Technical Tuesday: What's the opposite of dry? Sweet.

You might find us referring to our beers as "dry". Yes, it's weird to refer to a liquid as dry, but it's easier to understand than "the porter has a finishing specific gravity of 1.006." 

Dry (and its opposite sweet) refers to the amount of sugar left in the beverage when it's ready to drink. Lots of sugar = sweet; very little sugar = dry. Dryness can sometimes be perceived as thin or sharp. Have you ever had a beer (or wine or spirit) that left your mouth feeling almost dry? That's probably because it had very little sugars left in it.

Beer starts its life as malted barley. We soak that barley in the perfect temperature water to extract its sugar. Those sugars then get turned into alcohol by yeast. But brewing yeast can only eat up certain kinds of sugars. If we soak the malted barley in very hot water, the sugars get very complicated, and the yeast can no longer convert them to alcohol. And certain kinds of brewing yeast just can't live in highly alcoholic environments, so they die before eating up all of the sugars. It's those residual sugars — the ones that the yeast does not consume and convert to alcohol — that cause a beer to be sweet (and not dry).

Conversely, if we soak the malted barley in slightly cooler water and use strains of yeast that we know are strong, we can end up with a dry beer, which has very few residual sugars. All else being equal, this drier beer will have less of an aftertaste, and will often leave you wanting another sip (and quickly!) to flush out the dryness. These are the beers that I love drinking after a hard summer day's slog in the garden — thirst-quenching and more-ish. Sweet beers can leave a slick coating of flavour behind, which is why I love savouring them at the end of an evening. And Goldilocks-level beers, with just a bit of sweetness, are ideal for pairing with food because they can let food shine.

Brewers measure dryness using specific gravity. Specific gravity refers to the density of the liquid. A beer with more sugars will be more dense, whereas a beer with fewer sugars (and more alcohol) will be less dense. Water has a specific gravity of 1.000, so any beers with a specific gravity close to that are considered dry. Extremely sweet beers like certain kinds of sweet stouts can end up with a specific gravity around 1.020. 

Both pale and dark beers can be dry. Imagine a very crisp American lager like Budweiser; that'll have a specific gravity around 1.007 and we consider that pretty dry. But dark beers like Irish stouts can also have specific gravities around 1.007. Some saisons (a Belgian and French farmhouse beer style) even have specific gravities of 0.999 and lower because alcohol is less dense than water; these beers have essentially no residual sugars.

To complicate things further, all sorts of other factors can interact with specific gravity to make you perceive a beer as tasting more dry. Imagine bitterness from hops and dark roasted grains, carbonation level, and how creamy the head is. The trick to brewing a perfect beer is to manipulate all of those factors in tandem. That's where Hexad's knowledge comes in. We can talk to you about whether you plan to drink lots of your beer at once (perhaps dry), whether it's to pair with a meal (somewhere in the middle), or whether you imagine your beer as a sipping drink (I'd go for sweet). Then we make sure that all those factors are perfectly balanced so you get the perfect beer for your needs.

Maeve McMahon