It’s A Process…A Brew Process, That Is.

Water. Check.
Grain. Check.
Hops. Check.
Yeast. Check.

So now what?

Well, like any recipe, once you have the ingredients, it’s time to put them all together. But just as you can’t expect to get a cake by throwing eggs and flour in a bowl and just baking them, you can’t expect to get a beer just by wishful thinking. If only…

While there are many, many details that go into a brew process, we will keep it simple.

The first step in the process is called mashing. The grain essentially hangs out in a jacuzzi for about an hour, which helps it break down and release the fermentable sugars. This creates a strange tea-like mixture known as wort. But don’t let the gross name fool you- this stuff is liquid gold. Well, liquid pre-beer but…you know…basically the same thing, right? The wort is then strained through the bottom of the container, or mash tun, (a process called lautering) and water is poured over the top to flush out any more sugars (called sparging).

Once all the sugars have been pulled out of the grain, the liquid is then drained off and boiled. This is when the hops are added. Other ingredients may also be added at this point, at the brewer’s discretion.  This is when all those wonderfully crazy chemical reactions happen, including sterilization (good-bye icky bacteria!) , hops aromas and flavors released, etc. In the end, we’re left with the brew liquid (now much closer to being beer!) and a solid mound of hops and residues. The liquid is separated (because who wants to drink something with chunks in it?) and cooled down.

Once the brew liquid has been cooled, yeast is added. And…we’re done! Right? Right? All our hard work has paid off and we get to drink now? Well, yes and no. While the “brewing” portion is technically over, we still have to let the yeast do its job. During the process of fermentation , the yeast eats all the sugars it can and turns it into alcohol. Whereas the brewing process only takes a portion of a day, fermentation can take anywhere from a week to over a month!

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It’s Aliiiiiiiiive!

From here, the now-beer is carbonated. This is the process by which the beer is infused with Carbon Dioxide, which adds the body and the bubbles. This can be done by a CO2 tank or the traditional/homebrew method which is done during bottling. Depending on who is brewing and its purpose, the brew is then bottled, canned, or kegged.

While it may seem like a daunting process (and definitely can be), it is certainly a labor of love, one that yields delicious results.

Oh! And can’t forget the final step, my favorite: Drinking!

Cheers.

 

Diving Into The Deep End (Water)

“If there is magic on this planet, it is contained in water.”
– Loren Eiseley

Water is one of the most important and yet most understated resources. It is essential for almost everything on the planet (including the planet itself), and yet, it’s something many people shrug off. If you think about it, one of the major measurements of a civilization’s success is how well it can tame the very thing that makes life possible. Irrigation, for instance, marked the beginning of a new age in society and allowed for the advancement of tribes. No longer was being nomadic the only way of life; populations could stay in one place and not just survive, but thrive. Those that did stay nomadic chartered the world as we know it, connecting people and ideas alike.

One such idea was beer.

Most of beer is water and, without it, our entire history would have been completely rewritten. Although beer tamed us in many ways, we have also learned to tame it. I do believe we are in a new dawning of beer brewing, as we have finally begun to not only understand, but manipulate the water used in the process. So, for now, let’s shift from the globalism of beer to something much more microscopic in nature, if not in significance.

Many people, including some new to brewing, underestimate the impact the water used has on beer created. While you can use any kind of water, that does not mean you should. For example, most would prefer not to drink rainwater once it has touched the ground, and beer agrees. The potential for pollutants is a risk brewers tend not to take, as to keep up the quality and reputation of their beer.

But past the general rule of ‘don’t use dirty water’, what else matters?

Turns out, everything.

While water is considered to be relatively tasteless, quite a few people have opinions on what kind of water has the best flavor- including geographical origins. And this isn’t just in people’s heads. While water naturally has trace amounts of minerals and metals, most places treat their water with additives to either remove harmful or add desired components. Brewers have to do the same thing.

One of the first steps a brewer should take before starting the brewing process is to test the water. This provides data that the brewer uses to determine what needs to be changed about the chemical composition of the water before it turns into beer. The main components that brewers look at are: Bicarbonates, Calcium, Chloride, Magnesium, Sodium, and Sulfates. These minerals at different levels determine factors such as hardness and alkalinity which, in turn, have a substantial impact on the flavor of the beer, which a brewer may have to balance.

Modern day brewers have at their disposal a variety of water treatment options which allows them to change the water composition to fit the style of beer they wish to produce. Brewers of the past had neither the knowledge nor the technology to do this and, therefore, had to use what was available to them and adjust as they could.  The implications of this meant that certain areas of the world produced specific styles of beer, based on how ingredients interacted with the minerals in the water to produce flavors. While it did limit the brew possibilities for awhile, it did allow for distinct styles to come into their own, creating the classics we know today.

One such style is the Pilsner. It orginated in Pilsen, Bohemia where the water is considered very “soft.”  It has very low levels of all aforementioned minerals.

The Drink-Along: Technical Ecstasy by 2nd Shift Brewing

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This beer is a wonderful example of a Pilsner. Just like the name states, it hits all the marks for this style. At first glance, this beer is clear with a very frothy head (“Head”- the foam that forms on the top of a beer when poured into a glass. Try to contain the giggles.) There is a hops taste that comes from the use of Saaz hops, which are traditional to the geographical area and the beer style. With each mineral being fairly absent, this allows a smooth transition between the malt and hops, highlighting each one without over accentuating them. Overall, it is a nice beer for a summer afternoon- refreshing with a very crisp finish.

On the other end of the water spectrum are Irish Stouts. An Irish Stout could not traditionally be brewed in Pilsen without a considerable amount of doctoring due to the needs of the water profile.

The Drink-Along: Guinness

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Originating in Dublin, Ireland, this beer style uses much harder, more alkaline water. Alkaline water is created by having higher levels of primarily bicarbonates. As a way to even this out, brewers used roasted barley. The resulting beer is much darker, drier, and more bitter than a Pilsner, but balanced even so. Instead of a light flavor, however, this brew offers a deep, roasted complexity that is more suited to a cozy winter evening in.

While beer chemistry and its effects may seem overwhelming, the take away is pretty straight-forward. Even when early brewers were unaware, water was shaping the way we live, down to the little details of our down-time drinks. And while we certainly do not have to be able to examine each microscopic detail of the brew water to enjoy the end product, it is a nod to just how far we’ve come, both as a society and as industry.

Cheers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Down to the Essentials

“If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”
-Albert Einstein

Beer is living, drinkable, attainable art. But, unlike some masterpieces, it isn’t meant to be appreciated for its unattainable mystique. In fact, the more you understand about this particular craft, the more enjoyable it becomes. While there is always something new to learn, it’s pretty easy to cover the basics. We’ll save the details for later. But, for now, I’ll give you my version of beer Cliffsnotes.

The four main ingredients in any beer:

  • Water
  • Grain
  • Bittering agent
  • Yeast

Just like in humans, the majority of beer composition and the beer making process is water. While this seems pretty basic, the kind of water used can dramatically change the outcome of the beer. Think, for example, how tap water can vary from city to city. The chemical and mineral make up, additions or subtractions to the water, even place of origin can make all the difference. In fact, if you brew the same exact recipe using two different water samples, the taste is still going to vary.

Not to be outdone by water, grain also makes itself essential to any recipe. Most of the time, before brewing, this grain must go through a process known as “malting,” which causes it to become fermentable whereas it was not before. For this reason, most brewers refer to the grain part of the recipe as the “malt.” There is a wide variety of different malts (which I will explore in depth at a later time) and, depending on what is used, this changes the flavor, as well as several other characteristics. Rarely is a single type of malt used (there are exceptions) and the collection of malts, referred to as the “grain bill,” gives a beer depth of flavor and complexity.

Using only malt, however, would make the beer unbearably sweet and that is where the bittering agent comes in. Usually this is in the form of hops, although some varieties and most early beers used different sources. Hops are the flowering part of the plant Humulus lupulus and, besides sounding like a spell straight out of Harry Potter, they are responsible for balancing out the sweetness of the malt. They also add their own notes of flavor and aroma, which changes depending on kind(s).

The unsung hero of the brew, however, is yeast. This wonderful concoction we know as beer would not be possible without it. Yeast does the hard work of changing the sugars found in the malt (Yay buzz word!) into that wonderful thing we know as drinkable alcohol. While there are countless forms of yeast, only a couple are suitable to apply to the brew process.

These four elements are all widely accepted as being essential to the beer making process. So much so that, in the 1500s when Germany began to limit what could be used in brewing, these were the only four included. (To be historically accurate, it was only three elements originally but when yeast and its function in beer became better understood, the law was revised to add the fourth.) This was known as the German Purity Law(s) and, while it was not primarily put into place for quality but more for economical purposes, it does illustrate the importance of each component.

Thankfully, now however, there are far fewer limitations on what brewers can add to the process which opens up a world of possibilities. While these four elements are still necessary, there are so many options within each category and brewers are coming up with more every day. Beyond that, even, there is almost no restriction to what can be added. I have tasted beers made with donuts, bacon, even tree bark.

So let your creativity and imagination run wild.

Cheers.