Beer consists of a combination of four base materials: germinated barley, hop, yeast and water. In beer there is not one single substance that exceeds the toxic threshold. It contains a lot of minerals and vitamins. Beer as a matter of fact is a fluid nutrient. It also contains little salt and a lot of magnesium which is important against heart problems and gallstones and kidney stones.
Prof. Denis De Keukeleire: “I have studied organic chemistry and although I was a diligent student I also participated in university life. Already in that time – in the sixties – the drinking of beer was an essential part of this university life. When I had to select a subject for my dissertation I was lead by my interest for beer. I chose for the research on the acrid substances in hop. It is a life’s work to get to know one single plant up to the last fibre and in my case this is hop. I think I can continue with this for the rest of my life.”
Would you, for the sake of the do-it-yourselfers among the visitors of this site, be so kind as to explain to us briefly what brewing is all about?
De Keukeleire : “Beer is made of starch, that can be found back in potatoes and all grains. The base component of beer is most of the time barley. By making the barley damp it starts germinating. The germinated barley is called malt. The brewer mixes this malt with water until it becomes a kind of pulp, which he then heats up. That way the starch in the barley will be broken down and turn into sugars. The pulp will then be filtered in such a way that all the solid substances originating from the malt disappears. The wort, the remaining substance, goes to the wort boilers and will be boiled for one and a half hour together with the hop, which will give the beer its flavour. Then the brewer filters the remainders of the hop away and the wort will be transferred to fermentation tanks, where the yeast transfers the sugars into alcohol and carbon dioxide. The beer ferments for about a week and needs to ripen for three more weeks. It is only after one month that beer will be drinkable.”
You are engaged in the research of hop?
De Keukeleire : “That is correct. Very often I am considered as the beer professor, but in fact I am a ‘hop-professor’. For the moment we are very busy with a project to make beer resistant to light. Beer will be irreparably damaged if it is exposed to light. Sulphur compounds are formed that have a very bad smell, comparable to cat piss. The cause of this is to be found in the acrid substances in hop. If you are sitting on a terrace in the sun you should not leave your glass of beer exposed to the sun too long. Drinking your beer quickly is the best thing you can do. That is also the main reason why beer is most of the times bottled in dark bottles. However, there are exceptions to everything. Corona beer eg. is bottled in a transparent bottle. This is purely for aesthetic reasons : people like to see the colour of the beer. Therefore Corona is always drunk from the bottle, with a piece of lemon in the bottleneck to disguise the bad smell. We are trying to do something about this.”
How come there are beers with different tastes?
De Keukeleire : “This has got to do with the malt that is used by the brewer. The fermentation of the malt is stopped by blowing hot air into it. This process, which is called oasting, can take place in several different ways. When it takes place at low temperatures for a short period of time you will get pale malt, which has no taste and is used for lager beer. Lager beer gets its specific taste from hop. When you blow the hot air for a longer period of time through the barley you will get caramel-like malts, that are used as an ingredient for amber beers and have their own typical taste. Finally there is very dark malt which is used for brewing the heavy beers. These beers will get an additional aroma because of the yeast.”
Could you say that beer is healthy?
De Keukeleire : “Yes. Beer consists of a combination of four natural ingredients: germinated barley, hop, yeast and water. There is not one single substance that exceeds the toxic threshold. There are a lot of minerals and vitamins in beer. Beer is actually a fluid nutrient. Beer also contains little salt and a lot of magnesium, which is important to prevent heart diseases and gallstones and kidney stones. We could say that beer is very healthy.”
“In our lab we also do some research on the medicinal characteristics of hop. In Ancient times people already knew the sedative and sleep-inducing power of hop. Apart from that it also contains female hormones, it has an oestrogenic effect. The concentration of the female hormones is low and there is no reason to panic: men will not develop female characteristics by drinking beer. We would like to apply the oestrogenic effect of hop to treat cancer and gynaecological problems.”
“We have also started a new project where we will apply our knowledge of hop on cannabis. Hop and cannabis belong to the same family and the similarities are large. In Holland cannabis is used as a painkiller and for the treatment of multiple sclerosis, but it has many possibilities that still need to studied. We use cannabis variants that contain almost no hallucinogenic substances and therefore we do enter the danger zone.”
You just said that beer is healthy. However, we do have a hangover when we drink too much of it. How is that possible?
De Keukeleire : “You get a headache because there is too much alcohol and when you start mixing different kinds of beer. Each beer has its own composition and each substance needs to be broken down in its own way. Because beer contains little salt you will have to go to the toilet quite often. That way you will develop a dry throat and the feeling of a hangover. The effect is different from persons to person. Some people will have a hangover more easily than others. Me personally never have a hangover. Also the age can play a role. Older people complain every now and then that the beer in the earlier days was better because they suffer more nowadays. That is not completely correct. Beer has become better and more consistent throughout the years. It is their condition that has slightly deteriorated.”
Why is it that Belgium is such an important beer country?
De Keukeleire : “Belgium is mainly a beer paradise where special beers are concerned. All over the world you can find a lager beer of good quality. The expert knowledge that is required for brewing special beers has historically developed in Belgium. More than hundred years there was a brewery in every village that was owned by the mayor. Due to the political struggle between the Catholics and the liberals there was a real brewery-“boom”. If the brewer was catholic, the liberal opponent for the mayor’s post could only be successful by also starting up a brewery. Many Flemish villages had two breweries that were in fierce competition with eachother and always had new and better tastes for the consumers in order to conquer the village politically. That way the absurd situation was created that a village of merely five hundred inhabitants had ten different kinds of beer. This tradition is really unique and that way the beer culture has been able to develop itself fully.”
What is your favourite kind of beer?
De Keukeleire : “When I am really thirsty I prefer one or more cool glasses of lager. However, where taste is concerned I prefer the special beers. I like drinking tripel, especially Orval. Maybe I am a little biased when choosing Orval because it is very well hopped. I like in particular the bitter beers.”
Have you ever tried to brew beer yourself?
De Keukeleire : “No, never. We work together with the brewery school of KIHO. The nice thing about this kind of research is that you can test the results yourself, although this does not apply to everybody. I have colleagues that are interested in beer but do not like beer. I just think it is a matter of combining business with pleasure.”
Source : Schamper 366, Universiteit Gent