I am forever being asked how beer is made. My usual reply is “magic”.
That may sound like I’m being flippant, but the more I drill down into the process, the more I realise that it really is. The more I learn, the more questions I have.
In November we had the pleasure of brewing in collaboration with Brains Craft Brewery. They’re more famous for their lovely SA Bitter, but have recently started producing new beers every month from their new on-site craft brewery. We went down and brewed a black IPA – a cross between a hoppy pale ale and a porter. Despite learning an enormous amount about the process, I came away with more questions than answers.
But rather than being frustrating, I find that really exciting. How can just four ingredients change so fundamentally over the space of a month? And how can the same ingredients in two different brewers’ hands be so completely different? The differences come from the detail.
Beer is made from four things. It’s mostly water. Some breweries are lucky enough to be built on or near natural springs, and often they are fantastic breweries because their main ingredient is perfect and pure: Buxton in Derbyshire, one Britain’s best breweries at the moment; Orval, the world famous Belgian Trappist brewery; and, of course, Timothy Taylor in the Pennines, brewer of the brilliant Landlord bitter. There are hundreds of them, pulling water straight from the earth and into their “mash tuns”.
Which is where the brewing starts. The first ingredient in the brewing process barley, which is soaked, germinated then roasted to produce malt. How long you roast your barley for depends on what colour and flavours you want in your beer. Roast it for a short time and you get light pale malts, roast it for a little longer and you get biscuity crystal malt, and even longer and you get coffee-like bitter chocolate malts. Getting the balance right is key for a beer, because it defines what kind of beer you make, and affects taste, mouthfeel and the amount of alcohol.
This is cooked up and stirred with the water in the mash tun, breaking down the starch to create a beautiful thing called wort – a sweet, sticky malty drink said to cure almost all small ills. Drunk hot it’s like delicious sugary tea, and some lucky brewers drink it with a shot of whisky in.
The wort is filtered off into the kettle, and any of it that isn’t drunk is brought to the boil. At this point the first load of hops are added. Hops are the most talked about part of the beer for one very good reason. It’s the first thing you smell. As you put that glass to your mouth, you are surrounded by the lovely aromas of this beautiful plant. Now, the first load of hops to go in are there to make the beer bitter and give it some extra floral flavours, so they are called “bittering hops”. Some are better at this than others, so the really scented ones are called “aromatics”, and they go in later.
Next the beer is stirred to create a whirlpool, which filters out all hop flowers and sediment to leave just the hoppy wort that is going to be made into beer. This is then rapidly cooled to a temperature where yeast, the final ingredient, can survive. Typically that’s between 23°C and 36°C. People don’t really think about yeast, but like in any recipe with only four ingredients, it’s pretty darned important. Depending on the style of beer, it might even be the most important. The difference between a lager and an ale – that’s the yeast. That stuff at the bottle of your lovely bottled ale – that’s the yeast. That classic “Belgiany” beer flavour people talk about with Duvel and so on – that’s the yeast. It’s also what makes the alcohol, as it eats up all the sugars and releases ethanol.
Once the yeast is exhausted the beer (it’s beer now!) is pushed into a conditioning tank, where it sits for as long as it needs to taste beautiful. The amount of time can vary from about two weeks for super-hoppy beers (always drink hops fresh) to about a month for a lager, which takes longer to develop flavour. Sadly, many big breweries don’t let their beers age for long enough because of their tiny margins and big orders, and it’s a significant reason why so called craft breweries produce better beers. Some breweries, like the incredible Mikkeller, age their beers in oak casks for months and months, just like wine. It doesn’t work for all styles, but their porter aged in old Buffalo Trace barrels is just about the most beautiful beer you’ll ever find.
And that’s just the start. That’s just the recipe. It doesn’t get into the details – the magic – of brewing that makes some brewers just brewers and other brewers damned near magicians. Everything from start to finish – the exact temperatures, the quantities of malt and hops, the freshness of ingredients, the length of time, the cleanliness of equipment – they all change the beer’s character.
Now, when I look down into a beer, or smell one, or taste one, it’s not just a liquid. It’s a product of a month’s hard work, but also thousands and thousands of years of experimenting, from the monasteries of Belgium to the ale houses on the sides of the road in the Dark Ages of England. Beer is the epitome of something that is more than the sum of its parts.Lead image by Quinn Dombrowski