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Are You Ready to Brew?

Beer in America has a reputation of being more blue collar and industrial than wine. Why this is was never very clear to me. Maybe my image of most breweries are in major urban centers like Milwaukee and St Louis, while wineries are always pictured in an a gentle French agricultural setting with discussion of terroir, good growing years, analysis of the age and variety of grape vines. It is easy to picture workers at a factory having a beer after their shift, while the wealthy and better educated carefully sip their wine in a drawing room. Maybe that's just me. Anyway, I always thought beer got a bad rap, and quite frankly I often think that beer is much friendlier to food than many wines. Sacrilege, I know.

The history of beer is the history of human civilization. Some anthropologists believe that man moved away from a hunter– gatherer existence to a settled agriculture-based existence largely to grow enough grain to brew large amounts of beer. I'm sure this is debatable, but it's a hypothesis I am comfortable with. The dried seeds of wheat, barley, rice and rye found in the wild are an easy source of long term storage for food. Dried grains can't be eaten raw by humans, they need heat and or water to be digestible. The simplest method of preparing grains for eating is to simply soak them in water, making them easier to cook or even eat without cooking as sprouted grains. One can imagine a scenario where some grains are left soaking too long and then eaten anyway resulting in a pleasantly mild poisoning that we call intoxication. How early this occurred and where isn't known, but anything in nature that could radically affect the mind and body so much must have had a powerful impact, and continues to do so today. It is easier still to imagine some early cooks discovering that simple flatbreads prepared near brewing became light and airy as the same yeasts transferred to their dough. Deep stuff.

Some of us go our whole life not knowing exactly how beer is made, so I thought it would be nice to do a brief overview of the process as we launch our own Vi brewery this month. Here is the basic process:

  1. Malted barley is soaked in hot water to create fermentable sugars.

  2. The malt and sugar solution is boiled with hops as seasoning.

  3. The solution is cooled and yeast is added which begins to eat the sugars (fermentation).

  4. The yeast eating the sugar produces carbon dioxide and ethyl alcohol.

  5. The resulting beer is bottled or kegged and carbonated using any of a variety of methods.

  6. We drink the beer. It's good.

Seems simple doesn't it? Well it is and also it isn't. So many factors come into play, so many variables in water, grain, yeast and hops affect the final product that no two beers are ever truly the same.

So, the first thing to consider is the grain. Without becoming too technical, the seeds of grasses contain starches and proteins. In nature, the seed can remain in this state for a long time, until the right conditions -enough moisture and warm temperatures are met. The seeds release enzymes that unlock these starches and proteins and make them available to the sprouting seedling in the form of sugars. If the process is stopped before the plant can begin to use these sugars, we call the grain Malt. Roasting the sprouting grain is the usual method. The type of grain, how long it is roasted, and under what conditions affects the color, flavor and aroma of the malt. Most beers are made from what is called a Base Malt: mildly cooked grain, without too much character on its own. The brewer's art involves manipulating this malt and adding other differently flavored malts to add color, flavor, aroma or body to the beer. All of these grains mixed together is called the Grain Bill. When they are ground up and soaked in hot water, they become known as the Wort. The wort is the beginning of the beer, but if we are being basic it is mostly sugary water. Boiling the sugary water intensifies the flavor and concentrates the sugars while also effectively sterilizing it.

Now the sugar in the wort is the food for the yeast, but most good beer yeasts can't survive very well in alcohol, so the fermentation slows as the sugar falls and the alcohol increases. This is good, because the life cycle of the yeast adds different flavors at different times making a more complex flavor and mouthfeel.

For centuries, people would add various herbs to flavor their beer, but in northern Europe a few centuries ago, most brewers settled on Hops. The hopvine creates fragrant blossoms that are easily dried, and when cooked they produce a bitter acid that nicely tempers the sweet flavor of the beer. The longer hops are cooked, the more bitterness is produced, but long cooking times destroys the wonderful smell of the hops. A solution is adding the hops at different times while boiling to get both bitterness and aroma as desired. of course, it is much more complicated than that, I could write a whole article on just hops here, and someday I probably will...

OK. So now we have a sweet, fragrant solution that is perfect food for one of man's true best friends, Saccaromyces. The yeast that makes our beer, wine and mead is essentially the very same as the yeast that rises our bread. There are of course thousands of strains used for specific purposes, but for all intents and purposes they are the same organism with different traits. The wort is a near perfect food for yeast, but of course it is perfect food for many bacteria and wild yeasts that maybe don't have the same traits that we want for our beer. It is very important at this stage to make sure that our wort does not become contaminated, as this is a crucial time in the brew. Off flavors, strange smells, and cloudiness are all signs of contamination, and depending on the severity can ruin a beer. The wort needs to be cooled as quickly as possible to around 73 degrees, as this is the best temperature for pitching the yeast.

A brewer's selection of yeast is very important to the final product, and in the past, a particular strain of yeast might be endemic to that specific brewery or region. Before the science of brewing was fully understood, brewers knew that even using the same wooden paddle to stir the wort would make good beer, as long as they didn't wash it. There are two main types of beer yeast-Ale and Lager. Put very simply, Ale yeast prefers temperatures at about 72 degrees, and makes all kinds of interesting flavors and aromas as it works quickly and forms mostly at the top of the barrel. Lager yeast prefers cooler temperatures and produces a cleaner, easy-to-drink flavor while forming slowly at the bottom of the barrel. As the little organisms consume the delicious soup that we have made for them, they produce alcohol and gas. The alcohol we want--that is the whole point-- but the gas needs to be vented. Depending on what type of beer we are making, this fermentation process can take as little as two weeks or for some lagers even months. After the simple sugars are consumed, the longer chain carbohydrates are consumed more slowly, and the process slows down, the beer is racked into a new container after the initial burst of activity subsides, and if further hops or ingredients are to be added, now is the best time. Once the process is finished, the beer is bottled or kegged.

Now the beer is finished, but of course it is likely too flat for modern tastes. To carbonate the beer, there are two common methods. The older method is to simply add more sugar. Even though the beer is done fermenting, there is still live yeasts and spores within. adding a small amount of sugar before capping wakes up the yeasts and spurs a brief frenzy of activity despite. Some brewers add fresh yeast of a different variety to keep competitors from culturing their main yeast. The problem is, now that the beer is capped there is nowhere for the carbon dioxide to go. Pressure starts to build up in the bottle. with nowhere to escape to and under considerable pressure the gas is forced into the liquid solution. While this works very well, it is not very exact, and takes time-up to two weeks. Most modern brewers instead simply pump pressurized CO2 into the keg or bottle, much faster and more exact in regards to how carbonated the final product will be. when the container is opened, the gas is released from the liquid, and forms a beautiful head at the top of our glass. as we drink our beer, (good isn't it?) more gas is released inside us and must be discreetly burped.

The brewing system we have purchased for Vi.

We will be beginning our first brew at Vi very soon, having selected our Spike Brewing System -, and installing it on a rolling table to be used on the Dad Clark patio when we need it. we have several residents who have asked to take part, and very soon will be putting out a call to come help brew. If we start in the next couple of weeks we can have our first brew ready by Memorial Day, and the beer is on the house.

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I am not a fan of beer but I like the way you are moving on with new ideas to improve the quality of our food and beverages. Thank you Greg and Bob 👍😃

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