First, what is beer? According to Wikipedia “Beer is the world’s most widely consumed and probably the oldest of alcoholic beverages; it is the third most popular drink overall, after water and tea. It is produced by the brewing and fermentation of starches, mainly derived from cereal grains—most commonly malted barley, although wheat, maize (corn), and rice are widely used. Most beer is flavoured with hops, which add bitterness and act as a natural preservative, though other flavourings such as herbs or fruit may occasionally be included.”
Not a bad definition. Fermented starches and some additional flavors added. We can work with that. But how does that relate to homebrew? Let’s keep this as simple as possible. Just the concepts, not the details.
Ok, we’ll touch on just basic beer made with malted barley for simplicity. There are three basic brewing methods in order of complexity from least to most, extract, partial mash, and all grain. We’re going to start with all grain because this is the base for the other methods.
Barley is harvested then malted. Malting is basically letting the barley begin to sprout and make available the starches a young seedling feeds off of until it roots. It involves heat and moisture. The sprouting is then stopped and the malt is dried. Either before the malt is used by us it has to be crushed because it is still contained in the husk of the barley. Some homebrewers do it themselves but most malt supply shops will crush it for you. Ok, so there’s starches in that husk, how do we get it out? Mashing.
Mashing is the process of converting starches into sugars in our malted barley. Ahah, chemistry to the rescue! Enzymes are also in the malt. They aren’t living organisms, they are proteins. We won’t go into exactly what enzymes are or how they came about, just their function because that is what is important to us. Enzymes chop complex starch chains leaving sugar chains. You know how corn is sweet? It’s the reverse of our process, as corn matures the sugar chains become complex starches. We are undoing these chains in the malted barley.
There are two types of enzymes important to us and they differ on how they split the starches. Some are like a big ax and they chop chains of starches in the middle while other are like a hatchet that shops at the ends of the starch chains. Either way, different types sugars are formed based on how long the sugar chains left after chopping are. Our two important enzymes have different temperature requirements with an overlap in their range.
When we mash, we take hot water and introduce it to the malted barley to activate the enzymes and give them access to the starches so they can convert them to sugars. Our mash temperature dictates how much of the different types of sugars we get. Go cooler and we get a drier beer, hotter and a more sweet beer. That’s important for the fermentation step. Some sugars are easily fermented leaving a drier beer, others are more complex and aren’t as easily fermented leaving a sweeter beer.
We also get flavors from our mash determined on what malts we use. We can get smokey, burnt, caramel, biscuity, coffee, chocolate and a whole range of other flavors depending on which grains we put in our mash.
Our color also comes from the mash. Malted barley gives us a light straw color, malts that have been roasted give us a red, brown, or black tint. Again, a whole range of different colors can come from our mash based on our malt choice. Mashing involves one last ingredient…time.
The longer a mash sits, the longer the enzymes have had to convert our starches to sugars. Normal mash times are 60 minutes to 120 minutes, just to give you an idea how long we are talking about.
Great, so now we have a sweet porridge in our kettle, what’s next? Lautering.
Lautering is the process of rinsing the sugars from the grains. There are many ways of doing this, most involve removing the grains from the mash or the liquid from the grains, and some use more water to rinse out the sugars. (see my BIAB post earlier for more details). We now have what is called wort.
Time for an aside. We have wort from our all grain process. If we had the equipment, we could dehydrate this wort and produce one of two different types of what is called extract. One type of extract is dried malt extract, the other is liquid malt extract. The difference is apparent. You can make beer by using these products, adding water to them to get back to our wort as above. You can get some different flavors by steeping different grains in the water before you add your extract. This would be called extract with specialty grains. So that takes care of all grain and extract, partial mash is just a mix of the two.
You are limited in extract brewing to what kinds of extracts are available to you. With all grain you can add any amounts of grains you wish to create a flavor profile you want. Unless the maltsters made their extract exactly how you wanted it, you can’t get the exact mix of flavors you want. Along comes partial mash to the rescue. You can use an extract as a base flavor and mash some additional grains to get where you want. You mash just like all grain above, but you get a smaller volume of wort or weaker wort that gets bolstered by adding extract. So we got our wort by one of the various methods, now what? Boling.
We boilour wort for a number of reasons. We boil off unwanted flavors, we sterlize our wort, and we meld flavors together. Perhaps the most import part is to get our hops flavors in there. Hops are flowers of a plant. They contain oils that provide bitter flavors in beer as well as flavors and aromas. As we boil, the oils change and get extracted into our wort from the hops. How long the hops are in the boil dictates how the oils change. Most boils for beer are 60-90 minutes. Lots of other things can be added during the boil to provide the various flavors we find in beer but we aren’t here for that today. Once we are done boiling, we chill the wort down to just above room temperatures so we can ferment it. The wort gets put into a fermenter, oxygen is added, and yeast is introduced for fermentation.
Fermentation involves a fun microorganism called yeast. Very complex here, but to sum it up, yeast eats sugar and disposes alcohol and carbon dioxide. While doing so, they can create flavors. Once yeast has converted all the sugars they can, they fall to the bottom of the fermenter. Beer can ferment and sit for one week to several weeks, months, or sometimes years. Most are in the range of a few weeks. Beers are sometimes aged at this point in warm or cold environments. Then it is onto serving!
The last step is carbonation. Some beers are bottle carbed, some are carbed in casks, some are carbed in kegs. Beers that are carbed in bottles or casks have additional sugars added for the remaining yeast to consume and dispose that carbon dioxide. Since the beer is in a closed container, the carbon dioxide remains in suspension giving us the carbonated beer we are used to. Beers that are carbed in kegs have carbon dioxide injected into the kegs under pressure so it goes into solution. When you open that beer, or pour it from a cask or keg, the carbon dioxide begins to escape and you get the nice foamy head.
Now on to evaluating a beer. These are the usual categories used to evaluate what you are drinking:
Appearance: How does it look? What is the color? How much head is there? Are the bubbles big or little? Do they go away quickly or lace the glass? Is it cloudy or clear? Simply, what do you see?
Smell: Raise the glass to your nose. What do you smell? Flowers? Pine? Roastiness? Sweet? Spicy?
Taste: What do you taste? Do you taste what you saw and smelled? Describe the sweetness. The bitter. Any foreground flavors? Middle flavors? Background flavors? Anything linger when you swallow it?
Mouthfeel: Some beers are thin and watery. Some are chewy. Some leave an oily film. Does your mouth feel dry after you swallow? Does it make your mouth pucker? This isn’t about flavors, it is about how it makes your mouth feel.
Drinkability: Throw out what you heard on that stupid commercial. This has to do with how would you drink this beer. Would you sit down and drink a lot of it in a short time (a quaffer)? Or would you sip it by the fire? Are the flavors so strong that you would save it as the last thing you drank or are they subdued enough that you could try another beer without the flavors being overpowered.
Overall: This category is often added to the above categories. Sometimes you just want to give an overall impression. You can describe all kinds of things above, but do you like what you saw, smelled, tasted, and felt? Would you drink it again?
There are many ways to evaluate a beer. Some use number scales. The above categories are more for someone who just enjoys beer. It will allow you to refine your tastes and define what you like in a beer.
Questions? Comments? Fire away, keeping in mind that the audience for this blog is someone who doesn’t know how one can make their own brew and in no way was it meant to dive into the complex topics of homebrewing.