It all began with a beer and a question. It was late Friday afternoon and the AAB crew was winding down around the conference table. The brew was flowing, and it was soon time for Round Two. One of us raised the eternal question: which beer to sample next?
“What’s it matter? Isn’t it all beer anyway?” asked a newcomer.
It turned out to be an intriguing question to consider. We started thinking about beer in its most elementary essence, and the striking similarities that exist between all beers, even those at opposite ends of the production spectrum.
Though it may seem that the world’s many and widely ranging beers styles have little in common with one another, quite the opposite is actually the case. As different as the most rudimentary homebrewed ale might seem from an ultra-refined macro lager, they are, in fact, bound by the same basic formulations and processes that fairly define beer. From assembling the essential ingredients to finally pouring it out of the bottle, this shared kinship between styles is part of what makes beer such a fascinating and globally revered beverage.
One can argue the virtues of hands-on, idiosyncratic nanobrews versus mega-produced golden beers ad nauseum. However, in the end, the real beauty of beer is that there is something that appeals to everybody. Quibbling over stylistic differences only serves to dismiss beer’s commonality, an irony in that beer is the ultimate social beverage—one that serves to soothe nerves and promote enjoyment. Most amazing is the mind-boggling diversity that brewers present to the beer-drinking world, while still working with a fairly simple set of rules and medium. To be sure, geography, agriculture and tradition each have a role in a process that is equal parts science, art and magic, respectively. Ultimately, though, what matters most is what ends up in the glass and whether or not that is enjoyed. The shared journey that all beers take to the Promised Land (through various processes such as ingredients, fermentation and packaging) belies the variety of the elixir that we all look forward to.
The four most basic components of beer—barley, hops, water and yeast—remain unchanged from historical brews to modern beers. The fruit of golden prairies and verdant hop fields consummate the marriage that defines beer. Maltsters modify barley to render it fermentable, and toast it further to add color and character. Packaged malt extract is inherently no different than wort derived from a grain mash. Hops, in any form or variety, are available to all brewers. Recipe formulation is an art, involving critical ratios and combinations of dozens of types of hops and malt, catalyzed by a carefully selected yeast, in the first step of making a brew. Some recipes employ wheat or other grains, spices and sugar to augment the brew, but there is no getting away from the basic four ingredients of beer.
Malted barley corns are powerful, petite packages. Contained within the protective husk is a compact kernel that contains all of the flavor and enzymes necessary to provide the sweet, seductive wort that will eventually become beer. Crushing the grain is akin to liberation, analogous to grinding coffee; intact beans contribute little. Milling barley, however, is far from a simple act of grinding. The husk must be kept intact to provide a filtration matrix during mashing, and the kernel itself must be not be ground too fine, or it gets gummy. A simple rolling pin affords low-tech brewers the same character in extract worts as the all-grain brewers. But any all-grain brewer beyond that needs to heed the rules of the perfect crush to ensure a steady, clear stream of wort into the boiling kettle.
Beginning homebrewers produce wort by simply reconstituting dried or liquid malt extract derived from concentrated wort. But, from high-tech homebrewing upward, the most enchanting step of all takes place in the mash tun. The milled blend of base and specialty malts are mixed with hot water (or brewing liquor), and the indigenous enzymes magically convert the starchy component into a variety of simpler sugars that are either fermentable (maltose) or unfermentable (dextrine). The sweet wort is drawn off (or lautered) into the kettle, leaving the grain behind. Once boiling, hops are added at different intervals to provide bitterness, flavor and aroma. The now-bitter wort is further modified as the roiling liquid coagulates unwanted protein and both sterilizes and adds extra flavor via caramelization.
The bitter wort must be chilled to a yeast-friendly temperature as quickly as possible, in order for fermentation to commence. (Too hot, and the yeast is killed. Too cool, and the yeast lies dormant.) This is a step that varies drastically from beginner to mega-brewing pro. The simplest method is to immerse the kettle in a basin of ice water. A step up from that involves a coil of copper known as an immersion chiller, through which cold water is run while it is submerged in the wort. More complicated and effective is the counter-flow wort chiller that is employed by homebrewers on up. Hot wort runs through an inner tube while cold water (or glycol) runs in the opposite direction. The heat exchange is thorough from inlet to outlet. During cooling, more unwanted proteins (known as “cold break”) are precipitated out of the wort.
Fermentation, whether it takes place in a plastic bucket, glass carboy, or conical stainless steel tank, is the work of Saccharomyces cereviseae or uvarum, more commonly known as brewing yeast. Beyond simple metabolic conversion of maltose to carbon dioxide and alcohol, its role in the character of a brew is as important as malt, hops, and water. The “footprint” of various yeast strains are manifested in the various styles. Lager yeasts work at cool temperatures, ale yeasts at more elevated temperatures. The complexity of a Belgian tripel or the smoothness of a German doppelbock owe their character to these workhorses. Classic strains (including English) have been selected over centuries of brewing to give beers a unique signature. Beginners ferment at ambient temperatures, whereas pro brewers use glycol-chilled fermenters of different volumes to control their ferment.
The manner in which the beer is handled post-fermentation is a critical prelude to packaging. The degree to which it is refined is greatly determined by the level of brewing. Homebrewers seldom filter, instead relying on natural sedimentation. Storage in a secondary (or tertiary) vessel settles the larger particles. Cold conditions help precipitate them even further. Brewpubs and small brewers use large conditioning tanks and cold temperatures to do the same as homebrewers and they may or may not use subsequent filtration downstream. True filtration is seldom performed by homebrewers, sometimes carried out by medium-size operations, and almost always done by large breweries. True filtration comes at a cost, as some of the components are removed along with the unwanted particles, giving the finished brew a thinner texture.
Packaging beer, at any production level, is a matter of feasibility. Homebrewers have the option of bottling, the bane (or kegging) the godsend. The truth is, that as tedious as bottling is, it has its advantages in portability, and offers bottle-conditioning. Kegging is simple and offers the pleasures of draft beer, but requires dedicated refrigeration and extra equipment. Brewpubs seldom bottle—after all, the point is on-premise enjoyment— and rely on convenient serving tanks and (increasingly) micro-kegging operations rather than bottles. Homebrewers and brewpubs also have the option of popular growlers to go, but their life is fleeting. Regional and macrobrewers usually have the resources to offer bottles, kegs and cans. The cost and maintenance is immense and the machinery is something to behold. Generally, the beer is so refined at that point anyhow that it makes little difference the vehicle, as long as the bottling is done with care.
Storage can have a profound impact on beverage quality, as feckless exposure to light or heat can ruin any beer. In addition, even the most carefully produced and handled beer can deteriorate over time; some simply don’t age well. But some brews, given proper conditions, are made to cellar or “lay down.” Bottle-conditioned beers—which run the gamut from homebrew, micros, and many famous Belgian and English ales—can undergo an exquisite transformation over time. The yeast dose that is responsible for carbonating the beer can create a multitude of subtle nuances that add complexity and/or round smoothness. Some beers can be kept for decades or more, and the vintages enjoyed in vertical tastings. Even filtered brews can gain complexity over the years as the nuances marry and make over the brew. Old Ales and Barleywines are noted for this phenomenon.
When one thinks of transporting beer, the image that comes to mind is of a large logoed truck, moving every form of packaged beer imaginable. Micros, regional, and major breweries have the option, based on their packaging prowess, of realizing widespread distribution. Brewpubs tend to stay close to home (as their base is local), but fresh growlers bearing the brewer’s logo and kegs or 5-gallon sixtel kegs help get the word out for the local guys. A well-made bottle-conditioned homebrew can withstand shipping, and what could be better than getting a package of a one-of-a-kind, small-batch bottle of beer in the mail—the ultimate personal touch?