The process of brewing beer is equal parts art, science, microbiology and chemistry. If you are looking to get into brewing your own beer or are just curious how the nectar of the gods is made, you’ve came to the right place.
There are 4 main ingredients in all beers: water, malt, hops and yeast.
Beer is made up of over 90% water. Water chemistry is an advanced topic that takes years to master. For the purposes of this article, know that unless it is distilled or ran through a process called reverse osmosis, all water has minerals and chemicals in it that affect the flavor and character of a brew. Certain types of beers are brewed with soft water, others are brewed with harder water. For the most part, you can make any kind of beer out of any kind of water, though an aficionado with an experienced palate be able to tell a difference. If you have water that is too soft for the style you’re trying to make, you can add salts and minerals to treat the water. If your water is too hard your best bet it is to find another water source. Certain chemicals, like chlorine, will inhibit the production of beer and must be filtered out. Minerals and chemicals in water are measured in parts per million (PPM) and parts per billion (PPB). It’s also important to not use 100% distilled or reverse osmosis water because this removes important nutrients that the yeast needs to ferment the beer.
Maltsters take the seed kernels from the barley plant and germinate them, then kiln them to create malted barley or malt. All beer uses barley as the base malt and some specific styles of beer use other grains as well such as oats, rye or wheat. Oats give an oily, thick texture. Rye imparts a spicy, almost bitter flavor and a little goes a log way. Wheat is high in protein and makes the beer hazy unless filtered. You can not make a beer entirely from these special grains, so barley is always used for at least a portion of the grain bill. Because corn and rice is cheaper than barley, companies like Budweiser and MillerCoors use a large percentage of these grains to increase their profits and make a lighter product. Corn and rice are considered adjunct grains because they do not really impart anything to the beer other than alcohol. They are specifically chosen to be cheap. People who have Celiac’s disease and cannot consume glutens can drink a type of beer made entirely from the gluten-free sorghum plant.
Malted barley is grown all across the globe. Some of the largest producers of malt are the United States, Canada, Belgium, Germany, and the UK. If you’re brewing an English Mild, you’d want to choose your malt from England. A German lager should use German grown malt, etc. It’s not 100% required you do this, but your beer will not be authentic and style specific without paying attention to this.
Germinating the barley begins the process of developing the enzymes needed to break the starch inside the grain down into sugars our yeast can ferment. Once germinated the kernels are then heated or kilned to stop the germination process. For certain types of malt, the process stops here. Other kinds of malt are toasted at low to medium temperatures to enhance and manipulate the flavor. These usually give off a biscuit or bread like flavor. Depending on how the malt was processed it could be extremely aromatic or have little to no aromatics. Others are roasted at even higher temperatures, creating the darker colors and intense nutty, coffee and chocolate flavors and aromas used in browns, porters, stouts and other beers.
The hop plant is a vine that can grow over 20 feet tall and is in the same family as the marijuana plant, though hops are not psychoactive. Hops are produced in many countries but the most prolific hop producing areas are Germany, The UK, Czechoslovakia, New Zealand and the Pacific Northwest here in the United States. As with malt, if you’re brewing a beer specific to a region you should use hops from that same region.
Brewers use the female plants flower, or cone to balance the sweetness from the malt. A secondary reason is that hops have very good antiseptic properties and can help to prevent spoilage in unpasteurized beer, though this was a much bigger deal in the olden days. In addition to whole leaf hop flowers, you can purchase compressed hop pellets or plugs which saves space during storage and shipping. They come packaged and dried in oxygen barrier bags to preserve their freshness and most people will keep them in a freezer. A new trend is using freshly harvested hops without drying them, usually within a day or 2 of the harvest. This is typically called “wet” hopping and the beer they’re put into is usually some type of “harvest” ale, typically only available during the hop harvest in the fall.
Hop growers provide a percentage of Alpha Acid for each variety of hops, and sometimes a percentage for the Beta Acid as well. The higher the Alpha Acid percentage the more bitter that variety is and the less hops you have to use. You can figure out roughly how bitter your beer will be with brewing software or a simple formula. Basically, your Alpha Acid percentage and the amount of time you boil them for (along with a few other variables) will give you a number in IBU’s, or International Bitterness Units. The longer you boil your hops the more bitterness they impart. A light American lager will be 3-5 IBU’s, while a big Imperial IPA may be over 100 IBU’s. It is believed the human palate cannot detect bitterness over 100 IBU’s, so there comes a point where adding more bittering hops is just a waste.
In addition to providing bitterness, hops can impart a delicious hop flavor and aroma to the finished beer. The higher the Beta Acid percentage the more flavor and aroma it provides. The essential oils that provide the flavor and bitterness are very volatile and will boil off very quickly. So typically 3 or more hop additions are made to the boil. The first provides bitterness and lasts 60 to 120 minutes. You would add hops high in Beta Acid with around 30 minutes to go in the boil to impart flavor. At the very end of the boil, somewhere between 0 and 5 minutes left you would add your hops to impart aroma.
Boiling them is not the only way to use hops however. You can add hops directly to the fermenter in a process known as dry hopping. Many people also add hops to a device called a hop back. The hop back holds hops in the center while beer is pumped through it. Dry hopping and using a hop back does not contribute to bitterness. These processes are used for aroma only. I have recently been experimenting with hopping the mash and adding hops as soon as the wort makes first contact with the boil kettle, AKA first wort hopping. I have experienced great results with these techniques.
There are hundreds of different varieties of the hop plant. Specific ‘noble’ varieties are prized for their flavoring or aroma components, while others are priced for the smooth bitterness they impart. Many varieties of hops are considered ‘dual-use’ varieties. These do an equally good job at imparting bitterness, flavor and aroma. After enough tasting and experience you will begin to be able to detect which variety of hops were used in commercial brews.
The yeast used in brewing is called brewers yeast, and while somewhat similar, it’s different from the yeast used for baking, distilling fuel or distilling fine spirits. Using bakers yeast to ferment beer will not get you drinkable results. Yeast are a single cell organism whose soul mission in life is to turn sugars into alcohol and release the byproduct of co2, aka fermentation, which makes them a brewers best friend.
You can purchase yeast in dried form or in liquid form. Liquid form is typically a higher quality product with the cost reflecting that. One of the most important things in brewing is ensuring you are pitching enough healthy yeast cells for the batch of beer you want to ferment. Experienced brewers will typically create a yeast starter to ensure a high enough yeast cell count. A yeast starter is basically a ‘mini’ batch of unhopped beer. You boil some malt extract with water, chill it to the correct pitching temperature and add the yeast. Once the yeast is introduced into a liquid with sugars waiting to be fermented the yeast immediately starts to take up all available oxygen. Once it has it’s fill of oxygen the yeast cells start to divide which is yeasts’ way of reproducing. Once it has reproduced to a high enough cell count it will begin fermentation. A vial of yeast does not contain enough cells to properly ferment a typical 5 gallon batch of beer. When you make a yeast starter, the cell count has increased exponentially and depending on the size of the starter should be enough to pitch into your 5 gallon batch.
This is not to say you can’t just add a vial to your 5 gallon batch. You can, but it will be slower to start, won’t finish as quickly and might not ferment the whole way. This leaves a bit of a lag time where harmful bacteria could ruin your batch. Once a novice brewers switches to doing yeast starters he or she will never revert back to direct pitching the vials.
There are 2 main categories of brewers yeast: ale and lager yeast. Ale ferments wort into beer by floating on the top of the fermenting vessel at warmer temperatures, between roughly 62-72 degrees F. Lager yeast sinks to the bottom to ferment, and is able to do it’s job between 44 to 54 degrees. Fermenting at this low of a temperature gives a much cleaner taste profile. In other words, lager yeast does not affect the flavor of the beer. With lager yeast you’re relying completely on the hops and grain for your flavor. Ale yeast, on the other hand, lends some yeast character to the beer depending on which variety you choose. There are hundreds of different kinds of brewers yeast out there and each one is just a little bit different.
With lagers there is also an extended period of cold aging, known as lagering. This usually takes place as close to 32 degrees F as possible and typically lasts between a month to 3 months. You will also need a spare refrigerator with a temperature controller in order to control the fermentation temperature. Brewing lagers requires extra time, equipment and expense, but is definitely worth it if you like those styles of beer.
Each different type of yeast has a specific alcohol tolerance. Eventually, all yeast reaches a point where it can no longer ferment and some are higher than others. Each different strain of yeast also has a specific temperature where it works best. The higher the temperature the faster the fermentation, but if it gets too high it will produce off flavors. Some yeast accentuates hop flavors, while others accentuate malt.
Along with the 2 main categories of yeast, there are a few sub categories as well. These include Weisen yeast used for wheat beers, Altbeir yeast used for fermenting lagers at ale temperatures, and Kolsch yeast, a style of beer that’s fermented at ale temperatures then lagered at near 32 degrees F. And let’s not forget about Belgian strains, some of which include wild yeast and open top fermentations, sour styles and even styles where you add bacteria after fermentation for a ‘wild’ flavor.
There is truly an endless supply on brewing ingredients available online, so if you enjoyed this article, continue your research online and stay tuned for our next installment of our Crash Course on Brewing Beer, Part 2: The Process.