The Science behind Brewing Beer

“New Belgium Beers on Tap” by Quan Ha via Flickr Creative Commons

By Megan Ray Nichols / 08.23.2017

There are people who drink beer and then there are people who love beer. Beer lovers talk about their beer as much as they drink it. They discuss their favorite brands, perfect pouring methods, reissues of old fashion recipes and labeling.

The surge in the craft brew industry has engaged the minds of many brewers to produce the perfect brew. That’s where practical science comes in. Beer and science seem to be an odd pair, but they make each other better. Next time you take a sip of beer, think about everything that went in to producing it.

Beer is mostly water. But add barley, malt, yeast and hops and you have a delicious beverage. It’s not as simple as that, but most beer is just that. The perfected brewing fermentation and bottling processes are what will eventually give you the beverage you love.

Perfecting The Grains

Grains used in beer undergo a series of chemical reactions to produce unique qualities and tastes.

Barley looks a bit like wheat. Barley is essential for beer production, but it must be malted, which is a conversion process. The barley is allowed to germinate or sprout.

This is accomplished by soaking the barley several days in water, then letting it sit in a 6o degree Fahrenheit environment for five days. Sprouting lasts until it is in a state where it is producing sugars which will feed the yeast in order to produce alcohol.

The green malt, as it is called at this stage, is dried out by raising the temperature. Depending on how intense a flavor is desired determines how long it is dried out. Color and flavor are affected by drying processes. The barley husks must be removed before the brewing process begins.

Hops used in beer are actually the flower of a vine which is part of the hemp family. Hops give beer its bitterness, which some desire more than others. Hops also add to the beer’s aroma and inhibit the formation of bacteria which can ruin the beer.

The grains are crushed together to make what is called a mash. The sugars are extracted from the grain as they are crushed. Enzymes break down the starches and convert them into sugars. The mash then goes through or “sparging,” a process where hot water is poured over the grains. This removes all the sugars from the grains.

Mixing It All Together

The liquid mash is boiled in the brew kettle. The soon-to-be-beer is boiled at a constant temperature for 90 minutes. At this stage, the mixture is called “wort.” Wort is a funny word for the boiled processed grains. It is basically unfermented beer.

Hops are added to the brew as it boils so their full flavor can be released into the wort. The wort is drained from the kettles, and the solids are removed. The wort must be cooled to a temperature the years can tolerate.

Yeast is a microorganism which is often used to make bread. It is responsible for creating the alcohol in beer. There are many different kinds of yeast. In beer production, they use ale yeast or lager yeast, depending on what they want to produce. Ale yeast is top fermenting, which means it rises to the top of the batch during fermentation. It thrives at a temperature of 70 degrees. Lager yeast does better at colder temperatures, around 50 degrees, and ferments at the bottom of the tank.

Yeast is added and the fermentation process beings. Sometimes more hops are added at this point. It just depends on what type of beer you are making.

Fermenting and Waiting

Fermentation is the process where yeast converts sugar into alcohol and carbon dioxide. That explains why beer is foamy. The wort goes into a fermentation vessel for two weeks if it is being made into an ale. Temperature is maintained at 68 degrees. For a lager style beer, the temperature is lowered to 48 degrees and fermented for six weeks.

When that time is up, it is ready to be bottled or kegged and sent to the distributor and consumer.

That’s the process to make beer. Sprouting grains, mashing them, boiling everything together. Doing this involves complicated process and equipment that must be kept clean at all times. Everything from kettles to silos needs regular maintenance and cleaning. Tubes and vats must be kept free of mold and bacteria. If you have had a “bad beer” before, you still remember the taste.

The process seems complicated, but in the commercial brewing industry, they must be precise with everything they do, so that each batch of beer tastes exactly the same as the last one and so on. If you’re interested in getting into the brewing business, try making a small batch at home first. You can find what you need at home brew stores or look online.

You can buy simple beer making kits which come with malt extracts or pre-made recipes for you to brew yourself. See what kind of results you get and if you enjoy the hobby. If not there are plenty of breweries looking for your business.

Enjoy your favorite beer with a better appreciation of everything that had to happen to bring it to your glass.