The act of making beer is known as brewing. The brewing of beer has been done since the time of ancient Sumer in Mesopotamia some 3,900 years ago. The sumerians had a goddess of beer known as Ninkasi, and even had laws that controlled the quality of their beer. In other words, there’s quite a bit of history surrounding beer. A great place to see some of this history is with Dogfish Head Brewery’s “Ancient Ales” series of beers, which use ancient recipes and ingredients paired with today’s ingredients and technology to give us a glimpse into the past.
Jump ahead to Bavaria in the late 1400’s and the Bavarian Purity Law of 1487 helped to outline the only legal ingredients allowed to be used in beer. Known as the Reinheitsgebot, this law only allowed for three ingredients to be used:
As you might know, beer today has four ingredients. Remember which is missing from the Reinheitsgebot? If you said yeast, then you get the gold star for today. The Bavarians didn’t forget to mention yeast, even though it was most definitely used in their beers. It’s not mentioned because at the time the world didn’t know that yeast existed, even though it’s all around us. We didn’t learn that yeast is the source of fermentation until Louis Pasteur discovered it in 1857. After the discovery of yeast, the Reinheitsgebot was updated to include ingredient number four: yeast.
Fast forward again to today and the same four ingredients serve as the base for every beer made. There’s no more laws limiting the beer to only those four, but they’re where all the fun starts.
The Brewing Process
In a nutshell, there are seven key steps to brewing.They are:
- Crack grain
There’s more ways to brew and hundreds of options inside of these steps, but that’s the basic process in a nutshell. So, what do these steps mean? Well, starting with number one, the grain that’s going to be used for the beer has to be cracked. This is different than grinding the grain up for flour or meal, and is only meant to expose the inner portion of the grain. Let’s back up, a grain of barley is actually made up of four unique parts. Outside you have the husk, then the bran, endosperm, and inside you have the germ, which is also known as the embryo. Cracking the grain allows all four of these parts to be exposed to the brewing process so you can extract everything you need from inside.
Once the grain is cracked, it’s added to a container of hot water and kept at a very specific and constant temperature (usually 150* F) for a set period of time, quite often for one hour or longer. This mixture is known as The Mash and is where we get all the sugars we need to make beer with. The mash will resemble a funky type of oatmeal while it sits and soaks, and in a way, it kind of is. Mash in too hot or too cool and you’ll completely change the sugars that are pulled out of the grain, which can dramatically alter the finished beer. This can be changed by as little as one half on one degree.
So why do we want sugars? Well, fermentation is the act of yeast eating sugars and converting them into CO2 and alcohol. Mashing is where we collect these sugars that the yeast will need later in the process.
Once the mashing is complete, the liquid is drained off and moved to a boil kettle. The leftover grain in your Mash Tun isn’t used in the process again, and can either be thrown out, or reused as either animal feed or in baking. Spent grain makes some pretty great cookies. The liquid that goes over to the boil kettle is now known as Wort (pronounced wert), and is very sugary. this sugary liquid is now brought to a rolling boil and kept there for a set period of time, typically around an hour, longer for higher ABV beers.
This boiling converts the sugars contained in the wort into more easily fermented ones. This gives the yeast a solid starting point, and can vary based on the style of beer being brewed.
A great example of what boil time does to a beer comes to us once again from Dogfish Head Brewery. This brewery, based in Milton, Delawhere makes quite a few weird and wild beers, including the aforementioned Ancient Ales series. Their flagship beer, which is to say their best selling beer, is their 60 Minute IPA. Along with this beer they have a few other “minute” series beers as well including 90 Minute and 120 Minute. 60 Minute is a typical American IPA that comes in at 6% ABV. As the name implies, this beer is boiled for 60 minutes. 90 Minute is an Imperial or Double IPA, and comes in at 9% ABV. You can probably guess, this beer is boiled for 90 minutes. On the top of the series is the fabled 120 Minute IPA. This beer is boiled for a staggering two hours and comes in somewhere around 18% ABV.
These numbers are all arbitrary and can change based on a number of variables, but you should get the general idea. The longer a beer is boiled, the higher the ABV.
The boil serves two purposes when brewing beer. First, it helps convert the sugars for fermentation, but the boil is also where you add most of, if not all of, the flavoring and aroma agents. In the case of most beers, this means the time the hops are added to the mix. Hopping a beer isn’t as easy as adding a set amount and walking away. Adding hops is a science in of itself. We’ll look at hops a bit more in depth later, but for now let’s focus on the role they play in the brewing process.
Adding hops at the beginning of the boil helps to add hop flavor and bitterness to the beer, while adding hops later in the boil help to add aroma. Everything in-between gives you an interesting mix of both. There’s even a type of hopping known as “flameout” hopping, which means hops are added within one minute of the end of the boil. This can be a great tactic for adding hop presence without adding more bitterness. Typically, hops are added at a few times during the boil at the beginning, middle, and end to cover all the bases and give an overall full hop experience.
Once the boil is done and the hops are added, it’s time to cool things down. The beer is taken from a full boil down to around 74* F as quickly as possible. In a big brewery this is done with plate chillers, but when brewing at home, sinks filled with ice and water are perfect for dunking the brew kettle into. The quicker the beer is cooled, the better.
Once cooled down, it’s time to transfer the beer to the fermentation vessel and pitch, or add the yeast. Cooling the wort allows the yeast to have a welcoming place to start their work and offers the best chance at their proliferation. The yeast will start to grow in number in the wort, and in around a week (longer for higher ABV beers) the yeast will sink to the bottom and stop working. At this point a measurement is taken and if the beer is at the correct gravity, the ABV is accepted to be met and it’s ready for the final steps.
From here the beer is carbonated and sent off to fill bottles, cans, or kegs. Once filled, these are sent to wholesalers around the country and bought by retail distributors, bars, restaurants, and anywhere else that sells beer. This is known as the 3-Tier System, which we’ll cover later in the course.
This outline of the brewing process is, believe it or not, pretty basic. While simplified, it should give you more than enough information to understand the basics of how beer gets from grain to glass. Learning more about brewing is both fun and rewarding, as making your own beer at home is one of the more interesting ways to learn about beer. If this has piqued your interest in brewing, please read more on your own and try a homebrew kit out.
With this foundation in place, you can move on to learning more about beer. Without knowing the basics of how beer is made, you can’t fully known how to work with it and sell it. Now you know, and as one of my favorite cartoons from my childhood taught me:
Knowing is half the battle.