Beer and wine have been around as long as human civilization. The two drinks first became established in areas where the climate and soil were conducive to raising the respective crops that produce them—grain or grapes. Throughout history, numerous grains have been used to brew beer: barley and wheat in Europe; corn in Central America (to produce chicha); sorghum in Africa (shakapro); and rice in East Asia (sake). And even though many grains are used in brewing, I will focus on barley to simplify the discussion.
While the majority of wine drinkers can only dream of affording the world’s greatest wines, any average Joe can afford the world’s best beer. Perhaps it’s simply supply and demand. Farmers can raise brewing grains in all kinds of soils and climates from the northern and southern latitudes to the Equator. They can also ship their malt economically to brewers almost anywhere in the world. Wine grapes, though, are more finicky. They grow best in temperate climates with well-drained soils and must be processed in relative proximity to the vineyard. The grape-friendly climate of the Mediterranean and southern Europe is the reason Spain, France and Italy have such a rich legacy of wine production.
It is interesting to note that Belgium, wedged between the wine-drinking French and beer-drinking Germans and Brits, is an example that illustrates that the divisions between beer and wine are not always that obvious. Even though Belgium is too far north to support proper vineyards, Belgian brewers have incorporated many wine-like practices in their brewing processes. They package many of their beers in bottles with corks, age their beer in wood barrels, produce beers with alcohol content comparable to wine, and sometimes add the juice or fruit of cherries, peaches and raspberries to their fermenters.
Beer and wine are both fermented beverages—that is, they use yeast to convert sugar into alcohol. Grape juice provides the fermentable sugar in winemaking, and the local climate, soil, and seasonal weather influence the quality of the juice at each harvest. For this reason, wine drinkers highly value wines from certain viticultural areas and even from particular harvests that produce exceptional vintages. In this sense, wine drinkers expect variations in quality from year to year because weather can upset the balance of sugar, acid, and tannins within the grape.
On the other hand, beer drinkers expect brewers to produce consistent-tasting beer year in and year out, even though weather also affects the quality of the starch in the barleycorn. For example, hot, dry summers may reduce the amount of starch and increase the protein content of the kernel.
While grape juice naturally contains fermentable sugar, the brewer relies on the maltster to prepare the starchy barleycorn for conversion to sugar through a process called malting, which is simply the controlled germination of the harvested barley. Germination triggers the release of enzymes that break down starch into sugar, which feeds the new plant until it can produce its own food through photosynthesis. The maltster stops germination by carefully drying the barley and leaving the sugar-producing enzymes intact. Mixing the malt with hot water (140 to 160 degrees F) reactivates these enzymes in the brew house where the starch is converted to sugar. The manner in which the maltster and brewer process the malt can help compensate for seasonal quality variances and maintain a homogeneous product from year to year.