Sunday, January 22, 2012

BEER! Part 1 - The Basics

Judas Priest! (And I don't mean the band!) I thought yesterday would be a quick little foray into the various stages of brewing followed by a few wee blog posts and that would be that. Well, I started at 10 am, finished all the brewing and photo shooting by 5 pm and then said "screw it, I'm eating!" So now I'm done eating (and watching a movie and sleeping), and here I am: back with the program.

I figured it would be a good idea to describe a little history and the basic brewing process before we get down to brass tacks. This way you'll have an idea of what we're trying to achieve with each of these crazy steps.

Beer (or, more specifically ale) is a fermented beverage made from water, malted grain, and various flavourings. The water part is pretty straight-forward, so we'll skip that.

Malted grain, on the other hand, could use some explaining. Grains are basically seeds that we eat. A typical seed consists of an embryo (read: baby plant), a bunch of starch to provide the embryo with food, and a shell to protect the whole thing. (It's basically the plant version of an egg.) When a seed germinates, it undergoes a transformation -- the embryo springs to life and the starch starts to become sugar (this is key here). Malting is the process by which seeds are germinated to make them more sugary. When the sugar content is at its peak, the seeds are dried to stop the process and the resulting malt is often toasted to make it extra tasty. The whole brewing process relies on this sugar.

Modern brewing consists of cooking up malted grain (usually barley) to extract as much sugar as possible. This process is called mashing. The mash is then strained to yield a sugary liquid called the wort (are you taking notes?). The wort is flavoured with various things depending on the goals of the brewer (hops are pretty popular), and once this sugary, flavoured tea has cooled down a little, some yeast is pitched in there (in a process called, not surprisingly "pitching"). The yeast then eats up all the sugar and turns it into alcocol and carbon dioxide (i.e. fizz) in the process. Three cheers for yeast! (And we won't dwell on the fact that the alcohol and CO2 are basically yeast pee and farts.) Eventually, the poor yeast run out of food and go dormant and sink to the bottom of whatever vessel they happen to be in. At this point the resulting brew can be poured off and bottled or put into kegs or guzzled straight away if you're in a big hurry. And that's it! Easy! (Incidentally, all of this boiling and fermenting made beer one of the safest things to drink back in the middle ages -- most of us wouldn't be here if not for beer!)

Mashing grain requires a fair degree of dedication and some special equipment, however it is possible to brew perfectly brilliant ales with malt extracts. These extracts are made from strained mash which has been boiled down into a syrup, or REALLY boiled down into a powder. You can therefore skip the whole mashing phase (and you want to) by purchasing some extract, adding water, and continuing on from there. That's how I make my beer, and it's the process we'll follow in the upcoming posts.

You have to wonder how anyone figured all this out. Someone back in hallowed antiquity had to leave some seeds out in the rain long enough for them to sprout, but not for so long that they couldn't be dried out and saved. Then they had to make porridge or something from it. Then they had to get full and leave their bowl of porridge out in the rain for a couple of days, allowing it to get colonised by wild yeasts. Then, and this is the kicker, they had to EAT the resulting bubbly goo, catch a buzz and realise that they'd invented brewing! This doesn't reflect well on our poor ancestors -- how hungry would you have to be to eat smelly week-old bubbly porridge that was clearly, shall we say, suspect? Maybe they just fed it to the dog, and decided to try it later after they saw Rover stumbling around with his buddies, telling jokes, and laughing his ass off. Who knows?

In any event, this primordial beer was pretty thick soupy stuff, since they weren't likely to bother with the whole straining phase. You can still get something like it in Southern Africa, where they make Chibuku. It's an unstrained beer brewed from thin maize porrige. It's like a boozy corn milkshake and tastes just as good as it sounds -- the beer that drinks like a meal!

In terms of flavourings, ales can be flavoured with any number of botanical ingredients (Hoegaarden does a good job of trying to use them all). Hops only became dominant in the 1500s as a result of all kinds of nasty political intrigue (for a great set of articles on all this, check out the Gruit Ale & Unhopped Beers site). Prior to the hop hegemony, several narcotic and psychotropic herbs were used to add extra kick to the brews. As you may have guessed, an ale made with these funky herbs is called a gruit, but ale was basically the catch-all term for any of the brews we now commonly call beer. Beer was the term used in the middle ages to distinguish ales that were flavoured with hops -- which were regarded with some suspicion for a long time.

These days the distinction most people make is between ales (British-style brews) and lagers (German and Czech styles). Lagering, however, doesn't tell you what's in the brew, it simply refers to the process of aging the beer in a cold cellar for an extended period (ales skip this step -- so if you're in a hurry, go for an ale). Lager is from the German word for "stockpile" or "store," and since the Germans were pretty keen on hops (the Bavarians passed the Reinheitsgebot law back in 1516 which required beer to be made from hops) you can bet that what they were lagering was beer. These cold temperatures require yeasts that like it cold, while the yeasts used to make ales like to chug away at room temperature. So the distinction between lager and ale can also be made on the basis of the kind of yeast used (although it is possible to use lager yeasts at ale temperatures -- confusing, eh?). All this to say, there are lots of kinds of yeast out there that handle certain conditions better than others (e.g. temperature, alcohol content, etc.) and that will lend specific flavours and characteristics to your brews. Your recipe will guide you to which yeast you should use (I've even seen people use bread yeast in a pinch, but I don't really recommend it).

The term "beer" is pretty much redundant in modern times, since most ales are now flavoured with hops, which makes everything beer whether you lager it or not. The great thing about being a homebrewer is that you can burst free of convention and make whatever you want, in any style, with whatever flavourings (psychotropic or not!) you like. It's a vast world of history and cooking all mixed into one glorious outcome: a fine pint!

So roll up your sleeves and let's get this party started!

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