interesting discussions were very scientific in nature, with quite a few folks claiming that trace amounts of formaldehyde were a natural byproduct in beer.  Since I am not very strong in the sciences I have not gone into an in depth discussion of these arguments.

However, I did want to point out one study that was mentioned in the research report listed above.  In it they mentioned another study that looked at European beers:

Donhauser and co-workers9 examined beers from Europe, using a HPLC method, and showed that 65% of them contained detectable formaldehyde, although in many the level was close to the detection limit of 0.2 mg/L. (Donhauser, S., Glas, K. and Walla, G., Detection of formaldehyde in beer. Monatsschrift für Brauwissenschaft, 1986, 39(10), 364–368.)

This would seem to give some credence to the trace amounts argument, but I would love to hear from some other readers that are more versed in the sciences than I….. anyone know a little more about this?

All in all, formaldehyde does not appear to be a major concern for beer drinkers.  However, I would still be a little weary drinking a beer in China (but I don’t plan on visiting anytime soon so I should be safe…..)

Please let us know what you think about this issue in the comments below.

What is the Reinheitsgebot (“German Purity Law)

Well, the first step is to learn how to say Reinheitsgebot…. “Rine-Hites-gaBoat” is the best pronunciation I could find.  Of course some native German speaker will probably correct this, but its pretty darn close.  So now that we can pronounce the word, lets get into what its all about.

The Reinheitsgebot, or “German Purity Law” as many call it, literally translates to “purity law” or “cleanliness law”.  An early version of the law was proposed in 1487, but the version most speak of today originated in the Bavarian city of Ingolstadt on April 23, 1516.  Introduced by Duke Wilhelm IV, the original intent of the law was three fold:

  • Control pricing
  • Ensure the quality of beer
  • Reserve more valuable grains like rye and wheat for bread making, as these grains were often in very short supply

The law limited the allowed ingredients in beer to water, barley and hops.  However, this was only one sentence in a much longer text focused primarily on pricing rules and regulations (see original text below).  Unfortunately the pricing portion of the law did not last… the price was set as one Pfennig per Mass (now that sounds like a great price for a beer!).

Notice there is no yeast in the list of allowable ingredients.  Why you ask?  Well, they really did not know that yeast existed, or was necessary for fermentation, in the 16th century.  They would either use some of the sediment from a previous batch of beer (which included the yeast) or they would let the batch sit out until some wild yeast began the fermentation process. It was not until the 1800’s when Louis Pasteur discovered the role of yeast in fermentation that it was added to the list of acceptable ingredients.

So that is the basics of the original “German purity law”.  As we will discuss in a future FAQ, the law has been updated and adapted to keep up with modern times and has also become the source of some interesting controversies.  Look for the new article soon….

Text of Reinheitsgebot

The best English translation of the Reinheitsgebot that I could find was published in Zymurgy magazine by Karl J. Eden in 1993.

We hereby proclaim and decree, by Authority of our Province, that henceforth in the Duchy of Bavaria, in the country as well as in the cities and marketplaces, the following rules apply to the sale of beer:

From Michaelmas to Georgi, the price for one Mass [Bavarian Liter 1,069] or one Kopf [bowl-shaped container for fluids, not quite one Mass], is not to exceed one Pfennig Munich value, and

From Georgi to Michaelmas, the Mass shall not be sold for more than two Pfennig of the same value, the Kopf not more than three Heller [Heller usually one-half Pfennig].

If this not be adhered to, the punishment stated below shall be administered.

Should any person brew, or otherwise have, other beer than March beer, it is not to be sold any higher than one Pfennig per Mass.

Furthermore, we wish to emphasize that in future in all cities, markets and in the country, the only ingredients used for the brewing of beer must be Barley, Hops and Water. Whosoever knowingly disregards or transgresses upon this ordinance, shall be punished by the Court authorities’ confiscating such barrels of beer, without fail.

Should, however, an innkeeper in the country, city or markets buy two or three pails of beer (containing 60 Mass) and sell it again to the common peasantry, he alone shall be permitted to charge one Heller more for the Mass of the Kopf, than mentioned above. Furthermore, should there arise a scarcity and subsequent price increase of the barley (also considering that the times of harvest differ, due to location), WE, the Bavarian Duchy, shall have the right to order curtailments for the good of all concerned.

What does the “33” mean on the Rolling Rock Label?

This is one of those great beer conversations where everyone has an opinion and there doesn’t seem to be a clear provable conclusion.

There are several different versions of this legend which we have been able to discover.  We have listed these below in reverse order of likelihood (from least likely to most likely) according to our extensive research and our best guess (not quite throwing darts at a list of possibilities, but close).

Rolling Rock “33” Theories

There were exactly 33 steps from the brewmaster’s office to the brewing floor.

The reservoir that was used by the brewery for its main water source was fed by 33 streams.

The list of ingredients on the label – water, malt, rice, hops, corn, brewer’s yeast – totals 33 letters (not counting the commas or the apostrophe).

The brewery workers were members of the Local #33 union.

The highest level that can be attained by a Freemason is 33rd degree (maybe the Latrobe’s were Freemasons?).

Legend has it that the Rolling Rock brewery was started with money won at the horse track.  The winning bet was placed on #33, "Old Latrobe," and that is why there is a horse and the "33" on the bottle.

It was the 33rd version of the recipe that became what is now Rolling Rock.  This one may have come about because of the Jack Daniels label.  It states "Old Number 7" on the label in reference to the 7th attempt at its recipe.

The "33" represents the fabulous day that prohibition was repealed – December 5, 1933.  Now that’s a holiday worth celebrating… why don’t we get that day off work?

And the most popular and most likely version…Rolling Rock Label "33"

The "33" represents the number of words in the slogan on the bottle:

Rolling Rock – From the glass lined tanks of Old Latrobe, we tender this premium beer for your enjoyment as a tribute to your good taste. It comes from the mountain springs to you.

Now even this version has some controversy and multiple versions itself.  From what we have been able to gather, it may have happened like this….

Our main source here is Latrobe Brewing’s past CEO, James Tito.  Apparently Mr. Tito became very interested in this legend as well and began reviewing notes and speaking to members of the Latrobe family about it.  After all of his research, Mr. Tito has been quoted as believing the 33 was left on the label by accident during the printing process.

There was apparently some disagreement on what the label should look like and what it should say, including an argument on how long the slogan should be.  Eventually the family settled on the 33 word slogan that remains today (see above), and during the discussions of its length someone wrote "33" on the copy.

This label was then sent to the printer and was mistakenly thought to be part of the copy itself.  Before the error could be discovered, a very large number of bottles were printed.  Since this was the Depression (1939) and Rolling Rock paints their label directly on the bottles, it would have be extremely expensive to discard this batch of bottles and reprint them all.  It is also important to note that bottles back then were cleaned and reused multiple times, which may explain why future runs of the bottles kept the "33".


Many folks have come along and debunked all of the explanations detailed above, including the “words in the slogan” argument.  Many feel that it would be unlikely for a printer to make such a mistake given that the customer would have had to approve a proof and even if they did mistakenly approve the "33", it could have just been removed on future prints of the label.

While this may be true, we would like to offer another explanation.  Just maybe, once the "33" labels reached the public, it created a little bit of a stir.  Folks began debating and arguing over what the 33 meant.  What company wouldn’t want to create a little buzz and mystery around their product, and of course some free advertising.  Further proof of our point is that we are still discussing it today…..

Let us know what you think about the 33 and any other theories you may have heard in the comments below.



What is the difference between an ale and a lager?

Assorted Beers in a Flight Ready for TastingIn the most basic classification scheme, there are two main types of beer.  No, its not “tastes great” / ”less filling”-  they are ales and lagers.  Ales, the oldest beers in the world, have been around thousands of years longer than lagers.  Looking at the history of beer, civilizations as far back as the Sumerians and Egyptians have been brewing and drinking what would be considered ales.  Lagers, on the other hand, may have only been around since the mid-nineteenth century.  However, many have speculated that “lagering” may have been “discovered” as far back as the Dark Ages, when some European brewers may have stored their beer in ice caves for later consumption. What they found Amazon Imagewas that the beer that was stored and fermented cold had a much clearer and cleaner beer “free from turbidity”.

The main difference between ales and lagers is the type of yeast used in the brewing process, which in turn dictates what ingredients and techniques can be used.Amazon Image

Ales are fermented warm and made with a top-fermenting yeast (Saccharomyces cervisiae), which is, just like it sounds, a yeast that rises to the top of the brew during fermentation.  Ales are generally stronger and more forceful in taste than lagers because of their relatively fast and warm fermentation.  Many countries, including England, serve their ales at “cellar” temperature (50-55 degrees Fahrenheit).

Lagers, from the German word “lagern” meaning to store, are made with a bottom or cold-fermenting yeast (Saccharomyces Uvarum  – see sidebar) that sinks to the bottom of the brew during the fermentation process.   While ales can be brewed in as little as 7 days, lagers Amazon Imagetraditionally need to age before their brewing process is complete.  This can increase their brewing time to more than a month or more.  This longer, colder fermentation process inhibits the production of esters (which give beer a more fruity taste) and avoids other fermentation byproducts common in ales. The lager process creates beers with a generally cleaner, smoother, crisper, and more mellow taste.  Unlike ales, lagers should always be served cold.  The lager is also the most popular style of beer in the world, with some stating that it accounts for 90% of all beers consumed (a large portion of this is from the mass produced watered down lagers of the major US breweries).

*Note – Lager yeast (Saccharomyces Uvarum) was originally named Saccharomyces carlsbergensis (notice the word “Carlsberg” in there… not a coincidence).  The name was chosen to honor the brewery that was credited with first isolating lager yeast (Carlsberg brewery) – the yeast was later named Saccharomyces Uvarum)  Bottom-fermenting yeast was simultaneously discovered by Gabriel Sedlmayr and Anton Dreher about 1830.

Ale vs. Lager – At A Glance



Thousands of years old Relatively new
Fermented warm Fermented cold
Top fermentation Bottom fermentation
Yeast – Saccharomyces cervisiae Yeast – Saccharomyces Uvarum
Quick brew cycle – as little as 7 days Longer brew cycle – up to several months
Usually fermented between 59 – 77 degrees F Usually fermented between 40 and 55 degrees F
Strong, assertive, and more robust in taste Smoother, crisper, and more subtle in taste and aroma
Served not too cool, usually 50-55 degrees F, 10-14 degrees C,  sometimes called  “cellar temperature”. Served cold, usually 40-45 degrees F, 4-7 degrees C.