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Beer 101: The Fundamental Steps of Brewing Beer

06/03/2019

Everything you wanted to know about the fundamentals of brewing beer

While beer aficionados and craft beer enthusiasts may have extensive knowledge and experience with beers, some steps of the craft brewing process may still be steeped in mystery. How, exactly, do craft brewers create such unusual flavours and aromas? At what point are hops added during the brewing process. Read on to find out everything you wanted to know about the fundamentals of brewing beer.

Grains and malts

Every beer, from the palest Lager to the darkest Porter or Stout, starts off as a raw grain – barley, wheat, oats or rye - grown in a field or at a farm. Once the grains have been harvested, that is when the beer making process really starts. Grains are then germinated in a malt house, creating malts.

At the brewery, the malts are sent through a grist mill, in order to crack open all the husks of a kernel. This is necessary to do in order to expose all the starches during the mashing process. Prior to being sent to the grist mill, some grains are first dried and roasted, in order to create even more flavour and aroma. The combination of different grains used to make each beer is known as the grist bill. You can think of this as the recipe for making any type of beer in the world.

A related topic that might interest you: 9 Important Grains That Affect the Flavours of Beer

Mashing

The grist (i.e. the milled malt) is then transferred to a mash tun where the mashing takes place. This is a process of heating up the grist and water to a temperature between 100 and 170 degrees Fahrenheit. The exact temperature is up to the brewer, and the temperature can be changed up or down during any point of a 1-2 hour process. There are two basic methods of mashing, known as infusion mashing and decoction mashing. They each offer a slightly different way of combining the water with the grist.

Mashing is so important to the brewing process because this is the process in which the natural enzymes within the malts begin to break down the starches, converting them to sugar, which will eventually become alcohol. It is important to note that different temperatures are very important in regulating this process, and higher or lower temperatures will impact the release of proteins and sugars, as well as the activation of specific enzymes. Proteins are often overlooked during the brewing process, but they are the key to foam creation in the finished beer.

The mashing process is what produces the “wort.” This is the liquid extracted from the mashing process during the brewing of beer. Wort contains the sugars (e.g. maltose) that will be fermented by the brewing yeast to produce alcohol. The best way to think about this wort is that this sweet, malty liquid is the “beer starter.”

Lautering, boiling and whirlpooling

Lautering is the process of separating the wort from the spent grain as effectively as possible. This is usually done in a separate lauter tun. A related process is known as sparging, and this refers to the process of rinsing the spent grain with heated water in order to get as much of the sugars as possible from the remaining grain for the wort.

Next comes the boiling of the wort. During boiling, the wort is sterilized through a boiling process, in what is essentially a giant kettle. This 1-2 hour process helps to stop any enzyme activity and finish the conversion of all starches into sugars. This is precisely the moment when hops can be added to the beer for maximum impact. Hops are added for three key reasons: to add aromas, to improve taste, or to add bitterness. Through a process of trial and error, brewers are able to figure out the optimal time to add hops during the boiling process to impart aroma, taste or bitterness.

After the boiling is complete, it is the time to further clarify the wort by removing proteins and hop solids (if any hops have been added). The process itself is known as “whirlpooling,” which gives you a very good idea of what the process looks like. You can think of all the unnecessary imperfections being spun out of the beer in a giant whirlpool.

Fermentation

Fermentation is the process by which yeast converts the glucose in the wort to ethyl alcohol and carbon dioxide gas. During this fermentation stage, the cooled wort is transferred to a fermentation tank. Yeast can be added at this stage, which is also referred to as the “primary fermentation” period. You can think of this as the period when there is the full conversion of sugars to alcohol and CO2.

A follow-up process to fermentation is known as conditioning, and this is when the beer is allowed to mature and obtain a new smoothness. The process of conditioning can take anywhere from 1-6 weeks, and will not happen overnight. This stage is often referred to as the “secondary fermentation” period.

Packaging and carbonation

Once the fermentation has taken place, that is when it is time to package the beer into bottles or cans. Beers will also be carbonated, and this can happen either naturally or as a result of actions taken by the brewer. In order to speed up the process, CO2 under high pressure is added to a container, thereby “forcing” the beer to add the CO2.

Experimentation

Part of the art of brewing is simply a process of trial and error, in which ingredients can be added at different times or in different amounts, all in an attempt to achieve the perfect flavour and aroma. There are only four basic ingredients to any beer – malted barley, yeast, water, hops – but as you probably know from buying beer in a store or online, the number of possible flavours and aromas is seemingly limitless.

Thus, experimentation is very much a part of the brewing process and is the key to getting the highest quality beer to market that consumers will really enjoy drinking. As you experiment more and more, you will gain a much finer appreciation for all of the important steps that go into brewing a beer and providing it with the optimal balance and depth.