As I polished off my Guide for Brewing Your First Beers, it quickly occurred to me that while it was a good guide for brewing, it was a bit wordy to be an introduction to the curious observer. So I set out to provide an overview for the curious folk not quite ready to brew their own.
The making of any alcoholic beverage is the same. Fermentation is the process where yeast consumes sugar to produce alcohol and carbon dioxide. It is the specifics that make the beverage what it is. Mead is honey fermented with a strain of yeast that is commonly used to make wine or Champaign. Beer is made by letting ale or lager yeast digest the sugars in grain and adding hops. Most beers are at 80 – 100% barley. Many recipes also use wheat, but oats and rye are also sometimes added in small quantities. The yeast, along with the balance between the malty sweet grains and the bittering hops, give the brewer the specific style of beer they are shooting for.
The process actually starts with the maltster. They add a little of moisture to the grain and allow it to germinate for just a few days. This releases enzymes that are required to convert the starchy grain into sugar. The germination is halted by drying it out and adding heat. That process and the amount of heat will vary to produce different kinds of malt that will also affect the flavor of the final beer.
The grain is now ready for the brewer. It is ground and soaked in water at controlled warm temperatures. This is what brewers call the mash. These temperatures are chosen to make an ideal environment for those enzymes to get to work and convert those starches into sugars the yeast will like, and sugars that will leave some residual sweetness in the beer that we will like. After a long soak, that water is drained. The grains are discarded and we will call the resulting sugary mixture wort.
Side Note: If we were to concentrate this wort or dry it out, we would have malt extract. Malt extract is sometimes used to short-cut the brewing process. Just add water, and you again have wort.
Now we boil the wort and add our hops. There are two basic hop additions that are made to our beer. The first is called the bittering hops. We’ll boil the hell out of these hops to extract the bittering agents. With this boil, we’ll also loose flavor and aromas, so near the end of the boil we’ll add some aroma hops. These will have the opposite effect where they won’t contribute much to the bitterness of the beer, but they will add flavor.
A variety of other things may be added ranging from fruits and vegetables to spices, flavor extracts, and just about anything you can think of. We sometimes include something to help clarify the beer or adjust the water chemistry as well.
The wort is cooled to a temperature favorable to fermentation and the yeast is added, or “pitched” as we often like to say. Once the yeast is mixed in with the wort, it is legally beer. It doesn’t have any alcohol in it yet, but it soon will. The yeast will first multiply to produce billions of yeast cells and eventually get to work. We’ll watch the mixture bubble away as carbon dioxide is released and the alcohol content begins to rise. Finally it will all settle down and we will have delicious but flat beer.
Before putting the beer into bottles or kegs, we will add a small bit of carefully measured sugar water. This will be just enough to reactivate the yeast in the bottle again and produce the carbon dioxide that will carbonate our beer. We’ll let it sit for a while longer and eventually refrigerate for consumption. Because we carbonated the beer naturally, some yeast will settle in the bottom of the bottle. Pour carefully into a glass and discard the bitter sediment.
Now rinse that bottle thoroughly. Someone is going to want to fill it with beer again and it will be much harder to do if there is a moldy crust dried inside of it. The brewer will appreciate it.
There you have it. Its hours of geeky fun for everyone. While I also enjoy making and drinking mead, I find there is more depth and challenge to beer. Beer is also less expensive and has a quicker turn-around time that mead or wine. Whatever you decide to start with, I think you will find it a rewarding hobby. There are plenty of books on the subject to help you get started.