How Beer is Made

Posted on July 6th, 2009

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Beer is made from four basic ingredients: Barley, water, hops and yeast. The basic idea is to extract the sugars from grains (usually barley) so that the yeast can turn it into alcohol and CO2, creating beer.

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The brewing process starts with grains, usually barley (although sometimes wheat, rye or other such things.) The grains are harvested and processed through a process of heating, drying out and cracking. The main goal of malting is to isolate the enzymes needed for brewing so that it’s ready for the next step.

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The grains then go through a process known as mashing, in which they are steeped in hot, but not boiling, water for about an hour, sort of like making tea. This activates enzymes in the grains that cause it to break down and release its sugars. Once this is all done you drain the water from the mash which is now full of sugar from the grains. This sticky, sweet liquid is called wort. It’s basically unmade beer, sort of like how dough is unmade bread.

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The wort is boiled for about an hour while hops and other spices are added several times.
What are hops? Hops are the small, green cone-like fruit of a vine plant. They provide bitterness to balance out all the sugar in the wort and provide flavor. They also act as a natural preservative, which is what they were first used for. (For more info on hops take a look at our article on the subject.)

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Once the hour long boil is over the wort is cooled, strained and filtered. It’s then put in a fermenting vessel and yeast is added to it. At this point the brewing is complete and the fermentation begins. The beer is stored for a couple of weeks at room temperature (in the case of ales) or many many weeks at cold temperatures (in the case of lagers) while the yeast works its fermentation magic. Basically the yeast eats up all that sugar in the wort and spits out CO2 and alcohol as waste products. (For more info on the difference between ales and lagers check our article here.)

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You’ve now got alcoholic beer, however it is still flat and uncarbonated. The flat beer is bottled, at which time it is either artificially carbonated like a soda, or if it’s going to be ‘bottle conditioned’ it’s allowed to naturally carbonate via the CO2 the yeast produces. After allowing it to age for anywhere from a few weeks to a few months you drink the beer, and it’s delicious!

What’s the difference between ales and lagers?

Posted on July 1st, 2009

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Like red and white wine, ales and lagers are the two key divisions in beer styles. Instead of being determined by the type of grape used however, lagers and ales differ chiefly in how they are fermented. Not sure what the difference is? Well, let’s find out.

Chances are you’re not quite sure what exactly fermentation is, but that’s okay. All you need to know at the moment is that it’s the process that happens when yeast eats up the sugar in pre-fermentation beer (called wort) and spits out CO2 and alcohol as waste products.

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Ales are fermented by yeast that hangs out at the top of the wort (hence the name top-fermenting) and needs just a few weeks at room temperatures to work its magic.

Lagers on the other hand settle at the bottom of the wort (which is why they’re called bottom-fermenting.) Lager yeast needs cooler temperatures just above freezing and much more time to do its thing; months, instead of the weeks it takes ales. This is why the word “lager” comes from the German verb for “to store.”

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While lagers tend to be a little crisper than ales, whether a beer is a lager or an ale really doesn’t limit the flavor, strength and style it will possess.  Americans are most familiar with the pilsner style of lager thanks to the efforts of big brewing like Budweiser or Coors, but there are countless other lager styles out there as well, from bock to marzen.

It should be noted that not all beer can be so neatly placed in these two categories. There are hybrid styles like the California common (or steam beer) that combine lager ingredients with an ale fermentation to produce a unique style, which was the result of the limited refrigeration options available to German emigrants in 1800’s California who tried to mimic the lager styles of their homeland.

Additionally, there are Belgian lambics which are traditionally produced using a process know as “spontaneous fermentation,” in which the pre-fermentation wort is exposed to the open air in parts of Southern Belgium where certain yeast grows naturally and will find its way into the beer on its own, rather then being added by man.

Whether and ale, lager or something else, there are a lot of beer styles out there to try. The next time you’re enjoying your favorite, twitter using the #mybeer hastag to let us know and join in the conversation.