How is Beer Made?

As seasons change, so do the tap handles in restaurants across the country. Swap out sipping sours and session-able beers and replacing them with more flavorful festive favorites. But how are these beers actually made? What makes the difference between light beer and dark beer? How exactly does one infuse a beer with the flavors of Grandma’s pumpkin pie?

Although they serve and drink the stuff many, many people are unfamiliar with the seemingly mystical process of producing beer. So here we’re going to do a crash course on how beer is made, and include a bit on how you infuse it with the flavors of Grandmas pumpkin pie.

The Four Ingredients

Beer has four ingredients: grains, hops, water, and yeast. Let’s take a trip and see what they contribute to your beer.

Grains

Without grains there wouldn’t be beer, it’s just that simple. Barley is the grain used to brew beer, however wheat and oatmeal are sometimes used in smaller quantities. These other grains offer different properties and add different flavors, textures and appearances to the beers in which they’re included.

Grain determines the color of your beer. They create the base flavor profile of the final beer. Grains add everything from bready, biscuity, and doughy flavors in lighter beers to your chocolate, caramel and espresso flavors in your darker porters and stouts.

Hops

Hops are the other key flavor element of beer alongside grains. We need them to contrast the malty sweetness that grains bring to the glass. Hops are small cone shaped flower, growing on large, climbing, vine-like plants. Unlike with grains, where barley is predominant, there are a huge variety of hops that are used in beer.

These little cones are packed full of acids and bittering agents. Hops are used for exactly that purpose; bittering. They have a wide range of flavors from piney and citrusy to juicy and fruity. They’re also used for the stability and preservation of the beer in question, acting as excellent natural preservatives.

Water

Beer is 90% water. Although often overlooked by the drinker, it is a very important factor. Water can contain many minerals and mainly comes with the descriptors “hard” or “soft.” These descriptors are determined by the mineral content of the water, and which minerals they are. The water used to make some beers has made them famous. Bass beer from England, lends a lot of its fame to the hard water used to make it.

Pilsen, the origin of the Pilsner style of beer, has extremely soft water. This couples excellently with the light malt and crisp hop characteristic of this style of beer. Nowadays brewers are not just stuck with the water in their local source and can add things to the water to change its qualities.

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Yeast

This little microbe is ever present, it’s all over your screen right now! However, until the 1800’s we didn’t know of its importance in the brewing process. Since then, several strains of what we now call brewers yeast (yeast that is excellent for beer brewing) have been discovered, categorized and are available for brewers to purchase for use in their brews. Brewers are only just beginning to realize what different yeasts can offer for their beers so these will become much more important in the future.

There is another part of beer brewing that needs to be mentioned; adjuncts. Adjuncts are uncommon grains, not barley or wheat, which are often used. Some are added to the beer, like wheat or oatmeal, to add something to the drink itself, others, like corn and rice, are added to “remove” something or to make it blander or to reduce costs. Craft beer producers only use them for the first reason.

The Method

Now we’ve covered the ingredients of beer here’s a crash course on beer production.

Firstly, the grain is malted, meaning it is soaked in warm water to provoke germination. This process is halted and grains are roasted to whichever toast level the maltster desires, producing many different styles of malt. It is extremely rare that breweries will do this themselves.

Mash

The mash bill is then made by the brewers. This involves putting together a few different styles of malted grain. This mix called “a mash,” is then soaked in hot water in the mash tun for a few hours in order to extract the sugars from the grains.

Wort

The liquid is then drained from the grains, and often some water is sprayed over the mash in order to extract all the sugars possible from the grains. Here it is turned to ensure as much liquid as possible is drained from the mash. The resulting product is called the wort.

The wort is then transferred to the brew kettle, where the temperature is carefully controlled, and this is where the brewing happens; called the boil. This can take anything from one to many hours and it is during this time that the hops are added. Some are added at the beginning of the boil, these are the bittering hops designed to add bitterness to the brew. Other hops are added toward the end for flavors and aromas. Once the hops have added all that the brewer desires, they’re removed from the brew.

Beer Fermentation

The wort is then cooled, very quickly, often by being passed through an apparatus where cold water passes around it. From here it is put into the fermentation tank, yeast is added and the beer is left to ferment for about 7 to 10 days.

After this the beer is cellared for anything from a few days to several months; this stage is also called the conditioning stage. This usually happens in stainless steel tanks, although some are cellared in wooden barrels.

Finally the beer goes through the filtration process. However, sometimes it won’t and sometimes it will only go through a partial filtration process. Now we have beer that is ready to  bottle, canned, kegged and drunk!

Flavor Infusions

Finally we get to Grandma’s pumpkin pie and your beer. Flavors have been added to lagers and stouts for centuries, think of Belgian fruit beers. The evolution of the craft beer movement in the USA has introduced many extra and obscure flavors including pizza, donuts, and even rocky mountain oysters! Probably the most popular flavored beer is pumpkin pie, so how do you add pumpkin pie flavor to beers?

It is not as simple as throwing a few pies in during the boil. The pumpkin needs to be roasted beforehand to soften, allowing for maximum flavor extraction. The pumpkin is put in during the boil. The longer it sits, the more flavor that is extracted. Spices are to pumpkin pie as hops are to beer. In a pumpkin beer you want the spices to dominate. Hop usage is minimal and these beers are rarely hopped for more than a little bitterness and their preservative nature. The spices which your grandma adds to her pumpkin pie are often added toward the end of the boil much like the hops that are added for flavor and aroma. Adding them sooner would extract too many bitter flavors from the spices. If the beer is not quite right, extra spices can be added during the conditioning phase to “top up” the flavor profile.

There we have it, that is how beer is made and how you can make one based around your Grandma’s pumpkin pie! That’s if she’ll hand you her recipe of course.

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Benjamin Michael Beddow

Benjamin Michael Beddow

Food and Beverage Professional

As a food and beverage professional for over ten years, Ben has spent most of his time behind the bar, giving him a broad and in-depth knowledge of all things drinkable and drink related. Now, as a traveling freelance writer exploring the gastronomy, drinks, and food service industry of the world, Ben has taken his knowledge and experiences to the world wide web to share with others. The love for the trade never dies and Ben can still be found running around restaurants and slinging drinks in ski resorts in the USA during the winter season.

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