Picture this. It’s 5 o’clock (somewhere), you’re sipping on your favourite beer, and you think, “how did this labour of love make its way to my hand?” Ponder no more – these are the seven steps that go into every mouthful of that cool, frothy liquid we covet so much.
Step 1: Milling
The whole process begins with malted grains. These need to be milled (crushed) just right to expose the starchy centre, but not so much that the husk is damaged. If the crush is too fine, the substance will become gummy and unusable. If the crush is too course, not enough of the starch will be converted to fermentable sugars. Who would’ve thought that crushing could be such a delicate task?
Step 2: Mashing
Next, the newly milled grains are mixed with hot water in a large vessel. This process will form a mash that resembles the texture of porridge as the water converts the grain starches into sugar. The temperature of the water determines how much body and alcohol content the final beer will have. A hotter temperature will create more unfermentable sugars, resulting in a sweeter, full-bodied beer with a lower alcohol content. A cooler temperature creates more fermentable sugars, so the alcohol content is higher, while the brew is drier with less body.
Step 3: Lautering
After the milled grain and the hot water have been mixed together thoroughly, the used grain is separated out from the mash, which by now is a sugary liquid. This liquid is known as wort (pronounced “wert”).
Step 4: Boil
The filtered wort is poured into a large boiler, where it’s boiled for one to two hours. This is also where the hops join the party, adding bitterness, aroma and flavour to the brew. Some brewers will also add spices such as orange peel, cinnamon or even a rebellious touch of aniseed. After the spices and hops have flavoured the wort as desired, they’re removed.
Step 5: Fermentation
Once the wort has cooled down, it’s moved to a fermenting vessel. This is normally a large stainless steel vat, but may be made of oak if the occasion calls for a more woody flavoured brew. Yeast is then added to the wort to start the fermentation process. The yeast eats the sugars that were produced during mashing to create alcohol and carbon dioxide (bubbles). The fermentation process varies in length depending on the type of beer. For example, an ale uses a top-fermenting yeast, which will take a few days to eat through the sugar, whereas a lager employs a bottom-fermenting yeast, which can take over a month.
Step 6: Conditioning
While the fermentation process may be over, the yeast’s work is far from done. Off-flavours can be produced while the brew is fermenting, which the yeast will absorb. The brew goes through a period of conditioning to allow the yeast to remove the unwanted flavours such as sulphur, butter and green apples. When these kinds of tastes sneak into a final brew, it means the beer has been under-conditioned and is known as “green beer”. The conditioning time varies depending on the type of beer – an ale’s conditioning time is much shorter than a lager’s, for example. Once the yeast has absorbed the off-flavours, it starts to fall to the bottom of the vessel, where it can be easily removed.
Step 7: Packing
A good beer needs a good vessel. Bottles, cans, kegs – each has its rightful place in the craft beer world. Cans are great for keeping out light and oxygen that can skunk a beer; kegs are the most efficient way to transport large quantities and bottles, well they just feel good in your hand, don’t they?