Brewing has been around and making people happy since the dawn of time. This age old craft may seem intimidating to learn but most aspiring brewers feel confident after their first few batches.
At least four ingredients go into making beer:
1. Water- Beer is of course, mostly water. A surprise to many, water actually plays a large role in how a beer tastes. Historically, beer styles arose from areas where the water worked optimally for those ingredients. Basically, they found out through trial and error which recipes seemed to taste (and sell) the best. The Bohemian city of Pilsen has extremely soft water that works perfectly for the Pilsner style, which not-surprisingly originated there. The birthplace of IPAs, Burton-on-Trent in England, has very hard water that accentuates the hop flavors. Today brewers (and homebrewers) have access to brewing salts and filters to control water hardness and flavor.
2.Malt- Malting involves stopping the germination process of brewing grains such as barley and wheat. During the germination process starches are made available within the seed (for the hopeful plant) then it is kiln dried to stop the process. These malted grains are then milled to open them up slightly then added to warm water in a process called mashing where sugars are released and become the base of the beer. Specialty grains are malted grains that have had more extensive kilning or treatment after malting in order to achieve a certain color of flavor (but less fermentable sugar), caramel malts and roasted malts are common specialty grains.
3. Hops- Hops have been used in brewing since the 10th century. Flower cones on the hop vine contain glands, the acids in these glands provide beer with bittering, flavoring, and anti-septic qualities. There is a dizzying number of hop varieties available today from all over the globe. Each has its own unique profile. Some are more suited to bittering, while others are known more for their flavor. Some versatile varieties are known for both. Hops come in whole form and pelleted form. Hop pellets resemble rabbit food and have a longer shelf life and are more stable but some maintain whole hops provide better flavor.
4. Yeast- Brewing Yeast is a type of fungi that consumes the sugars in the pre-beer (called wort, the byproduct of their voracious appetite is alcohol and CO2. Fermentation is the name of this magical process. Yeast is broken down into two distinct types: Ale and Lager. Ale yeast ferments on top of the beer and occurs at temperatures between 62-80 degrees F. Lager yeast ferments on bottom and likes a colder environment, it does best between 44-56 degrees F. Many different strains of both ale and lager yeasts are available today, each has a unique effect on the flavor and body of the beer. Louis Pasteur confirmed that living yeast was responsible for fermentation in 1860. In earlier centuries it was thought to be magic.
Steps in the brewing process
Brewing can be broken down into steps in order to make the process easier to learn.
1. Milling- Brewing grains are sent through a mill in order to crack the husks which allows access to the sugars within. The finer the crush the more available the sugar, but the likelihood of problems like a stuck mash increases as well.
2. Mashing- Mashing involves soaking and holding the brewing grains, specialty grains, and sometimes adjuncts (if the recipe calls for them) in a measured amount of warm water (usually 147-156 F) for a set period of time (usually 1 hour.) Different enzymes release from the grains during the mash (at different temperatures) and release the sugars from starches within the grains etc. The greater the water to grain ratio, the greater the amount of fermentable sugars will be available. Temperature plays a large part as well, low mash temps in the 140’s will result in a higher ABV% but dryer beer while mash temperatures in the mid-high 150’s will result in a beer with much more body and residual sweetness.
3. Sparging- After the mash has rested for the proper amount of time the grains are then rinsed in a process called sparging. Warm water is slowly circulated through the mash bed (for up to an hour) and down into the beer kettle. Sparging basically just rinses the grains in order to wash the sugars down into the boil kettle.
4. Boiling- The sweet liquid in the kettle is now known as “wort” and it is brought to a boil. Hops are added initially for bitterness and later in the boil for flavor and aroma. Later boil additions extract less bittering acids from the hops but will add more flavor and aroma. Common boiling times are 60 and 90 minutes.
5. Cool Down- After the boil the wort is cooled as quickly as possible (to avoid infection) to usually at least under 78 degrees F for ales, and much lower for lagers. At this point the wort is transferred to the fermentation vessel (usually a 6 gallon bucket or carboy for homebrewers.)
6. Fermentation– Yeast and oxygen are added to the wort in order to facilitate fermentation. Homebrewers often “swirl” the the bucket or carboy in order to add the oxygen. During fermentation, the yeast consumes the sugars within the beer and releases alcohol and CO2. The beer will ferment for around 7-14 days. Sometimes brewers will transfer the beer to another vessel when fermentation is nearing or finished with completion. The beer is aged for a week or so at this point and it is known as Secondary Fermentation.
7. Packaging- After 2-3 weeks the beer is ready to be bottled or kegged! Brewers with access to a refrigerator often crank the temperature down, known as “cold crashing”, which helps drop any remaining yeast and other sediment out of the beer and down to the vessel bottom.
8. Carbonating- No one likes flat beer, sugar (and sometimes yeast) is added to the before bottling which ferments, produces CO2 and carbonates the beer. In the case of kegging, the CO2 is attached to the keg and does the carbonating. When CO2 from a tank is responsible for those glorious little bubbles it is called “forced carbonation”, when those kooky yeast add the magical bubbles it is known as “natural carbonation.”
9. Aging and Drinking– Now comes the fun part! After carbonation is complete the brewski is now ready to be enjoyed. Some higher alcohol and/or complex styles may need some and additional 1-6 months of aging but many styles are near their prime and ready for consumption. Many IPAs are best young, the hops will mellow with time.
Hopefully that wasn’t too complicated, from grain to glass many ales are ready in 3-4 weeks.