Simply put, Beer is an alcoholic beverage usually made from malted cereal grain (as barley), flavored with hops and brewed by slow fermentation, as defined by Merriam-Webster. Obviously, there is more to one of the oldest beverages on earth than just this. With different varieties of grain, hops, yeast, water and other variables, there are a multitude of styles of beer that can range from a light, crisp witbier to a robust, chocolaty, rich Imperial Stout. They can be sweet, bitter, sour and serve to pair with your favorite dish or refresh on a hot summer day.
The four main ingredients of beer are water, grain, hops and yeast:
Water: – The largest component in beer, accounts for roughly 90% of beer’s content. The water used by brewers to make beer has always been vitally important to the final aroma and taste of the beer. The water used even impacts the style of beer that can be successfully brewed, and historically brewers would use the water naturally available to them to create their beer. Many traditional styles were molded by the water with which they were made and modern breweries often recreate the mineral content of water in certain geographies to obtain the ideal flavor profiles of certain styles.
Grain: – The grain used to brew is what gives beer its overall body. Barley malt is the most common cereal grain used in making malt beverages and provides starch, enzymes, flavor, sweetness, color and foam for beer. It also serves to balance the hop bitterness. Barley malt is barley that goes through a process to help allow for the natural sugars in the grain to be extracted. It is soaked in water right up to the germination point and is therefore bursting with enzymatic reactions. It is then kiln-dried with hot air before it sprouts, thus halting the starch to sugar conversions, and produces dried kernels of malted barley. This malted barley is then used in the brewing process to impart different characteristics to the beer. Different varietals can provide fermentable sugars or help to define the color of the beer. More roasted, darker malts are used to make a beer darker and impart certain flavor characteristics like nuttiness, roastiness, etc. The blend of the different types of malts is what helps to shape the base flavor and color of the beer. Other grains like wheat, corn and rice are sometimes used as well.
Hops: – These are the female flower cones harvested from hop plants (Humulus lupulus), a family-relative of the hemp plant (Cannabis sativa). Hop essential oils, lupulin resins and alpha acids contribute flavors and aromatic essences to beer. They are used in the brewing process to add bitterness and to balance the sweetness contributed by the grain. They contribute different desirable flavors and aromas and have a naturally antibiotic-effect-favoring activity of brewer’s yeast over less desired microorganisms. The natural oils serve as a preservative, keeping the flavors stable for the finished beer. Often times the hops lend earthy, citrusy and piney flavors to a beer. They can be used for imparting a level of bitterness, for aroma and/or for flavor. Beers that use a lot of hops in the brewing process are generally described as bitter or “hoppy” and will often leave a lingering bitterness on the tongue.
Yeast: – These are living, single-celled microorganisms. Yeasts are used in brewing to feed on the sugars present in the malt and convert them to alcohol and carbon dioxide CO2 - the bubbles. In the way that bakers use the yeast to produce CO2 and leaven their dough, brewers use yeast to create alcohol and naturally carbonate their beer. Additionally, yeasts generate a large variety of aromas and flavors that contribute to the beer. Yeasts are separated into two main categories which help to define the way they ferment and at what temperatures they thrive: ale and lager yeast. Ale yeast, “top fermenting” yeasts, ferment at higher temperatures and rise to the top of the fermentation vessel, producing volatile flavor compounds called esters that are often fruity, flowery or spicy. Lager yeasts, “bottom fermenting” yeasts, ferment at lower temptemperatures and stay at the bottom. The esters prevalent in ales are not produced, thus imparting a clean and smooth character to most lager beers. There are innumerable different varieties of yeast and each can impart their own unique flavors to the beer. Some wild yeast can impart funky and sour flavors to beers, while certain yeasts used to create wheat beers can impart banana-like flavors to the beer.
Beer of course isn’t limited to just these ingredients. We offer a variety of beers brewed with herbs, fruit, aged in different woods, etc. Generally speaking, however these are the building blocks of beer, but there are always exceptions to the rules.
A lot goes into the process of brewing beer to finally achieve that drinkable product. Cracking open a cold one is refreshing and enjoyable, but understanding how your beer came to be will give you a whole other prospective. Beer is made by going through several different steps: malting, milling, mashing, lautering, boiling, fermenting, conditioning, filtering, packaging, and of course, drinking.
The first step in this process is malting. To malt barley, it must be first soaked in water, allowed to sprout and then dried to be used at a later time in the brewing process. In the old days they would use a rafter and some sun to dry out the barley. With the invention of the modern kilns, they can dry barley with such precision that they can now color and flavor the barley. Barley by itself is very bland and all the flavors that are associated with malt (bready, malty, toasty) are a result of a chemical reaction that happens during the kilning process.
Milling is the second step in which the brewer will take the different grains and cracking them open. This process makes it easier for the grains to absorb water, which is essential for mashing process.
Mashing is the process in which the malted barley is turned into a sweet liquid which will later become the base of the beer. The malted barley is mashed in water with temperatures ranging from 150-160 degrees Fahrenheit in a container called a mash tun. This process converts the starches in the barley into sugars. The simple sugars derived from the grain will act as a food source for the yeast, which will convert the sugars into alcohol.
The “sweetened water” is then separated from the “spent” grains in a process called lautering. During this stage the water in the mash tun is raised to 165-170 degrees Fahrenheit which will halt the enzyme conversion process. The liquid is then strained away while more water is poured over the top of the grains to fully “wash” out the remaining sugars. The term lautering derives from the Latin verb, lavere, which means to wash.
We can now call the sweetened water wort, or unfermented beer. The wort is transferred to a large kettle where it is boiled for a certain length of time. While the wort is boiling thisis the time that the hops are added. There are three different types of hop additions: bittering, flavoring and aroma. Hops added at the start of the boil are traditionally the bittering hops. The ones added halfway through the boil are the flavoring hops, and the ones added at the end of the boil are the aroma hops. Also, this is a time that other ingredients or adjuncts, such as herbs, spices or sugars, can be added (they can also be added later, depending on desired results). During the boil, many chemical and technical reactions take place and this is where the flavor, color and aroma of the beer are created. While the wort is boiling, this serves to stop the enzymatic process from where the sugars were being converted to starches, solidify proteins and utilize the alpha acids that are in the hops. This process will also serve to sterilize the wort, so that no foreign organisms spoil the beer. At the end of the boil a whirlpool is created so that the solid particles can be separated out and the beer can be clarified.
After the wort has been “whirlpooled” it then is cooled. The wort needs to be cooled rapidly to minimize the risk of contamination. Also, yeast is extremely sensitive and if it is pitched (or added) at too high of a temperature, it can die or produce undesirable flavors. There are many different ways for the wort to be chilled including ice baths, immersion chillers and counter-flow chillers. They all serve one purpose: to cool the wort as quickly as possible.
Once the wort is put into the fermentation tank, yeast is then selected and “pitched” or added to begin fermentation. Yeast is a microorganism that is found almost everywhere, and it is the reason that the sugars in the beer are converted into alcohol and carbon dioxide.
Once the beer has gone through an active fermentation stage, it is then racked (or transferred) into a new tank called a conditioning tank. This process called racking helps not only to clarify the beer, but also to condition the beer.
After the beer has been conditioned, either weeks or months depending on the style, then the beers that require filtering are filtered (wheat beers are traditionally unfiltered). After the beer is filtered, it then undergoes carbonation and is either bottled or keg.
This is the point at which you get to take a cold one and raise it to beer
Barm – Yeast Bung – Wooden plug for a cask
Firkin – Cask
Coolship – A shallow pan for cooling wort
Gyle – A brew, batch or fermenting vessel
Lobb – To add yeast Tun – A mashing vessel
Wort – Unfermented Beer For more information on all beer styles.
Check out the Brewers Association Style Guidelines. *2011 Brewers Association Beer Style Guidelines used with permission of Brewers Association
Beer Advocate also provides some great references to learn more about all things beer.
And don’t forget, our team is filled with beer experts, certified by the Cicerone Certification Program. We are always more than happy to sit down and talk all things beer with you… so don’t be shy.