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Here is a synopsis of the brewing process:

  1. Malted barley is soaked in hot water to release the malt sugars.
  2. The malt sugar solution is boiled with Hops for seasoning.
  3. The solution is cooled and yeast is added to begin fermentation.
  4. The yeast ferments the sugars, releasing CO2 and ethyl alcohol.
  5. When the main fermentation is complete, the beer is bottled with a little bit of added sugar to provide the carbonation.

Sounds fairly simple doesn't it? It is, but as you read on you will realize the incredible amount of information that I just glossed over with those five steps. The first step alone can fill an entire book, several in fact. But brewing is easy. And it's fun. Brewing is an art as well as a science. Some people may be put off by the technical side of things, but this is a science that you can taste. The science is what allows everyone to become an artist. Learning about the processes of beer making will let you better apply them as an artist.

As time went by, and I moved on to Partial Mashes (half extract, half malted grain) and All-Grain Brewing, I should mention that Extract Brewing should not be viewed as inferior to brewing with grain, it is merely easier. It takes up less space and uses less equipment. You can brew national competition winning beers using extracts. The reason I moved on to Partial Mashes and then to All-Grain was because brewing is FUN! These methods really let you roll up your sleeves, fire up the kettles and be the inventor. You can let the alchemist in you come forth, you can combine different malts and hops at will, defying conventions and conservatives, raising your creation up to the heavens and calling down the spirits!

(Credits and Thanks to John Palmer, at How to Brew by John Palmer.)

The great diversity of brews, barley wines, ales and beers, the sweet and the dry, the pale and the dark, the light and the heavy, the gentle and the strong, are all made from beer’s four elements: grains, water, hops (and perhaps spices and fruits), and yeast.  The craft of the brewer lies in the selection and balance of those ingredients and the ways in which he puts them together.  This is a regimen of procedures, times, and temperatures very much like those used by a cook.  Brewing is a form of cooking—with the additional element that yeast is a living ingredient with a mind of its own.

            What fruit is to the wine-maker, grain is to the brewer.  Just as a wine-maker has to press his grapes to release the fermentable sugars, so the brewer has to malt his barley.  Grain that has been steeped, partially germinated, then dried in a kiln, is known as malt.

            The color and flavor of the finished beer will be greatly influenced by the choice of grains, even by the variety of barley used, and certainly by the way in which it is kilned. Gentle drying makes for golden beers with a cookie-like sweetness; stewing makes for a redder color and a more nutty character, and toasting or roasting produces a burnt or espresso-like flavors found in some porters and stouts.

            In the days before piped water, the presence of springs or wells was essential for the establishment of a brewery.  The availability of good water led to some towns becoming famous brewing centers.  The local water also helped shape the style of beer.

            The soft water of Pilsen, Bohemia, helped determine our idea of a golden lager.  The famous pale ales of Burton, England, gain their characteristic firmness from the local water, which is high in calcium sulfate.  The porters and stouts of London and Dublin are rounded out by water high in calcium chloride.

            Yeast is the life-force behind beer.  It converts malt sugars into alcohol, and creates the carbonation in beer.  In doing so, it also adds background flavors.  Today, there are yeast libraries holding hundreds of brewing strains—but it wasn't always so.

            The first beers were fermented by the wild yeasts of the atmosphere.  Wild yeasts are still used in the Belgian style of beer known as lambic, and they give it a distinctly winy aroma and flavor.

            When beer ferments at ambient temperatures, it creates a head of foam in the vessel.  Medieval brewers learned that if they skimmed this foam and kept it in a pitcher, it could be used as a starter for the next batch.  The foam comprises millions of yeast cells that have risen to the top of the vessel.

            This method, called top-fermentation, is still used today, in a more scientific fashion, to produce traditional wheat beers, all true ales, porters, stouts, and barley wines.  Top-fermenting yeasts give brews a fruity complexity of aroma and flavor.

            A more scientific approach was possible only when the invention of the microscope enabled brewers to see yeast cells and understand their workings.  It was then that a colder method of fermentation and maturation—or storage—was developed.  In this method, the yeast sinks to the bottom, producing a cleaner-tasting beer.  This is known as the lager method, after the German word for storage.

            Like a chef, a brewer seasons his creations.  Early brewers used a wide variety of herbs and spices to balance the sweetness of the malt with drier flavors—and to preserve the beer.  Some brewers still use herbs and spices, but for the past millennium most beer has been made with the flower-like cone of the hop vine.

            The hop is dotted with resinous glands containing richly flavorful oils.  Some varieties impart an appetizing dryness or bitterness; others are more floral and aromatic.

Hop History

            A member of the nettle family, and a close relative of cannabis, the hop is a climbing plant -- known in English as a bine, though the word vine is also used.  Its young shoots may be eaten as a salad, while its green, cone-like flowers (technically known as strobiles) have an extraordinary range of properties.

            The “petals” of the strobile are called bracteoles.  The seed is at the base of the bracteole.  The seed and the base of the bracteole contain sticky yellow glands that produce resins and oils that give beer bitterness and aroma.  Bitterness comes more specifically from humulones, which also act as an antiseptic and preservative.  The bracteoles also contain tannins that help clarify the beer.

            Records from the Jews’ captivity in Babylon note that they took a sicera (strong drink) “made from hops” to alleviate leprosy.   This drink may well have been a beer, or possibly a form of mead.  Pliny’s study of natural history mentions hops as a garden plant, the shoots of which were eaten in the spring.  This practice is still observed in some hop-growing areas.

            The hop was said by the Romans to grow wild among the willows “like a wolf among sheep.”  For this reason, the Romans called it Lupus (“wolf”) salictarius, from which comes the modern botanical name Humulus lupulus.

            Honey, fruits, and a wide variety of herbs and spices have been used to flavor beer, and these practices have never altogether died.  It seems likely that hops’ rise to favor may have begun in the eighth and ninth centuries A.D., but that is not certain.  In records from that time, mention is made of hop gardens in Bohemia, the Hallertau district of Bavaria, and various parts of Charlemagne’s Europe, but the link with beer is not made.  Documents from the year 822 suggest that monks from Picardy, in northern France, brought the techniques with them when they founded the abbey of Corbay on the upper Weser, in northern Germany.  Most of the allusions are to areas now known for both hops and beer.

            Flanders exported hopped beer to England in the early 1400s, but it was viewed as an alien product.  In the 1500s, people from Flanders began to cultivate the hop in Kent, England, but its suitability for use in beer was still a matter of lively discussion two centuries later.  The qualities that eventually favored the hop were its qualities in clarifying and preserving beer.  Eventually, even beers made with spices and herbs also had an addition of hops.

            The Continental Europeans and the islanders of Britain still disagree over the hop.  The issue is its sex life.  Only the female hop is used in brewing.  As a perennial, it can be propagated from cuttings, rendering seeds unnecessary.  The Continentals argue that the male is of no value; it is heavier, and harder to work with, but adds nothing to the beer.  They seek to eradicate wild hops to ensure that no lusty males lurk in the hedgerows.  The British have never bothered to do so, and argue that some of their hop varieties ripen more fully, evenly, and quickly when fertilized.  These include the lassic ale varieties, Fuggles and Goldings.  When the British drank ale almost exclusively, this was no problem.  Now, the market is divided more or less equally between ales and lagers.   The worry is that the male ale hops will seed the lager varieties.  One solution might be for the Fuggles and Goldings to be restricted to the traditional area of East Kent, and lager varieties to be grown elsewhere.  Another might be for the British to stick to their great ales and in the process protect their wonderful hops.

            In the early 1600s, hop farming began in North America in Virginia and the New Netherlands (parts of what is now New York state).  Disease eventually became a problem, and cultivation moved with shifts in population and the brewing industry:  first to Wisconsin, then California (where there are still vestiges of hope farms), and more recently the Pacific Northwest.

            Today, only Germany cultivates more hops than the United States.  Other hop-growing nations include Britain (in the English counties of Hereford, Worcester, Sussex, and Kent), Belgium (and a contiguous area of France), the Czech Republic (especially around the Bohemian town of Zatec), Poland, Slovenia, the Ukraine, China, and Australia (especially in Tasmania).

Hop Varieties

            Brewers often divide hops into “bittering” or “aroma” varieties, though some fulfill both functions.  In general, hops with a delicate aroma are low in the alpha-acids that confer bitterness, and vice-versa.  The most delicate aroma varieties are sometimes known as “noble” hops.

            Bittering hops are added to the boil at an early stage, to allow time for extraction of the active compounds.  Some brewers feel that an addition of hops in the middle of the boil adds flavor and complexity.  Others disagree.  Aroma hops are added late in the boil so that volatile flavor and aroma constituents are not vaporized.  They are known as “finishing” hops.  Some brewers make a further addition in the hop strainer (this vessel is sometimes known as a hop-jack or -back).  There may even be a further addition in maturation vessel, or the keg or cask (this is known as dry-hopping).

            The most famous hop variety is the Saaz, or Saazer.  Its name is from the German rendition of Zatec, the Bohemian town around which it is grown.  This hop, which seems to mimic the aroma of fresh air, is the variety classically used in Pilsner beers.

            A similar variety from Germany is the delicate, flowery Mittelfrüh, traditionally grown in the Hallertau district of Bavaria, between Munich and Regensburg.  A version of this variety is also grown in the Hersbruck region, north of Nuremberg.  Hersbruck in addition has its own variety of aroma hop, which is slightly more robust.  South of Nuremberg, the Spalt hop has a very complex character.  Across the Bavarian border in Baden-Württemberg, the Tettnang region has its own aromatic variety.  The Germans also grow a bittering hop originally developed in Britain.  It still has an English name:  Northern Brewer.

            Many varieties are cultivated beyond their original home but, when this is done, they gain new characteristics as they habituate themselves to soil, climate, and surroundings.

            The best known English hops were named for the farmers who selected and propagated them:  Fuggle in 1790 and Golding in 1875.  Goldings, most famously grown in East Kent, are rich, earthy, and rounded in aroma.  Fuggles, also grown in Hereford and Worcester, are softer, and are used for both aroma and bittering.

            In the United States, hops are grown primarily in the Yakima Valley in Washington, the Willamette Valley in Oregon, and the Snake River Valley in Idaho.  Hops are also grown across the border in British Columbia, Canada.  American hops can be very assertively floral, with notably piney characteristics, and often lemony, orangey, or grapefruit notes.  Traditionally, the Cluster has been the best-known variety for bittering and the Cascade for aroma, but many new strains are being introduced, among them the Galena, the Nugget, the Mount Hood, and the Liberty.

            The life-force of beer -- yeast -- consumes wort sugars, converting them into alcohol and carbon dioxide.  The strain of yeast used, and the mutations it undergoes as it acclimates itself to the brewery where it works, stamp the beer with its own subtle balance of sweetness, dryness, texture, and flavor.

            To the naked eye, yeast is a cheesy, viscous substance.  A look through the microscope reveals a group or chain of fungi that convert sugar to alcohol. Yeast in the air will quickly ferment the exposed flesh of fruit.  Yeast on the skins of grapes turns their juice into wine.  Once the sugars in barley are unlocked, yeast will work on them, too.

            Early brewers let their worts ferment naturally and hoped this unpredictable process would have good results.  Evidence from early pictograms indicates that man realized there was an agent at work, and that this substance could be recovered from one brew to ferment the next batch.

            Yeast was first viewed under a microscope in 1680 by the Dutch scientist Anton van Leeuwenhoek.  The French chemists Lavoisier and Gay-Lussac furthered knowledge in the area, but it was not until 1857 that Pasteur laid the foundations for today’s understanding of yeast.  At that time it was known that some yeasts rose to the top of the fermenter and others sank to the bottom, but no one knew why.

            In the late 1800s, the Bavarian type of yeast was isolated to a single strain of yeast by Emil Hansen at Carlsberg, in Denmark.  It was established that by isolating and using the proper strain, brewers could achieve more predictable results.

(Credits and Thanks to Michael Jackson, aka, The Beer Hunter.)