We get a lot of queries about how exactly we make beer. It’s a difficult question because brewing is the perfect merge of art and science. How do you easily describe that?!?! Really, you can’t. But what we’ve done here, is try supply you with a good base for being able to follow discussions with your beer enthusiast friends at the pub.
First things first: Beer is made with four ingredients: grain, water, hops and yeast
Of course you can use more ingredients, but anyone who claims to use less than four ingredients is spinning you a yarn that isn’t worth listening to. Malted barley and wheat are the most common grains used in beer, but many others can be used (although usually not as the main grain because they cannot convert enough starches to sugars) like rye, spelt, oats, and rice. Water will affect the beer’s flavour and body. Hops are used to give beer bitterness and aroma. Yeast creates alcohol (and has a major influence on taste). Other “things” can be added to beer (like fruit, spices, herbs, whatever), but unless it has the four ingredients listed, it ain’t beer.
Let’s get our beer on!
1) Mashing: Grain + Water = Wort
Beer is made by extracting sugars from various types of grain using heated water. This process is called mashing. We want sugars to be extracted from the grains into the water to create a fermentable solution (called “wort”). When we say “fermentable”, we mean able to be fermented by yeast to produce alcohol (yeasts “eat” sugar and produce alcohol and carbon dioxide gas). Temperature and time are key factors in the mash process. Too hot or too cold will not get the right amount or right types of sugars into the wort. And the mash must be held at the right temperature(s) for enough time to extract enough of the desired sugars. For reference, a mash takes on average 60-90 mins and is at a temperature of roughly 65C.
You may have seen some homebrewing kits which use a syrup-like malt extract. The extract is simply mixed with hot water and produces the wort instantly so you can skip the mash step. This is called extract brewing while the paragraph above describes all-grain brewing. The main difference is that the latter is more time consuming (and requires equipment to mash the beer in), but allows for a wider range of beer styles to be brewed. Literally, if you can dream it up, you can brew it up. (WARNING: it might be brutal)
2) Boil the wort
After the wort is ready, it must be boiled. Beyond ridding the solution of any bacteria or potential sources of infection, boiling separates out certain proteins from the wort and ensures that the wort gets to the right volume for fermentation. As the wort boils, water is evaporated, leaving a higher-sugar solution. The longer it boils, the more sugar it has (usually). This will lead to a higher alcohol content after fermentation (at the expense of volume). Most boils take 60-90 mins, but there are of course exceptions.
3) Add the hops
Hops can be added to the wort at several stages: Start of boil; during the boil; at the end of the boil. The longer hops are boiling, the more bitterness they create. As the time they are in the boil decreases, the amount of flavour and aroma they contribute to the finished beer increases. Hops can also be added during fermentation (called dry hopping) to give a very hoppy aroma and flavour. We like dry-hopping at Rye River Brewing Company.
4) Add the yeast
When the boil is complete, the wort must be cooled to a temperature that is not hostile (or deadly) for the yeast. This is typically done very quickly (within 30 mins) to prevent off flavors from the buildup of certain compounds and also cause proteins which could affect the clarity of the beer to drop out of the wort. It is important to remember that anything that comes in contact with the wort after the boil step must be sterilized. When the wort is cool enough (approx. 24C depending on the yeast used), the wort can be transferred to the vessel where it will be able to ferment. The yeast is then added (or pitched as we say in the business). The wort can also be aerated (shaken up, for example) to increase the oxygen levels for the benefit of the yeast.
5) Let it ferment
The fermentation vessel (usually a carboy or bucket for a homebrewer) which the aerated wort with the yeast is in must be airtight to prevent oxidation and infection from undesired microbes. Most vessels have a lid and airlock (a device which only allows gas/air to escape and not enter). The vessel is then put in a dark place (to prevent damage to the yeast and subsequent off flavours) at a controlled temperature which maintains the fermenting beer within the yeast’s recommended fermentation temperature. Temps outside of this range (which varies based on beer type) can cause undesirable flavours or stop fermentation altogether. Most of the fermentation may only take up to a week, but it is most common to leave the beer to condition for a period of time before bottling or kegging.
When fermentation is complete, many large scale or commercial brewers will filter the yeast out of the finished beer and force carbonate it (pump in CO2) when bottling or kegging. This is why typical commercial lager beer is usually very clear and there is no residue on the bottom of the bottle. Most homebrewers, (and lots of craft brewers) however, do not filter out the yeast. This means that the beer in the bottle/keg is still “alive”. Apart from enabling the beer to “age” and change its taste profile over time, the remaining yeast in the beer will also help carbonate it naturally. When brewers do this they first must check to make sure the fermentation/conditioning process is complete by taking a reading of the sugar content in the finished beer at bottling time (remember: the yeast ate the sugar during fermentation, but if there too much left, it will cause overcabonation and too much pressure will build up in the bottles since there will now not be a way for the CO2 to escape). If this happens, the bottles can explode. But, to get carbonation, you need some fermentation to continue in the bottles. So, when the brewer knows that the fermentation has stopped, some extra sugar (called “priming sugar”) is added to the beer so that a little fermentation will start again. The beer is then transferred to sterilized bottles and capped.
7) Drink it
Unless the beer is filtered and force carbonated, then depending on the temperature the bottles are stored in, the beer will need a few weeks to ferment the priming sugar and cause the beer to be carbonated. Time is also needed to additionally condition/age the beer for optimal taste. If you do decide to brew and go for a very hoppy beer though, the rules change a bit. Hoppy beers (IPA for example) are best drunk fresh as the hop flavour starts to dissipate quickly.