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Beer Building 101

Beer may have a thousand varieties, but all spring from the same four ingredients: malt, hops, yeast and water.

But not all ingredients are created equal. For example, the best beers generally use malted barley, while cheaper beers will resort to rice and corn.

Hops, too, vary widely, ranging from the commonplace to the highly prized. Even the humble yeast, as brewers know, can make all the difference between a big-bubbled barley-pop, and a lager that's as crisp as champagne.

Finally, water, as some breweries are fond of reminding us, can make the difference between good beer, and bad brew. Here then, a quick guide to the ingredients, and the brewing process.

What Goes In

  • Malt - The body of the beer. Derived from barley, rice or corn, these grains are allowed to germinate. This sprouting process converts the starch of the seeds into sugar, making for a tastier brew. After several days of germination, the seeds are dried in a special oven, after which they're ready for use.
  • Hops - That bitter taste in your brew comes from an aromatic oil contained in the flower of the hop vine. This taste, prized by many connoisseurs, improves the aroma of beer, as well as acting as a natural preservative.
  • Yeast - The role of yeast in beermaking is to use the natural process of this fungus to convert some of the sugars introduced by the malt into alcohol and carbon dioxide during the fermentation process.
  • Water - Some beers claim their taste is helped along by the water they use. Some are content to simply used distilled water, while others swear by a specific spring.

    How It's Made
    Here is a simple step-by-step guide to how beers get processed. As with any recipe, there are a million variations and closely-guarded secrets. But that doesn't change the fact that anyone with a stove, a large pot, and less than fifty dollars worth of supplies can produce a nice-tasting beer. For a more detailed guide to making your own beer at home, see the links below.

  • Malting – To create malt, raw grains are germinated to convert the grains starches into fermentable sugars. The grains are then roasted to halt the process. Many home breweres bypass this step, and use a variety of malt extracts instead.
  • Making the Wort – Roasted malt is heated in water, to convert leftover starches into sugars. In breweries, this takes place in a large vat called a mash-tun. This process produces a solution brewers call wort. Home brewers will often omit this process, and use malt extract to save time, or for lack of equipment. Towards the end of this process, hops are typically added.
  • Chilling the Wort – The wort needs to be cooled quickly to avoid producing compounds which can give beer an off-taste, or produce a cloudy coloration. In breweries, the wort is often cooled rapidly through a special device called chiller. Home-brewers can use a tub filled with ice-water.
  • Decanting – The cooled wart is then poured into a sanitized vessel for fermentation containing additional water. Yeast is added at this point as well, and the next phase begins.
  • Primary Fermentation – During this first phase, the yeast converts the sugars into carbon dioxide and alcohol. Sometimes a second fermentation stage is added to make a smoother brew.
  • Conditioning – At this stage, the beer is usually 'primed' with additional sugar and transferred to kegs. During this time, the yeast goes to work eating up the heavier sugars and other impurities. Conditioning generally lasts 1-3 weeks.
  • Bottling – Breweries will decant the conditioned beer into kegs or sterile bottles, which are then capped, labeled, packed, and shipped. Homebrewers can simply pop the bottles in the fridge, or in a cool, dry place.

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    Written by Sean Wolfe

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