How It’s Made: Beer!

It’s a lot easier to appreciate something if you know how it works. To me, learning the process by which something is made is the key to understanding how or why it works. This is true across the spectrum of both consumable and durable goods, from croissants to construction cranes. Once you’ve seen what it takes to create something, you stop seeing it as an object but rather the final outcome of a long chain of events. That’s why it’s so fascinating to watch GIFs of factories for everyday things: if you’ve seen how paper clips are bent or Pop Tarts are filled, you change your way of thinking about that paper clip or Pop Tart. Such is my aim with this article: to inform you of the steps it takes to brew beer so you have a better appreciation for the final product. The process is not all that complicated: boil water, add malt, add hops, cool it down, add yeast, and wait. Since that explanation gives you hardly any idea of what’s actually going on, I’m going get a bit more in-depth. Beer only has four ingredients. Or rather, beer only needs four ingredients. Water, malt, hops, and yeast combine to form the ales and lagers of the world, so let’s dive into each and see what it means to beer.

Water. Plain old dihydrogen monoxide covers the 70% of the Earth, fills 60% of our bodies, and burns up at least one of the aliens from Signs. It also comprises about 90-95% of the beer you drink, unless barleywine is your sole poison, in which case you’re probably too drunk to read this. Depending on where you are, water can taste quite different, due to a number of factors including the source, municipal water treatment plants, and the pipes it runs through. Often, these are too many variables for a professional brewery to deal with and they build their own water by filtering out things like chlorine and sodium through reverse osmosis, then adding back any minerals they may want. Historically, breweries picked their location based on the quality and taste of water in local rivers and streams, and the mineral content of famous rivers is regularly emulated when water is built. For homebrewing, the focus of this article because it’s what I have actual experience with, I’ve used tap water and a blend of distilled and spring waters without too much of a discernible difference. Where I live in Long Beach has slightly above average tap water that works fine for brewing. A typical homebrew batch starts with a little over five gallons of water for a five gallon batch of beer, as some will boil off or be spilled. The first real step in brewing is to put some water in a pot and start heating it.

To turn that water into something more delicious, we need to add grains. In almost all cases, that means malted barley. Barley is a fairly hearty grain that has been cultivated for thousands of years for bread and meal, but works best as a component of alcoholic beverages like beer and whiskey, which I’d like to say is a quantifiable fact but is actually still an opinion. There are two main types of barley, two-row and six-row, with the former being lower in protein and better suited for brewing because it yields more fermentable sugar. Earlier I said we need “malt” or “malted barley,” which is a process of moistening and warming the barley until it begins to germinate, then drying it out so it can be stored and used. The most important byproduct of the malting process is that it leaves the barley with even more accessible sugar (which we will later turn into alcohol!). Malted barley can also be kilned, or roasted, to change its properties of taste and color, such as dark stouts with notes of coffee or amber ales with caramel and biscuit flavors. For brewing, there are three ways to add malt to the hot water in order to extract the flavor and sugar it contains. They are, in order of most complicated to easiest, all-grain brewing, partial mash brewing, and extract brewing. All-grain brewing is the most time-consuming because the brewer soaks dried malted barley in hot water in order to extract the sugars from its starches in a process called mashing. It requires more equipment and takes about two hours longer, as there are more things to clean and the spent grains have to be separated from the water. Extract brewing involves never actually touching the grain itself and using pre-mashed barley malt syrup or powder, which dissolve easily in water. Partial mash brewing is a combination of these two methods that involves using extract syrup or powder for most of the grain bill, but steeping specialty grains in warm water before boiling, in order to add the color or flavor of darker malts. Think of partial mash as making a malt-flavored tea before the boil. It’s important to separate any grains that are being steeped or mashed prior to heating the water above 170 degrees or you run the risk of extracting bitter tannins that make the beer undelicious. At this point, unless you are all-grain brewing, you heat your water (or malt-flavored tea) up until it boils and add the rest of the malt.

So now, your brew kettle is nice and bubbly with steam that smells like bread rising out of the top of it and the next step is upon you: adding hops! Technically, hops aren’t crucial to the final product like the other three ingredients are, but without them, the resulting beer would be far too sweet, but not in a good way if you’re thinking that would be awesome. Hops are actually flowers which at the least provide necessary bitterness, and at most can give a beer nearly all of its flavor. The average boil time for a batch of beer is one hour and when you decide to add hops has a distinct impact on the final product. Early hop additions would be considered bittering hops, as the extended time will bring more bitterness than flavor, and later hop additions, especially those in the final fifteen minutes or so of the boil, contribute more to the aroma and flavor of the beer than anything else. There are hundreds of different hop varieties with a wide range of flavors, but they usually have specific qualities based on their area of origin. English and German hops tend to be on the floral, herbaceous, and spicy side of the spectrum, while American hops are piney and citrusy and Southern Hemisphere hops (from New Zealand, Australia, and South Africa) are definitely tropical fruit and stone fruit-forward. Choosing which hops to use is the most important part of building a pale ale or IPA recipe, and more often than not, brewers need to use a combination of hops to achieve the desired flavor. The recipe you follow should dictate exactly when to add hops and how many ounces go in at each interval, with the last one coming right as you stop the boil at 60 minutes. As an aside, I’ll tell you that the single greatest olfactory pleasure I’ve experienced is when fresh hops drop into a boiling pot that is already emanating rich, bready aromas. Please make it a point to experience this for yourself some time.

The brew kettle now contains near-boiling sugary, malty, hop-water which we call wort (say “wert,” though most people I know still pronounce it “wart”) and is not quite beer until it contains alcohol, which won’t happen until yeast can feast on the sugars in the liquid. It’s often said that brewers make wort and yeast makes beer, which is entirely true. No matter how hard we try, brewers simply cannot turn sugar into alcohol without the help of yeast. Yeast devours the sugars in wort leaving behind the byproducts of carbon dioxide and alcohol, which explains both why beer is fizzy and intoxicating. Much like hops, there are tons of different yeast strains which behave differently and lead to a wide range of flavors, from “hardly noticeable” to “bubblegum and banana bread.” The two main types of yeast, which in turn differentiate the two main types of beer, are ale yeast and lager yeast. Ale yeast is bottom-fermenting, which means it hangs out underneath the wort and eats it, and lager yeast is top fermenting, so it floats on top for its sugar buffet. More important than their residence is the fact that ale yeast works quickly at higher temperatures (like 65-80 degrees, depending on the strain) and lager yeast likes things nice and chilly at 58 degrees or lower, which leads to a longer fermentation. In general, lager fermentation leads to a “cleaner” tasting beer with slightly less body than an ale with a similar recipe. In a homebrew setting, you would add (or “pitch”) yeast once you’ve cooled the wort down to the proper temperature and transferred it into a fermentation vessel, like a carboy, which is basically a water cooler jug made out of glass. Once the wort is inside and the yeast is pitched, fermentation can begin! But with the byproduct of carbon dioxide, a relief valve is necessary so that the lid doesn’t blow off the fermenter.

It’s basically beer at that point, and after ten days or so, it’s ready to be put into bottles or a keg, and carbonating it will either happen by adding a little sugar to each bottle (to give the yeast one more snack with which to produce some CO2) or forcing compressed carbon dioxide into a keg. If you want a nicely hopped beer, adding some more hops after most of the fermentation has occurred produces great results in a process called dry-hopping. Another way to create a cleaner-tasting beer is to rack (read: transfer) the beer from one fermentation vessel to a new one, leaving behind hop sludge and dead yeast cells called trub in the original vessel. If a beer sits too long on the trub, it can pick up unwanted bitterness. So there you have it: brewing! This is just the tip of the iceberg, but hopefully you’ve gained an understanding of the process and may be better able to break beer down into its component parts now that you know how they function during the brew. After doing it a few times, it becomes easier to diagnose problems in beer, though hopefully commercially-released brews won’t have any, and tinker with existing recipes in order to create something wholly original.

Did you learn anything? More importantly, did I leave anything out? Let me know in the comments!