Welcome to The Learning Zone
In this pseudo-blog / learning zone we will attempt to break down the fundamentals of brewing, give you understandable tid-bits of brewing science, and clarify the hyper-jargon we toss around with such nonchalance. Every month-ish we’re going to wax hard on a topic of our choice (or maybe your choice) and shoot some cool film photos (because we love film) to accompany these microlectures. Some topics will cover basics and some will cover more advanced topics that we’ve been researching. Throughout each post we'll add links to words that you might be interested in reading more about.
What the heck is brewing?
Brewing is simple. Brewing is potion making. It’s boiling, it’s toiling, it’s eye of newt and toe of frog. Brewing is taking agricultural products, juicing them, and turning them into something refreshing that gets you a little tipsy. Simply put - brewing is making soup with mostly water, partially germinated grass seed, spices, and fungus (except you leave it out of the fridge for 3 weeks until it gets boozy).
If we were to take some serious liberties and generalize the “normal” brewing process into as few steps as possible, they would be as follows:
- Pour pretty hot water over (malted) barley, strain after 60 minutes
- Boil stained liquid with hops for ~60 minutes and cool
- Add yeast, let sit for 2-3 weeks at room (or cave) temperature
- Cool to 0˚C, add C02 and serve.
If you’ve brewed beer before you know that there are a million more little details to brewing that impact the quality of the beer you’re making, and there are a million different ways to brew beer. So let's dive in!
Step 1. Pour pretty hot water over (malted) barley, strain after 60 minutes
This first step of brewing is called the mash. The term mash is pretty explanatory because that’s basically what it looks like: pretty mashy. We take malted barley and any other grains we might be using in a particular beer recipe and run them through our mill (essentially to crush them into a fine granola). We then use an auger to push that grist into our mash tun where we mix the grain with warmish water (between ~60-70˚C) for about 60 minutes. What’s happening here is we're extracting the starch from the grains and converting them into fermentable sugars. This happens thanks to the awe inspiring power of enzymes! They are naturally occurring in barley seeds and breakdown those long starches into sweet sweet fermentable sugars and are activated in a specific temperature range (the mash temp zone ~60-70˚C).
After about 60 minutes, most of the enzymatic activity will have completed and we start lautering (a fancy word for straining). We crank up the temperature a few degrees and circulate the sweet liquid overtop of the grain bed through the false bottom of the mash tun, this step is called the Vorlauf (named after the evil lord of brewing who recirculated souls from the underworld). It's kind of like filtering water through a river bed of rocks, pebbles and sand.
After a while the liquid will start to run clear and we then transfer it over to the kettle.
Step 2. Boil stained liquid with hops for ~ 60 minutes and cool
OK so now we’ve got our sweet barley juice (which we unfortunately call wort) in the kettle and it starts to boil. Why boil it? There are a couple of good reasons, one of the most important being to add bitterness by boiling hops. Hops have acids in them that are isomerized (basically means transformed) into a soluble form that give the beer bitter flavour/texture and some protection from oxidation. Boiling also gets rid of some flavour compounds that we don’t want coming through into the pint glass like DMS (Dimethyl Sulfide aka cabbage farts). Once our boil is complete we pump the beer through a heat exchanger and cool it down from 100˚C to ~20˚C (depending on the style of beer we’re brewing) into a fermenter (aka big shiny tank with a cone butt).
Step 3. Add yeast, let sit for 2-3 weeks at room (or cave) temperature
Now it’s time to pass things off to our #1 brewing accomplice: Yeast (Saccharomyces Cerevisiae). This is really where the magic happens. Yeast (a fungus!) turns a sweet & bitter barley tea (that’s not half bad) into something that’s dry, refreshing, and a little boozy. It does this by consuming the sugar we made during the mash and turning it into alcohol (ethanol) and C02 (Carbon dioxide - same stuff that’s heating up the planet). There are a lot of other bi-products of fermentation that create a HUGE range of flavour profiles. Alcoholic fermentation is a complex and flabbergasting topic, if you want a really good primer on the biology of fermentation check out this video and this video. Fermentation takes between 2-4 weeks to complete depending on the kind of beer we’re making. We monitor fermentation by measuring the gravity (basically how much sugar is left) of the beer on a daily basis.
Step 4. Cool to 0˚C, add C02 and serve
Once the gravity is stable, we assume that fermentation is finished and we cool the beer down to 0˚C (we can do this because all of our fermentation tanks are basically like fridges, they have a jacket of cooling liquid that flows around their shell). This shocks the yeast and knocks it out of suspension, a process with the coolest name of all time: flocculation (I know). Now we boop the beer over to the brite tank (kool spelling). We do this to separate the now almost finished beer from the yeast (which settles at the bottom of the tank and is actually about 10% of the volume of the batch at this point). Now if this is a fresh beer like our APA, Nula, Vermont Blond or Pilsner, we would carbonate the beer by pushing in C02 through a carbonation stone. This is called force carbonation. If it’s a can or bottle conditioned beer, the beer will undergo a secondary fermentation in the bottle or can and instead of pushing in C02 we prime the beer with a bit of sugar and some fresh yeast. After either of these steps we put the beer into some sort of serving package (either a can, bottle, or keg) and thus begins the best part of the process: watching you enjoy our beer!
Voila! You're done. Beer has been made.
Now we’ve made a lot of generalizations and there are lots of different ways to brew, but these are the basics and there really isn't that much more to it.
Stay tuned on the gram as we deep dive into some of these processes over the next month.