Alcohol is basically yeast-droppings. Yup… yeast poop. Yeast eats sugar, craps alcohol, and farts carbon dioxide. If I’m lyin’ I’m dyin’. Now that we have the unpleasant truth out of the way…. The actual process of making beer is a bit more romantic, so let’s move on.
There are four main ingredients in beer, grain (usually malted barley), water, yeast and hops. There are LOTS of variations in each of these ingredients, and certainly ‘legal’ to add others… thus the wide variety in beer. We all know what water is, so here are the other three.
The sugar that the yeast eats, in the case of beer, is usually made from malted barley. There are other sugar producing sources, but malted barley is the main stay. Any self-respecting brewery that substitutes anything else ought to make it clear that they have done so. A wheat beer is a classic example. I like wheat beer… declare it so, and I will buy it … I know… I’ve seen me do it. On the dark side… some beers use cheap grains like rice (Budweiser, read the fine print) or corn to bring the sugar content up to make it cheaper to manufacture and thus to increase profits.
Malted barley is barley that has been tricked into thinking it is about to sprout. You get it nice and moist, it begins to germinate, and then you use dry heat to kill the process. At this point the barley then holds the most sugar that it can.
Yeast is a living organism. It is a single celled fungus. The same little critter that is used to make bread can make beer. The yeast used to make beer is a slightly different strain, but yeast is what it is. We love yeast, and they love us… a great symbiotic relationship.
Hops come from a climbing herb plant called Humulus. The hop is the cone shaped bud of the female plant (yes the plants do have gender). Hops are very similar to marijuana. Find a pot head, blindfold him or her, wave a good bag of hops under their nose and watch their mouth water. The female plants are separated from their male counterparts during the growing process to increase flowering and to prevent the flowers from maturing into seed pods. These florets are very pungent. Hops add bitterness, flavor and smell… think citrus, grapefruit, pine…
The malted barley is introduced into warm water… at just the right temperature (think Goldilocks). If the water is too cool, the sugar in the water will be too simple… the yeast will eat the crap out of it, and crap way too much alcohol… and you might think that would be a good thing… if you like the taste of Turpentine. Get the water too warm and the sugar in the water will be too complex… try as it may, the yeast won’t be able to figure out a way to eat it… and if you like sweet low alcohol beverages… then don’t change a thing.
The patient wait is over… the grain has soaked all it needs to. It now is devoid of its sugar, and the water is rich with the same. We let the water out, and run some more through to rinse all the sugar we can.
The resulting solution is called the sweet wort. If you were yeast, the thought of wort would make your mouth water, if you had a mouth, but then again if you were yeast you would not have a mouth. In any event, the syrupy wort is yeast food cuisine. Unfortunately lots of other kooties also consider this a treat, as well as some ingredients that need cooking, thus the need for giving the wort a good boil.
At various stages of that boil the hops are added. The hops are multifunctional, adding flavor, bitterness, aroma and also serve as preservatives. The stages of the boil in which the hops are added (as well as the variety of hops used) determine the effect the hops have on the finished product.
Hops added at the beginning of the boil will cook for an hour or more… and the result in the final product is a bittering of its flavor properties. This will offset the otherwise sickening flavors of the overly sweet complex sugars, and the solvent-like flavors of the alcohol.
Hops added more toward the end of the boil don’t cook as much. The hop properties related to smell and flavor are not cooked out. If you REALLY want to taste the hops, add un-cooked hops into the cool fermenting beer. This is called ‘dry-hopping’. Note: there is a term also called ‘wet hopping’ but does not prove to be the opposite of dry. Wet hopping is the term used for using freshly picked hops instead of the way-more-common process of using dried/compressed/preserved hops. 99.99% of the beer you drink is not wet-hopped… hops keep better (and longer ) after they are compressed.
After the wort is boiled, it is cooled to a temperature ideal for yeast comfort. The yeast is ‘pitched’ in, and in a very short time the yeast will eat, fart and reproduce more yeast… i.e. party-hearty. The mixture will bubble and froth so that you’d think it was still boiling, but it isn’t. The little yeast critters are eating sugar, partying, craping alcohol, farting carbon dioxide and just having a basic orgy. The expanding gasses need to be released so a hose extends from the top of the vessel over to a container of water. Much like farting in the tub, the expanding gasses bubble up in the water. The expanding carbon dioxide leaves the vessel, travels through the hose and bubbles the water in the separate container. This process allows the gasses to only travel out of the vessel and not the reverse, thus sealing the sanitary yeast orgy. This lasts several days. Without the pressure release, the active yeast would continue to release gasses until the vessel exploded.
The yeast eventually get drunk and pass out. They form into clumps (floculation) and sink to the bottom.
You then drain the vessel of the beer, down to the part where the passed-out yeast collects at the bottom. The fermented beer is ‘racked’ over to a finishing vessel. There is still a little active yeast floating around eating up the last of the fermentable sugar. In a short time it will finish up and sink. After a few days it is ready to bottle or keg, or can be finished for an extended period.
What you need now is carbonation. There are many ways to carbonate beer. The most common way is to ‘force carbonate’ it. You keep the beer under intense carbon dioxide pressure for several days or weeks until the liquid absorbs the carbon dioxide. The ‘sexiest’ way to do it is to bottle or keg condition. This is where you reintroduce a small amount of sugar (or sweet wort you’ve saved) into the unfiltered final beer. The drunk yeasties wake up and begin eating and farting again. This time, one doesn’t bleed off the pressure, but rather seals the environ. The pressure created by the secondary fermentation also forces carbon dioxide into the beer. When you see the term ‘bottle conditioned’ it means that the beer was still actively fermenting when bottled. Expect a little grunge at the bottom. Pour carefully to keep it out of the glass, or just tolerate it. It has vitamin B, so it is actually good for you. Note that these bottles are usually thicker, to inhibit explosion. Since the amount of sugar/wort is limited, the yeast go to sleep before being able to overdo the pressure
This is the last stage (not counting the trip to the porcelain), and the best by far. Different processes, grains, hops and particularly yeasts have now naturally produced a wonderful varieties of flavorfor you to get out and explore.