Appears in
On Food and Cooking

By Harold McGee

Published 2004

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Wine and beer are made from very different raw materials: wine from fruits, beer from grains, usually barley. Unlike grapes, which accumulate sugars in order to attract animals, the grains are filled with starch to provide energy for the growing embryo and seedling.Yeasts can’t exploit starch directly, and this means that before they can be fermented, grains must be treated to break down their starch to sugars. While it’s true that grapes are much more easily fermented—yeasts begin to flourish in the sweet juice as soon as they break open— grain has several advantages as a material for producing alcohol. It’s quicker and easier to grow than the grapevine, much more productive in a given acreage, can be stored for many months before being fermented, and it can be made into beer any day of the year, not just at harvest time. Of course grains bring a very different flavor to beer than grapes do to wine; it’s the flavor of the grasses, of bread, and of cooking, which is essential to the beer-making process.