Basics of Brewing

The main basics of brewing is to create an environment that is perfect for the yeasty beasties to do their job. That starts with following the basic process and using quality ingredients. The specific process of making beer, in a nutshell is this: grains are crushed and combined with water in a process called “mashing” where the temperatures are controlled to allow the enzymes in the grain to convert to sugar. The liquid is drained or “lautered” into a kettle and the grains are rinsed in a process called “sparging”. This resulting liquid, called “wort” is boiled with hops for anywhere from 1 to 2 hours depending on the style. Some beers are even dry-hopped. The wort is cooled and the yeast is added or “pitched”. The wort is then allowed to ferment in the dark within a specific temperature range, depending on the yeast strain, until most of the sugars are consumed by the yeast creating alcohol and carbon dioxide. When this primary fermentation is complete the beer is then “racked” into a conditioning tank for one week to several months to age, smooth out and remove unwanted flavors. A secondary fermentation usually takes place in the bottle, cask or larger vessel, creating the carbonation we all know and love.

The conditions under which fermentation occurs need to be controlled. Time, temperature, light and the vessel itself all contribute to the end result. Most beers are fermented in stainless steel or in the case of home brewers, glass or plastic. Other vessels used include wine and spirits barrels which add additional depth to the final product.

There are many variations of the basic 4 ingredients: water, yeast, grains and hops. But there are really only 3 methods of fermentation: warm, cool and wild or spontaneous. Ale is made with ale yeast also called top-fermenting yeast. They are fermented for a relatively short time at a temperature where the yeast works best, usually between 68 and 72 degrees Fahrenheit. To go outside this range will cause off-flavors like excessive fruitiness or fusel alcohol. Lagers use a different strain of yeast called bottom-fermenting and ferment for much longer periods and at a lower temperature, usually 45 to 55 degrees F. Both ale and lager yeasts are from the genus called Saccharomyces but each utilizes different species.

The third type of fermentation, wild or spontaneous, utilizes a completely different type of yeast called Brettanomyces (Brett) and bacteria causing these brews to usually have funky and sour flavors. Lambics are a good example of this type of brew.
By volume, water is the principal ingredient of beer. As such, the quality of the water used is crucial to the ultimate flavor and quality of the finished product. Mineral content and quality of tap or well will change depending on the source. Most tap water in the United States is fine for brewing but contains chlorine that needs to be removed first. Some beers styles are actually known for their water. For example, the city of Pilsen in the Czech Republic has such soft water that it is fee of most minerals. It creates a very clean and crisp lager. This water also makes it impossible to brew a good dark beer because of its lack of bicarbonates.

There are many different grains that can be used to feed the yeast but barley is the most common. Other grains commonly used are wheat, rye and oats. Grains are naturally high in starches, which, once converted to sugars through the process of malting, provide the basis for fermentation: yeast + sugar = alcohol and carbon dioxide.

Beer derives much of its aroma and bitterness from hops. This provides a complementary balance to the sweetness of the malt in developing desirable flavor characteristics. Hops grow in moist temperate climates of the United States, England and Germany. They are not only an aromatic and flavoring agent but an antibacterial. This quality is what brought about the IPA style, making the beer travel worthy from England to India during the occupation.

So what is the difference in flavor between ales and lagers? Generally speaking, lagers have a crisper and cleaner finish. That’s it. Some people think ales are heavier but not so. There are fewer lager styles than ale styles but each has its range of light to heavy, sweet to bitter.

More bitter beers like IPA’s, Pale Ales, Stouts and Porters usually will be paired with spicier, heavier dishes. Lighter brews like pilsners, saisons and hefeweizens are more versatile and usually won’t overwhelm the food. Maltier beer is usually sweeter. Styles such as bock, dopplebock, brown ale, Imperial stout and marzens will pair better with food that is sweeter and sometimes even dessert.

Now when it comes to pairing your favorite craft brew with food there is really only one rule: don’t let your beer overwhelm your food. Some brews are just too powerful for delicate dishes. Power will come from elevated alcohol, seriously syrupy sweetness or lots of bitter hops. Other than that, the sky is the limit. No one will criticize your choice! And you won’t go broke buying an expensive brew. Most 22 ounce bottles range from $7 to $20 for a really high end bottle. You will spend more, however, filling your summer cooler with six packs ranging from $7 to $16 each. But it’s so worth it. And once you become part of the craft brew community you will just want to convert more friends. So become a beer pioneer and enjoy crafty suds!