Brewing Beer: History and Basics

What is beer?

Today, Beer is a drink that people enjoy in social situations. It’s a privilege, but not a necessity of life. In the United States, big brands like Budweiser and Coors dominate the market, but are now often poo-pooed in favor of the Craft Beer movement. Craft beer involves smaller breweries that create beers that are more flavorful than Bud or Coors, and often much higher in alcoholic content.

In the past, beer was more utilitarian than it is today. It’s unlikely that modern people would really recognize a beer from the Renaissance as a beer. Go back further to medieval times and beer as we know it barely existed, but fermented drinks like beer did.

The basic ingredients of beer are water, malted barley (a source of fermentable sugar), hops, and yeast. If any of these ingredients are missing, the beverage is no longer beer (though it may still be very tasty!). Today, hops are the primary ingredient used for ‘bittering’ beer, that is to cut down the sweetness from the malt. An India Pale Ale (IPA) takes this to an extreme. In the case of the original IPA, the hoppiness wasn’t there to masculininze the beer (as it seems to be today when many beer drinkers act like heavy hops is better). Hops are also a preservative, and beer spoils easily. When beer was being transported from Britain to India, extra hops were added to help the beer make the trip. Hence, IPA.

There are other ingredients that can be added to a mixture of water, malted barley, and yeast that will also bitter and preserve the drink. However, since this drink lacks hops, it cannot be called beer. Instead, this is called gruit ale, and is what medieval people consumed.

Both beer and gruit ale can be referred to as ales, fermented mixtures of grain (usually barley), yeast, and water. However, the term ale also has a different meaning in today’s beer industry, indicating a specific kind of fermentation (which I’ll explain later).

Beginnings of Brewing

The original fermented drinks were likely accidental. Importantly, when fermentation was first being mastered, the ultimate cause for fermentation, yeast, was completely unknown. We know now that yeast is a single-celled organism that can travel in a dormant state in the air, coming to life as soon as it finds an adequate environment. In the case of yeast, a nice sugary-watery substrate is perfect. The yeast goes to town, using the sugar for energy, and leaving alcohol behind as its waste product (don’t think about this for too long). Carbon dioxide is also released, which is why beer is often foamy.

Wild yeasts exist everywhere on earth, and are typically unique to certain areas, which is why, in part, beers from certain regions have unique flavors. Today, you can buy yeasts from all over the world for your own brewing pleasure, or you can take your chances with local wild yeasts by providing them access to your unfermented beer, which is more properly called wort (pronounced ‘wirt’). It’s not actually beer until fermentation is complete.

Yeast needs a watery-sugary substrate for its growth, as noted above. There is speculation on how this came about, but one can imagine scenarios where this could happen accidentally. First, grain (barley) needs to be malted. Malting is the process of first germinating the grain, or making grain start to grow. It’s soaked then left for a while until roots become visible. The starches in the seeds are converted to sugars that the growing plant can use. But before the seed has a chance to become a full-blown plant, the grains are dried and roasted. Depending on the different lengths of time and temperatures of roasting, you get different styles of malt. This whole process is called malting, and is serious business today.

Accidental or intentional malting of grains can be imagined as having happened in the past. To make wort, one only need to then slightly crush the grains and steep them in warm water for the sugars to be released. A solid rainstorm over some grains crushed for a different purpose could do this. Water could be collected into vessels. Have a little wild yeast float in, and BAM! Fermentation.

The actual origins of brewing are unclear, but with the scenario above, it seems inevitable that humans would have learned about it. And once we learned about it, we likely discovered the benefits as well.

To ‘modern’ humans, beer is by and large something we drink recreationally. If we’re dehydrated, we have a reliable water supply and can drink as much water as we want. In the past, however, water wasn’t always necessarily safe to drink. But water that had been fermented was safe. The alcohol killed the nasties that would make people sick. Gruits and beers of the past did not have the sometimes staggering alcoholic content that they have today, so a worker could drink beer all day, benefit from the hydration and never get drunk. Gruits and beers were the safe water supply in the past.

Medieval beers were also a good source of nutrition, often clouded with proteins and other nutrients, plus loaded with sugar (definitely not ‘light beers’) that would not be acceptable in today’s market.

Important Moments in Brewing History

Brewing of ale has been a thing for man probably as long as agriculture has been. It’s likely that man learned how to brew before he learned how to make bread. For so long as there have been grains, there have been ales. There is evidence that beer has been bought and sold for more than 5000 years. Babylonians were recording recipes on clay tablets around 4300 BC. A 3900-year-old Sumerian poem contains the oldest surviving beer recipe (I need to find this recipe).

Beer was a vital part of the Babylonian, Assyrian, Egyptian, Hebrew, Chinese, and Inca cultures, most of which appear to have developed their understanding of fermentation independently and often using different sources of sugars, besides the commonly used barley. Millet, sorghum, wheat, rye, corn, and many other plants are used for sugars.

It was around AD 1000 that hops began to be used in the brewing process, but did not become very popular in western cultures into around AD 1400. Before that, heather tips and other plants were commonly used for bittering.

Modern Brewing – How it’s done

It’s all far less accidental now, the big breweries having perfected their yeast strains, the temperature and time of fermentation, bottling, etc. But for those of us who like to brew at home, there’s still a lot of variation. But the great thing about brewing is that, unless you’re trying to always make the exact same beer every time, the end result is almost always very enjoyable and perfectly drinkable.

For those who might consider brewing at home, the initial investment is modest, but not impossible. There are brewing kits available for around $100 (USD), with which you can make some decent five gallon batches. You’ll need to spend another $70 or so for a decent kettle (or go crazy like we did and spend $300 on one with all the bells and whistles). As your skills and tastes improve, so can your equipment.

The steps for brewing in general are to first get your malt into boiling water. This is most simply done by using dry (powdered) or liquid (canned) malt extract. You can also brew by extracting the malt from the crushed grains yourself, but this takes a little more skill and equipment. However, working directly with grains often produces a better drink.

Once the water is boiling and the malt added (and you now have a wort), hops are added at specified times during what is usually a 60 minute process. Hops added at the beginning are used for bittering. Hops added toward the end of the boil provide aroma and flavor. Other things might also be added during the boil, like nutmeg, ginger, or cinnamon, to provide other flavors.

It is essential that once the wort is finished boiling it is cooled as rapidly as possible. Putting the kettle in a bath of ice water is one way to handle this, or, for another $50, you can purchase a wort chiller that will cool your wort in a hurry.

The cooled wort is transferred into the fermenter. Yeast is added, and the fermenter is sealed to keep wild yeasts from getting in. An airlock is put onto the top of the fermenter that lets carbon dioxide out, but keeps room air (and wild yeast and bacteria) from getting in. In a couple of days, the airlock will be bubbling and hissing as the yeast does its work.

For your typical ale, the wort is kept at around 75 degrees Fahrenheit for a week or two. At that point, the now ale is transferred into a secondary fermenter to continue to ferment for a couple more weeks. The transferring process is called racking, and is done because debris builds up in the bottom of the primary fermenter. This debris is called trub, and consists of dead yeast cells and proteins that have settled out during fermentation. If the beer is left on the trub, it could result in some off flavors.

The fermentation temperature is the important distinction between what today we call an ale and what we call a lager. Modern ales ferment at warmer temperatures and use an ale yeast. Ale yeasts usually reside at the top of the wort, resulting in ale yeasts also being called top fermenting yeast.

Lagers ferment at cooler temperatures, sometimes close to freezing. Lager yeasts thrive in the cold, and reside at the bottom of the wort. They are called bottom fermenters. Because lagers ferment at cooler temperatures, they take longer to make. Rather than a month for fermentation to be complete, it may take 3 months or more. It takes a lot of patience and a huge investment in time to make a lager, which is why it is most impressive that many of the big brand beers are lagers.

Once fermentation is complete, you have a beer, but it’s flat. There are two ways to carbonate the beer. One is called conditioning. In this case, a little extra sugar is added, then the beer is bottled or kegged. It’s set aside for a couple of weeks in a cool space. The yeast that still survives eats the new sugar generating more carbon dioxide and carbonating the beer.

The other way to carbonate beer is through kegging. This requires forcing carbon dioxide into the beer by pressurizing the keg with gas from a cylinder. Obviously, this method is a relatively new advent. Most historical beers would have been conditioned with sugar prior to bottling or kegging.

Today, we have methods for controlling exactly the temperatures at which beer ferments. We have high standards for sanitation, so there’s little worry about contamination. We can guarantee that our ingredients (malt, yeast, hops) are identical from year to year and batch to batch.

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