Man has been making beer for 7,000 years. Although many techniques have changed since our loincloth days (including better hygiene practices), the basic process is the same.
This post shows the brewing process on a commercial level. The pictures show the professional equipment used, but don't let it intimidate you. Homebrewers perform the exact same steps as commercial brewery, just on a much smaller scale using easily attainable equipment.
Mashing takes place in a vessel called the mash tun. This is where grains known as malted barley (or “malt”) are soaked in hot water for about an hour in order to release the sugars contained in the grains. Releasing the sugars is vital because sugars are the food that the yeast later “eats” in during fermentation in order to produce alcohol. No sugar means no alcohol, which means no beer. In addition to contributing fermentable sugars, the malt also adds flavor, aroma, and body. Sweetness comes from malt. You often hear people refer to a sweet tasting beer as “malty” for this reason.
In this step the grains are rinsed with hot water in order to extract the rest of the sugar out of them. The grains are then separated from the hot liquid in a process known as lautering. Breweries perform these steps in a vessel known as the lauter tun, but homebrewers typically mash, sparge, and lauter all in the same vessel.
The liquid is now known as wort (pronounced “wert”). Since the wort will shortly become beer, it is sent to another tank for the final brewing steps. The grains are not needed anymore and are discarded.
3. Boiling the Wort
The wort, now in what is known as the boil kettle, is boiled in order to kill any micro-organisms that are present in the liquid. A typical boil process lasts about an hour. This is also where hops are added to the beer. Hops require boiling water in order to release their flavor components. The stage in the boil when the hops are added makes a difference on the final characteristic of the beer. Hops added in the very beginning of the boil would have a different effect if they were added near the end. The brewer uses this knowledge to finely craft the profile of the beer.
4. Cooling the Wort
After roughly an hour of boiling, the wort is rapidly cooled. The yeast needs to be added to the wort and if it is still very hot the heat will kill the yeast. That is why the wort is cooled down to a temperature that the yeast can handle. It is at this time that the brewer must be very careful attention to sanitation. Because the wort is no longer at extreme temperatures, it is extremely susceptible to contamination from any micro-organisms that may be around. Once the wort is around 80 degrees, the yeast is added, or “pitched” as the brewer would say. This is the last step in the typical brew day. Next up is fermentation, which is largely a waiting period.
Even though most of the hard work is done on the brewers part, this step is especially crucial. During fermentation the hungry yeast consumes the sugars that were released and converts them into alcohol and carbon dioxide. The carbon dioxide is released into the air and the alcohol stays in the beer. This process usually takes 1-2 weeks.
By this step, the beer is almost ready for consumption. If you were to consume it as-is, you would find it extremely flat and unappetizing. What is needs is carbonation. The head and those tiny little bubbles you see in your glass are a result of the carbonation process. This is done by directly injecting carbon dioxide into the beer. Another carbonation method is to add a small amount of sugar to the bottles. The residual yeast left in the bottles will consume the sugar and naturally carbonate the liquid by releasing C02. This is known as “bottle conditioning” and is the option of most homebrewers.
Once carbonated it is time to package the final product. A commercial brewery will either can, keg, or bottle their beer. Then it is out the door and into the hands of the drinker.
There you have it – the beer making process in a nutshell.
To continue on with this series, visit the next post on beer ingredients.