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Brewing Beer

A Primer - Brewing Beer

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Brewer taking mash sample at brewery in Traunstein, Bavaria, Germany
altrendo images/Altrendo/Getty Images
To the uninitiated making beer can almost seem like a black art. But the process of turning grains, water, yeast and hops into beer is really a very simple one. In fact, it could be said that very little of the work is done by the brewer. The real heroes of beer making are the yeast cells.

Malt

But let’s begin at the beginning. Every beer begins with barley grain. Each grain is a seed and contains all the chemical properties to sprout into a full barley plant under the right conditions. It is the maltster’s job to manipulate this potential into a usable product for the brewer.

The process of malting barley involves tricking each grain into believing that it is time to sprout. This is easily done with a little warm water. The sprouting process activates enzymes in the grain that will later be used by the brewer in the mash. As soon as the barley begins to sprout the maltster quickly but gently dries it completely in a kiln putting the enzymes in suspension. The sprouts are removed and the remaining grains are sent on to the brewer.

Mash

When the malted barley reaches the brewer it is full of naturally occurring starches and the enzymes activated during the malting process. The brewer then takes the grains and adds them to a bath of warm water, typically between 148 and 158 degrees Fahrenheit. This is called a mash. It is at these temperatures that the enzymes are reactivated. A chemical reaction begins whereby the enzymes attack and break down the starches in the barley to simpler sugars. These sugars are the goal of the mash.

This is all done in a special brewer’s container called a lauter tun. The lauter tun is designed to contain the mash without leaking while being able to gently filter away the water through its bottom when the mashing process is complete. Lauter tuns are often insulated or use some other method to maintain a constant temperature mash.

Sparge

Once the brewer decides that most of the starches have been converted, which usually takes an hour or so, the temperature of the mash is raised to around 165 to 170 degrees Fahrenheit to halt the enzymatic process. Then the water is drained away and collected leaving behind a bed of grain. More warm water is sprinkled or sparged on to the grain bed at about 165 to 168 degrees Fahrenheit. This rinses more sugars from the grains. The water is then drained and collected with the original water from the mash. This water with sugars, unmodified starches and proteins dissolved or suspended in it is called wort.

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