There are very few sounds in the world as satisfying as cracking open a cold one on a hot summer day. I’ve always felt like it’s one of the few sounds I can taste, and no matter where I am, that slight hiss of escaping CO² never fails to make me a little more thirsty.
Beer has come a long way during its 8,000 years of history.
Like wine, it’s seen good times, bad times, endless controversy, Prohibition, a couple of World Wars, and the rise and fall of several major empires.
But unlike wine, which has now became a sign of prosperity and luxury, beer has always been the more laid-back, chilled out cousin, that couldn’t care less how many kingdoms you’ve conquered, or who your father is.
It has always had one simple purpose – to turn a bad day into a good one, and a good day into a better one. That’s all. 🙂
But what IS it?
Beer can be defined as a fermented, alcoholic bev- Hold on, I’m going to have to stop you right there.
Beer is sugar water that throws the wildest, craziest party that yeast has ever seen.
The yeast is very grateful, decides to the return the favour by turning all that sugar into alcohol. And then it goes the extra mile by blowing balloons that rise to the surface as happy little bubbles.
But before I get into exactly what beer is, it’s actually more important to know what yeast is, and what it does.
Step 0: The Yeast
Yeast is a single-cell organism, with a sweet tooth and and an eating disorder. It has one job, and one job only.
“Have sugar? Will ferment.”
Think of it as a shark in the ocean. If yeast smells even a single drop of sugar in a solution, it will find a way to reach it, eat it, and turn it into alcohol. And then it promptly dies.
What interests us the most though, are the by-products of this gluttony.
Yeast somehow finds a way to turn basic sugar into something as beautiful and complex as alcohol. It also produces carbon dioxide, which creates natural carbonation. It’s actually pretty insane, when you really think about it.
And it doesn’t end there. That sugar water I mentioned before? The SOURCE of that sugar determines the ultimate flavour of the alcohol. If it’s from pure sugarcane, it tastes a little like that. And that gives you the base for rum. If it’s from grape sugar, it gives you wine.
And that brings us back to where we started: What is beer?
Step 1: The Grains (or the “Malt”)
Yep. Beer is fermented alcohol made with grains. The most common grain is barley, but it can be made with pretty much anything. Wheat, rye, oats, corn – hell, you can make beer with rice if you wanted to. It’s been done before.
Each individual grain contains a small amount of starch.
It’s only a matter of converting these starches into something that the yeast can easily consume – like sugar.
Here’s how they do that.
(This next segment is going to get a bit science-y, but beer with me. I’ll put a TL;DR at the end of it.)
When a seed germinates, the plant inside it produces an enzyme called diastase. This enzyme is responsible for breaking down the complex starches within the seed, and turning them into something the plant can eat, in order to grow.
This just happens to be a water-soluble, fermentable sugar called Glucose.
It’s these sugars that will get boiled out of the grain in order to make the base “sugar water” for the beer.
There’s a catch, though. If the plant doesn’t germinate enough, there’s not enough glucose to dissolve into the mix. And if it germinates too much, the plant will eat whatever glucose is in it, and there won’t be enough for the mix.
So it’s a balancing act.
The trick lies in finding that exact point at which the grains have produced just the right amount of sugar, and then immediately arresting that process by dry heating, or “roasting” them.
This also determines the final colour and flavour of the beer. Grains roasted for longer will impart a darker colour, and create toasty aromas like coffee and caramel.
This is called “malting”, and if you’ve ever heard the phrase “malted barley” before, now you know exactly what it is.
(TL;DR – Each grain produces sugar when it germinates, and when the maximum amount of soluble sugars are available inside it, it gets put in an oven to stop the the plant from eating all of them.
These grains are called “malted”, and they provide colour and flavour to the beer.)
Step 2: The Boil
These malted grains are milled into rough chunks (called grist), and dumped into huge vats of warm water. Then it’s vigorously stirred until all those sugars are dissolved.
This is a fairly long and labour intensive process called “mashing”, and it involves keeping the grist in constant motion to ensure that those sugars dissolve nicely.
This is also the point at which the roasted malts will impart all their flavour and colour. “Pale” malts give you that classic golden-yellow colour, while heavily roasted malts will give it that distinct black, stout-like colour.
This is actually one of the most important parts of the process, for a MAJOR reason that most people tend to forget about.
Beer usually averages around 5% alcohol by volume. The rest of that 95% is nothing more than plain old water.
This basically means that you can use the most premium ingredients, and all the gold-plated, diamond studded equipment you want.
But if your water is bad, your beer is bad. End of story.
Once the boil is done, the spent grains are filtered out, and the rich, beautiful, sugar water that you have left, is called WORT.
Now it’s time to flavour it, and make it the best meal that yeast has ever had.
Fun Fact: One saying I’ve often heard from brewers and beer lovers is, “The brewer doesn’t make beer. Their job is to make the best wort, and the rest is up to the yeast.”
Step 3: The Hops
So now we know that beer is just fermented, grain based alcohol. But gives it that distinct taste? What makes it BEER?
Long story short – it’s this tiny little thing.
Hops, as they are known, are a species of wild, aggressive plants, that are nicknamed the “Wolf Among Sheep”. They are climber plants, that have a tendency to innocently cling to their “host”, usually a tree or a bigger plant. But they grow so fast that they end up literally strangling it. They’re pretty metal.
Their flowers are what give beer their signature flavour. They were originally added as a natural preservative, and contain a lot of desirable bitterness.
But there are literally hundreds of different species, which can impart all kinds of beautiful aromas, like citrus, spice and mint.
Commercially, hops are available in dried form, compressed into tiny capsules or “pellets”. These are are added to the wort and boiled, which is how they add bitterness and release all those aroma compounds into the beer.
This is also why commercial beers all taste the same, and craft beers all taste different. Most big brands, or “Macro Breweries” (like Budweiser, Kingfisher, Carlsberg, etc), all use simple, basic, bittering hops. They don’t do anything crazy.
Craft brewers have SO much freedom that they can literally use whatever hops they want, with endless permutations and combinations. So the flavours are usually more unpredictable and strange. And more importantly, completely unique to the brewer.
I’m planning to dedicate a whole article to this topic, since there’s so much I want to get into detail about.
But for now, we shall move on.
Step 4: Back to the Yeast
At this point, your beer tank contains some hop-flavoured, malt-coloured sugar water.
All that’s left to do is ferment it and bottle it.
And here’s where the yeast comes in.
Just like hops, there are different strains of yeast that respond to sugar in different ways. Broadly speaking, there are two kinds, primarily named after the two most common categories of beer – Ale Yeast, and Lager Yeast.
(There’s going to be another article about all the different styles of beer, so stay tuned for that as well. I’ll be going into some pretty nerdy details about yeast in there.)
Now, depending on the type of beer being made, the brewer will introduce the yeast into the mix. This is a very delicate operation – yeast is extremely finicky about a lot of things.
The fermentation needs to happen at a specific temperature, and no outside air can be allowed in. The reaction itself produces a lot of heat, so that needs to be controlled as well. And it needs to stay like that for up to a week.
Assuming everything goes well, the yeast will eat every bit of sugar in there, which is why beer isn’t sweet at all.
The more the sugar, the more alcohol the yeast will produce.
It will also release CO², which will carbonate the beer to a large extent.
And there you have it. Now you have beer.
After that, it’s just a matter of letting it rest for a while to let the flavours come together. This is also the point where most commercial brewers would filter, or “fine” their beer. This removes the residual yeast and other impurities, and gives the beer that crystal clear appearance.
Some choose to leave it a little unfiltered and “hazy”, and that’s recently become pretty popular.
The brewer can then decide whether to bottle or keg the beer, and then it hits your favourite restaurants and retail shops.
And that’s pretty much the run-down on everything you need to know about how beer is made.
There’s a LOT of work (and art!) that goes behind every single glass of beer, and I hope this helps you understand why people like me find so much joy in studying it.
Maybe it answered some of your questions. If it did, let me know! And if it didn’t, then definitely let me know, and we’ll fix that faster than you can say “Hoegaarden”.
See you next time. 🙂
PS: Big thanks to Ghaisas, Anchit and Srini for offering to fact-check this whole piece. Cheers to all of you 😉