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Happy National American Beer Day!

Hops harvested from the chef's backyard

As I have mentioned in several entries, beer has been with us a long time. I mean really, really long. Like maybe longer than agriculture. It's all debatable of course, but evidence of fermentation of grains exists at least 7,000 years ago and there are hints that it goes back much further. As modern humans, we know very well what happens when we drink alcoholic beverages, that is why it is such a huge industry. We don't drink it for the taste (although we may love the taste), we drink it for the way it makes us feel-- hopefully not too much, as we also know how it makes us feel afterward.

For early peoples, first discovering the effects of fermentation, with no understanding of the processes involved, must have been mind blowing. With no evidence whatsoever, I'm willing to bet that this unexplained phenomenon of fermentation and the supernatural connotations of how it made one feel led to many early religions as we moved from a nomadic hunter gathering lifestyle to early farms, villages and towns. Pretty big stuff here...

Anyway, I thought it would be a good idea to break down the process of brewing for those who are curious, it has changed a bit from Neolithic and medieval times but the process is really the same.

Here is the basic process.

Crushed grains for Stout.

  1. Cereal Grains are malted. Sounds pretty simple, but let's examine it. Barley is the main grain used for beer making, although rice, corn, wheat and oats are also used. These are all cereal grains that coincidentally have been a part of our civilization since we began farming. The kernels of these grains are made up mainly of carbohydrates, proteins and cellulose. What happens in the malting process is that the grains are soaked in water, stimulating them to begin germination. When a seed germinates, enzymes within begin to convert the carbohydrates and proteins to smaller carbohydrates and amino acids that the new growing plant will need to begin life. The maltster controls this process by waiting until much of the grain is converted to these smaller carbohydrates (sugars), and then stops the process by roasting the grains. How much roasting is done has a profound effect later on the finished beer in terms of color, flavor and viscosity of the beer. This is known as Malt. Darker beers use darker roasts, lighter beers use lighter roasts. Rice and corn are added to lighten the body of the beer, oats are used to give more body.

  2. The Malt is mashed. So, we know that much of the grain's carbohydrates have been converted to sugar. To continue the process, the grain is soaked in hot water, dissolving the sugars that are present, and reactivating the enzymes to continue the process, extracting as much sugar as possible. This is usually done at around 155 degrees, and usually takes about an hour. The liquid is drained off and is now known as Wort. The Brewer then usually either soaks the grain a second time or simply rinses it in hot water in a process known as sparging. Basically, we want all of the sugars from the grain. The grain that is leftover is still nutritious, and can be used in recipes but for brewing purposes is done. (Interestingly, in medieval history, this grain was steeped again to extract whatever dregs and sugars were left and brewed separately to make a weakly alcoholic but still nutritious drink called Small Beer).

  3. The Wort is boiled and seasoned. So now we have this sugary delicious liquid, that we want to make into beer. The first step is to boil it. Boiling does several things, it kills off any wild yeasts or bacteria that may be present and-- just as importantly-- it concentrates the sugars. Sugary wort without seasoning can make for a pretty one-dimensional brew, so this is when we introduce Hops. Now hops as a flavoring for beer is relatively recent, just 1200 years old. Benedictine monks were the first known users of this particular herb, but beer has been flavored with many things over the millennia, usually with something bitter to counteract the sweetness. Hops are closely related to cannabis (not important but I just like to point that out), and the specific bittering compounds that they contain are oil based. This means that to extract the bittering acids into water-based wort, we need to boil them together, usually for about an hour. The earlier in the boil that the hops are added, the more bitterness is extracted, but the longer they are boiled, the less aroma and flavor the hops will contribute. Many recipes include at least two additions of hops: one at the beginning for bitterness, another at the end for flavor and aroma. Sometimes, even more hops are added later for their preservative properties.

4. The solution is cooled, and yeast is added. So, no matter how the recipe has gone so far, what we end up with is a flavorful, aromatic, cooked wort. The boiling has rendered the liquid sterile, but it is great food for yeasts and bacteria. As the liquid cools, the chance of airborne spores and pathogens setting up house is pretty high, so we try to cool it very quickly. When it reaches about 70 degrees, yeast is added. What yeast does is to eat all those yummy sugars making three things: carbon dioxide, alcohol and more yeast. As the carbon dioxide is released it bubbles to the surface, so there needs to be some ventilation if things aren't going to explode. The alcohol is really what we are looking for-- and as the sugar levels are eaten and decline, the alcohol level rises. Eventually, the yeast either runs out of food or succumbs to poisoning by its own waste-alcohol. Either way, the process is done, (Actually there is much more than that, the surviving yeasts clean up after themselves, and excrete flavor compounds that can be the difference in a good beer and a great one, but that is a whole article unto itself )

The fermenter is where the wort becomes beer.

5. The beer is put into bottles, as the yeast activity has mostly subsided. The final part before being ready to drink is to carbonate the beer. Now keep in mind what I said about the yeast: in addition to alcohol it produces carbon dioxide as a waste product. When we are fermenting the beer, we need to vent it to keep the carbon dioxide from building up. Now we do the opposite: with each bottle, a small amount of sugar is added and they are sealed tightly. With the addition of the sugar, the surviving yeast cells wake up again and begin to eat. Once again, alcohol and carbon dioxide are produced, but now the gas has nowhere to go. As the pressure builds up inside the bottle, the CO2 is forced into the liquid. Over a period of about two weeks, the sugar is consumed and the carbon is held in the liquid by the pressure of the gas wanting to expand. As you release the pressure by opening the bottle, the carbon dioxide is released from the liquid. It takes a little while to go totally flat, and that is when we drink our delicious beer. In modern brewing, part of this process is skipped, brewers don't want the yeast to remain active, they want a consistently tasting product so they simply inject carbon dioxide from a tank into the beer, which can take hours instead of weeks to carbonate.

Boiling the wort

So that's basically what we do. Obviously there's a lot more to it than that but we can talk details anytime you like. Some of you know how much I love to talk, so here are a few facts

  • Pasteurization was invented by Louis Pasteur. He was searching for solutions to the problem of beer going sour or developing off-flavors. His discovery that yeast was in fact an living organism led to a greater understanding of the invisible worlds of yeasts and bacteria, vastly improving science's ability to keep food safe and fight infections.

  • Until relatively recently, beer was safer (to drink) than water. Since no one really knew about microorganisms in our environment, death and disease from untreated water were a real problem and mystery. Since beer is usually boiled, it tended to kill harmful pathogens.

  • Before the widespread use of hops, beer was flavored with various ingredients called Gruit. The word could refer to the herb mixture itself or the monopoly of its sale. During the 11th century, the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV awarded monopoly privileges of the production and sale of gruit to different local authorities, and as such was a de facto tax on beer. It is believed that Henry IV awarded the German clergymen the exclusive right to produce and tax gruit in order to gain the clergy's support throughout the Holy Roman Empire. The control of gruit restricted entry to local beer markets - brewers in a diocese were not allowed to sell beer brewed without the local gruit and imports were similarly restricted. The gruit-licensing system also exerted control over brewers within a city: the holder of a Grutgerechtigkeit could calculate how much beer each brewer could make based on how much gruit was sold to them. Specific gruit recipes were often guarded secrets. (Wikipedia)

  • Hops probably originated in China, but go way back in European history. An old remedy for insomnia was to stuff ones pillow with hops, and hops tea was brewed to calm nerves. They have been proven in modern times to improve sleep.

  • American hops are more fragrant and "fruity" than their European counterparts, and American versions of classic beer styles reflect this with overtones of grapefruit, lemon, and pine.

We are currently planning an American Stout as our next brew, if it stops snowing...and we plan to brew at least once or twice a month in the future. As always, thank you for your support, and we look forward to having a beer with you!

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