Making your own homebrew is a wonderful and rewarding past time. But how is it that beer is made? In olden times, it was thought that when one prepared the wort (the mixture of Malt, Hops, Barley, and Water) that certain spirits (or saints / angels) were attracted to it. The quality of the prayers said over the beer were what determined its quality, taste and potency. The Vikings used to shout angrily at their ales in an effort to wake up the spirit within. Over time, it was discovered that a tiny life form, so small you could never see it without a microscope, is the cause of the process of fermentation. It turns out that this life form exists somewhere on the hazy border between plant and fungal life, and is virtually omnipresent in the natural world. Yeast, the hidden key to fermentation. In this article I will relate a working and scientific knowledge of the processes of malting, fermentation, and carbonation, yielding inebriation!
Yeast is the initiator of the process of fermentation, but not where the process of beer making begins. First, there is the malt. Barley grows, and is harvested and dried. Each grain of barley contains the genetic blueprint for a new life form, waiting to be awakened with the spring rains. By soaking the grains of barley in water, a process starts by which the starches of the grain are converted to sugars by enzymes. The seed then uses the sugars produced to grow rapidly, and the seed starts to sprout. Just as the seeds are sprouted, the barley is dried up once again, and sometimes roasted. This kills the budding new life of the seeds, but the enzymes still function, and are still transforming the starch they encounter into sugar. This is the beginning of the process known as malting.
After malting the grains, the process of the mash begins. When mashing, one takes the lightly roasted barley, which is the malt, and mixes it with other roasted grains and warm water to produce a flavorful, sweet liquid called the mash. This is the beginning of the beer making process.
Most folks in the homebrew community use malt extract instead of making a mash. Malt extract is a sticky, super sweet syrup that is made industrially by mashing and then boiling down the mash until it is this syrup. Either way you produce beer, you eventually have a hot mixture of Malt, Hops, Barley, and Water. After this cools, Yeast is added into an environment that is very helpful to the yeast's life cycle. Thus starts the process of fermentation.
Yeast devours the sugars and a few other nutrients supplied by both the hops and barley, and excretes two things: alcohol and CO2. Alcohol is primarily what we're after, but not at the expense of the taste of our homebrew. Yeast thrives in a warm, humid environment. If it is too warm, however, the yeast will create undesirable undertones in your beer. This is why Lagering is such a popular process of beer making. The definition of lagering means to keep the wort at a low temperature, in a refrigeration unit, while the beer is fermenting. In light beers, temperature is very important, because there are not heavy flavors to cover up undesirable accents. Lagering increases the amount of time it takes to have a finished homebrew, but often the benefit in taste far outweighs the extra time it takes to brew. Hops also enhance the environment for the yeast, adding essential nutrients.
The natural process of carbonation occurs throughout fermentation, but is most useful to the home brewer near the end of the fermentation process. At this stage, nearly all of the sugars in the wort have been devoured by the yeast. When there is still a small amount of sugars left in the wort, it is bottled and sealed. Now, the little remaining live yeast devours the last of the sugars, and excretes a little bit more of alcohol and CO2. The beer then slowly becomes saturated, and then supersaturated with CO2 in the confined environment of the beer bottle. This is the process of carbonation, which takes about two weeks to complete.
Finally the mixture of Malt, Hops, Barley, Yeast, Water has produced the penultimate goal - the homebrew beer which is nutritious, enjoyable, and inebriating!