For the Love of Craft Beer
During Columbus’s Craft Beer Week, we all celebrate one of the greatest inventions and master crafts of modern man; Craft-Brewed Beer. There’s something majestic and respectable about a well-brewed beer and many would be surprised at how beautifully simple and yet highly complex the brewing process can be.
For those who may not be an expert already, let’s walk through the brewing process so you can come into the bar and enjoy these malted miracles with a fresh perspective. All brewers are working the same basic ingredients; malted barley (sometimes wheat or other grains), hop flowers, yeast, and water. Yet master brewers the world over have managed to serve up over 130 distinct flavors that we collectively call Craft Beer.
THE BREWING PROCESS
The craft beer brewing process is both art and science and varies in style and flair from place to place, however the basic steps are pretty consistent in the trade.
After growing green in the fields and ripening to the rich golden color we all associate with gorgeous beer, the barley grain is allowed to dampen and sprout before it’s dried and sometimes roasted to impart texture, flavor, and color in the ensuing beer. The craft lies in mixing the barley grain with wheat, rye, or rice in various combinations to make the base malt. Malting the grain mix produces enzymes that will convert the barley’s natural starches into sugar and, later, alcohol.
In big breweries, a standard batch of milled grain weighs about 3,500-4,000 pounds.
All that grain is then put through the mash tun, along with about 1,100 gallons of water heated to 148-157 degrees, where it cooks for about an hour. This process is also subject to creative calculations on the part of the brewery, which will adjust the temperatures and cook times for the mash. The heated mash then rests, producing more enzymes as it cools and converting the starches into fermentable sugars. The sweet-tasting concoction that results is called wort and has innumerable health benefits. Old school brewers will drink a glass of wort to start the day.
The wort will next go through a two-hour transfer to the Kettle tank. This is the first point at which we add the hops, which add signature bitterness and body to the beer for which many great brews have become known. IPAs, for instance, have nearly four times the hops as a standard lager. The variety of hops is the major reason there are so many flavors of beer in the world. As a resinous plant in the same family as Cannabis, containing lupulin pollen, hops can be cultivated in a wide variety of strains.
The mix then comes to a rolling boil over the course of about an hour and then the remaining hops matter is siphoned out of the brew with a whirlpool technique.
Now for the fun part. The strained wort is placed in a stainless steel tank where the yeast is brought into the process. Brewers’ yeast is a kind of bacteria that will chow down on the sugary brew and generate a byproduct we call alcohol, along with some CO2 and extra heat. The beer cools down in the tank for a few days before the temperature is dialed down to 32F for anywhere from a week to a couple months, depending on the brewer’s recipe.
Craft Beer gets a great deal of its flavor and character from barrel aging in wooden casks where it absorbs a variety of tastes from oak and char to sour flavors. This process can be customized by the type of wood used to construct the barrels to the additional yeasts and spices placed in the brew during the aging process.
After aging in a wooden barrel for long enough, the resulting beer will need to be strained through a specialized, highly porous powder called diatomaceous earth that pulls out all the matter and impurities and prepare it for consumption. Often the matter filtered out of the aged brew is used as cattle feed by local farmers.
After filtering, the beer rests in the brite beer tank for a day or two where it receives the carbonation and then it flows into the bottles, kegs, and cans we’re all familiar with cracking open.
A Craft Brew for Everyone
While the process is fairly structured and scientific, the customization options afforded by unique mixes of base mash, hops strains, yeast cultures, and aging techniques, there are unlimited different flavors and varieties of the world’s greatest man-made beverage.
Here’s to quality craftsmanship and damn good brew!