Let’s Talk About Brewing Beer for a Change

After the first few posts about business, it’s time for a post about beer. I realize a lot of people already know how brewing works, but I’d wager that a huge number of people don’t, so here’s a brief overview of the brewing process.

Back in 2008, my wife wrote a blog post about my homebrewing. This was back when blogs were a more popular thing and Facebook had a fewer than 100 million active users, if you can believe that. I searched back in the archives of her still active (but no longer updated) blog and found the old post. You can read it here. It’s actually pretty entertaining. As mentioned in that blog, homebrewing was really Tracy’s idea and we started brewing back in 2004. I’ve brewed a lot of beer since then and my knowledge and style has matured. Here are the basics of how beer is made with pictures from one of my own brew sessions.

Making beer involves biology, chemistry, a little physics, more chemistry and then more biology. So fair warning, science ahead. It isn’t necessary to understand every detail of these processes to brew good beer. For a couple thousand years, people didn’t really know why it worked, they just learned the process from someone else. Even today, I’m sure many great brewers (professional and amateur) know what process works best for them, but may not know why each detail works the way it does, and that’s ok.

I’m certainly oversimplifying what is going on in this “101” level overview, but this will give a basic idea of how beer is made. To learn more, there are dozens if not hundreds of books on each step of the process and even each ingredient. Including my favorite brewing book so far that is only about one seemingly boring topic – water.

Malted Barley (and other grains.) Malting is the process of germinating grains. (Biology.) Barley is moistened and allowed to begin to germinate. The start of the germination process releases a number of enzymes in the grain and begins breaking down the cell walls. It is then dried/heated/kilned/roasted/toasted at varying temperatures and to varying degrees to produce a near infinite number of grainy flavors and colors. Very few breweries perform this part of the brewing process anymore as companies around the world have perfected malting consistency and efficiency. Most of the grain I purchase is from Briess Malting Company in Chilton WI.

Base malted barley and some caramelized malts to lend color and flavor to a pale ale.
Base malted barley and some caramelized malts to lend color and flavor to a pale ale.
Some water treatment options.
Some water treatment options.

Mash. Mashing is the process of mixing the malted barley with hot water. The enzymes created in the malting process break down proteins into amino acids, and break down starches into sugars. (Chemistry.) This produces a sugar liquid called wort (pronounced wert. Or vert, if you’re German.) Here’s where water chemistry becomes very important. Those enzymes created in the malting process need specific temperatures and specific pH levels in which to do their job. The right temp and right pH produces good beer, whereas if they are off by enough, the beer can come out mediocre, or even…bad. Mash pH is likely the most overlooked thing by a novice brewer, and likely one of the most important things that is under the brewer’s control. I admit that I ignored it myself for years and when I finally paid attention to it and adjusted the water appropriately, my beer got a LOT better. All because of the right water profile. (More chemistry.)

Vorlauf and lauter. No, that isn’t a German law firm, but yes the terms are German. This is simply the process of recirculating the wort through a screen to clarify it, and then draw off wort in to a boil kettle. Now we have colored sugar water (wort) in a boil kettle.

Sparge
Drawing off the wort from the mash.

Boil. The main purposes of the boil are to concentrate the wort (reduction) and to add the hops. Most know that hops are the main flavoring component in beer.

Boil
Boiling hopped wort.

The hop cone (really the flower of the plant) is added to the boil and the hop oils are extracted through the boil. (More chemistry and a dash of physics.) Hops can be used to make the beer bitter, and to add hop flavor and aroma to the beer, depending on when it is added to the boil.

Hops
Hops for my pale ale.

At the end of the boil, the hopped, concentrated wort is cooled down to around 65 or 70 degrees by one of a number of different methods/contraptions and put into a fermenter.

Chiller
My counter flow chiller in action.

Yeast

Fermentation. You make the wort, the yeast makes the beer. Yeast can have a huge effect on the flavor of the beer. Every component can, even the water, but yeast is different in that it is a living organism. (Biology, again.) Changing the temperature of the fermentation can change the beer. Changing the variety of yeast (there are hundreds of them) has a huge effect on the flavor of the beer. In the end, though, the basic biology of what the yeast does is relatively basic. Through anaerobic metabolism (ahhhh! big words!) it eats sugar and burps out carbon dioxide and alcohol. Boom. It just made beer. It also send out a whole flurry of other flavor compounds in the process (esters and phenols) that can range in flavor from banana to clove to apple to anise to raisin to prune to stone fruit to diacetyl (butter), and even to things described as “barn yard” or “horse blanket.” After the yeast is done with its job, it goes dormant. The brewer drains the beer off the yeast, sometimes through filtering the beer, then chills it and carbonates it, ready for you to drink.

There you have it. Beer making in under 1000 words. Now if you want to know more, go buy a book, or 12.

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