Hello, Congregants. Welcome to the Pastoral Counseling feature of Ale Evangelism. In this feature, we will attempt to answer the questions asked by friends and readers to bring us all to a better understanding of beer appreciation.
Today’s question is one I have heard for many years. Most people know about some of the ingredients of beer thanks to marketing of Samuel Adams, Budweiser, and others. Knowing about hops, barley, and other non-liquid ingredients, it’s easy to understand why this questions gets asked: “How do they make beer?” Hit the jump to find the answer!
Beer is made by extracting the “good stuff” from hops and barley using hot water, introducing yeast, which consumes the sugars and produces alcohol and carbon dioxide. Thanks for asking! Oh, you want a more detailed answer? I thought you might.
To begin, barley is grown which possesses the proper amount of starch. This comes in the form of 2-row barley and 6-row barley. (The “row” name is in reference to the number of fertile rows of the barley kernel. 2-row barley has a higher amount of fermentable sugars, and is usually more desirable for brewing.) This barley is soaked and heated, which allows the kernels to germinate. Germination is the process by which the barleycorn actually sprouts and begins to grow. This is called malting the barley, and the finished product is called, predictably enough, malted barley. The malted barley is then dried and kilned (to produce caramelized or caramel malts), or roasted to provide the characteristics desirable in the finished product. Crystal or Caramel Malts provide caramelized sweetness, roasted malts provide that chocolate and coffee flavors to varying degrees, while smoked or peated malts provide a smoky character.
This malted barley is then “mashed” in hot water. The mash process is where the brewer adds the required grains to a pot of hot water, and keeps it at the prescribed temperature for the prescribed amount. If the water is too cool or too short, you won’t extract all of those fermentable sugars from the grain, and if it is too hot or too long, you will extract harsh flavor compounds called tannins from the barley husk. After the mash, the liquid is drained off (this liquid is called the mash liquor), and the remaining grains are then rinsed or “sparged” to rinse off all that sugary goodness. What remains after the sparge water and mash liquor are combined is known as “wort”.
The wort is then boiled, and at various points in the boil, hops are added. The hops provide bitter flavors, and herbal or citrus aromas to the finished product. The type of the hops and the length of time they are in the boil determines whether they contribute more bittering characteristics or aromatic characteristics.
After the boil, the liquid is cooled quickly to the preferred temperature for the yeast the brewer is using, and the yeast is added to the boiled liquid. This process is called “pitching” the yeast. The fermenting vessel is sealed, and the fermentation process begins.
The fermentation process can last for some days or weeks, and samples are often taken to ensure the sugars are still being eaten by the yeast. Once it is determined that the primary fermentation has completed, the fermented beer can be “racked” or taken out of the fermenting vessel into either bottles or kegs. If the beer is racked to bottles, it is common for the brewer to add a bit of sugar, called priming sugar, to each bottle, or to the beer as a whole in order to start a small, less vigorous fermentation in the bottles. This shorter and less vigorous fermentation is what provides the carbonation of beer. If the beer is racked to a keg, then Carbon Dioxide is pumped into the keg with the beer so it can settle into suspension in the beer.
If the beer is a lager, said lager will then undergo a procedure known, oddly enough, as lagering, where the beer is kept at a constant, cold temperature to finish off the beer. If the beer is an ale, a few weeks may need to be given to the bottled ales to mature and settle down, but will generally be ready for consumption immediately after that.
Now, there are a whole host of variables that I didn’t cover, such as the proper amounts and types of barley, the different amounts, types, and times for adding hops to the boil, the temperature of the mash, the temperature of the sparge, etc. These details are what provides the massive variety of beer we can enjoy today. This was a general description of a process, but it gives some idea as to how that beer in your hand got to be the wonderful beverage it is today.
While the devil is certainly in the details when it comes to brewing, it certainly is something that anyone can do at home with a minimum investment in equipment and ingredients. If you have a local homebrew store, I highly recommend supporting them, as it really is handy to have someone of whom you can ask questions when formulating recipes, as well as someone who can provide some guidance when trying to make decisions about equipment purchases or brewing techniques. If you do not have a local homebrewing store, there are many online retailers who offer kits and ingredients at reasonable prices. http://www.morebeer.com is one I have used on several occasions. Another I have used and seen advertised many times is http://www.midwestsupplies.com/. Finally, something I have seen pop up in several larger cities is a brew your own facility. In these facilities, you can formulate a recipe or use a pre-generated one, use their equipment to brew your beer, and come pick it up when it’s ready. I’ve never had the chance to visit one of these facilities, but it sounds like a great way to get some experience with some good brewing equipment without blowing your life savings.
However you decide to homebrew, I highly recommend it as an interesting activity in which the whole family (with proper safety supervision) can participate. Enjoy!