The Basics on Beer: How it’s Made

The Basics on Beer: How it’s Made

So, you like beer, eh?  Well, that’s good to know!  In fact, knowing that you like beer is probably the most important thing you can know about beer.  But have you ever wondered how it’s made?  Knowing something about how beer is crafted can enhance your appreciation for it by helping you to understand why your favourite beer tastes the way it does.  Let’s go over the basics on how beer is made and shed some light on the mystery behind the brew.


Four All-Natural Ingredients

Beer is made from four all-natural ingredients: water, barley, hops and yeast.  While some beers may add extra flavouring by using spices or fruits, these four ingredients are all that is needed to make beer.  In fact, many different styles of beer can be created by using just these four ingredients.


Coaxing Sugar out of Barley

In order to make any form of alcoholic beverage, plant-based sugars must be converted into alcohol.  When it comes to beer, the natural sugar is hidden within the raw barley.  The sugar must be coaxed out by allowing the barley seeds to germinate (begin to grow into a plant).  This is accomplished by drowning the barley in a vessel filled with water for up to 48 hours.  The water breaks down the outer walls of the barley and releases enzymes needed to turn the barley’s starch into fermentable sugars.  The barley seeds need those sugars to appear because they will use the energy from the sugars to power the germination process.  When the water is removed, the barley is spread onto a malting floor where the seeds begin to grow.  Once this ‘green malt’ has begun to grow tiny root hairs, it is said to have ‘malted’ and the substance is called ‘malt.’


Roasting for Flavour and Colour

The germination is stopped in a process called kilning, where the malt is exposed to hot, dry air.  The degree of roasting that takes place at this stage will affect the colour and flavour of the finished beer.  A short duration of roasting will result in a light-coloured beer with fresher, crisper flavours.  A long duration of roasting will create a beer that is darker in colour and exhibits toastier flavours.


Once kilning is complete, the malt is milled to expose the starch inside and it is now called ‘grist.’  The grist is mixed with hot water to extract the sugars, and is then called ‘mash.’  The mash will then be moved to a lauter tun where it passes through a sieve to remove solid materials.  The sweet, sticky water that remains is called ‘wort.’


Hops are added for Bitterness and Balance

Next the wort is boiled and the first hops are added.  Hops are a plant that was originally used in beer hundreds of years ago to act as a preservative, and also to sterilize beer-making equipment because of its antiseptic qualities.  Today it is used to add bitter flavours to beer.  While “bitter” may sound unappetizing, without the addition of bitter hops, the beer would taste too sweet and fruity to be enjoyable.  The bitterness of the hops brings these qualities into balance.  Hops can be added a second time later in the process to add aromatics to the beer.  This is also the point in the process where a flavouring agent may be added.


A flavouring agent can be spices or fruits that are used to add non-barley and non-hops flavours to the wort.  An example of this would be a seasonal ‘Pumpkin Ale’ that uses real pumpkin, or a ‘Coffee Stout’ that uses real coffee beans.  It is not necessary to add a flavouring agent to make a great tasting beer.  In fact, many beers around the world are produced from only water, barley, hops and yeast.


Next the wort is “whirpooled” off of any solid residues from the hops or other flavouring agents.  It is then cooled and placed in a fermentation tank.  In the fermentation tank, the wort exists as a sticky, flavourful, coloured water, resulting from the addition of the kilned malt, the hops, and any flavouring agents that may or may not have been added.


Bring on the Booze

Now it’s time to turn this sticky brew into an alcoholic beverage.  Yeast is added to the wort to consume the natural sugars and change them into alcohol.  This is the point in the process where the brewmaster makes a significant choice about style.  If the brewmaster wants to make an ale, then an ale yeast called Saccharomyces cerevisiae will be used.  If the brewmaster wants to make a lager, then a lager yeast called Saccharomyces uvarum will be added.  Ale yeasts ferment from the top of the batch and require a warm temperature.  The ferment is fast, usually lasting from 3 days to 1 week.  The lager yeasts ferment from the bottom of the batch at a low temperature and usually take 1 ½ to 2 weeks to complete the ferment.


Filtering, Carbonating and Bottling

Once the fermentation is complete, the beer will be moved to another vessel where it will mature.  Lagers will rest for a longer duration than ales–usually several weeks to several months.  During this time they are said to be “lagering,” which is where the term ‘lager’ comes from.  The beer may be filtered or undergo a period of settling to remove any remaining particulate matter.


Carbonation is usually added at the time of bottling using ‘forced carbonation,’ which is simply the addition of carbon dioxide under pressure.  Other methods of adding carbonation may include ‘spunding’ which is when CO2 created naturally during the fermentation process is not permitted to escape the vessel and becomes dissolved in the beer.  Another method of adding carbonation is called ‘bottle conditioning.’  This is when the beer is bottled with a dose of sugar and yeast so that a secondary fermentation takes place inside the bottle.  The carbon dioxide created will be trapped under pressure in the bottle and will become dissolved in the beer.  Because the bottle is already sealed, there will be no opportunity to remove the dead yeast cells and the beer will appear cloudy.


A Thirst to Learn More

The next time you enjoy a glass of your favourite beer, take a moment to appreciate the science, the methodology and the craftsmanship that went into its production.  Knowing something about how your beer is made can inspire a deeper appreciation for the product, and can lead you towards the discovery of similar beers you may enjoy in the future.  When it comes to beer, the Niagara Region is a kingmaker of quality.  And with new Niagara microbreweries opening up all the time, there is no shortage of new brews to discover.  Beer country awaits you!


By: Michael Twyman, Sommelier and Wine Smart Guide for Niagara Vintage Wine Tours and Bootleggers.

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