The Science Behind Beer Production
By: Zoe Denckla
Beer has ancient roots. The formula of combining grains, water, hops, and yeast to create alcohol dates back to the Egyption empire. With just four main ingredients and all those home brewing kits we’ve been tempted to buy online, beer seems pretty simple. But don’t be fooled. This fermented beverage is a very involved scientific endeavour. So scientific that our modern pH scale was actually developed in the Carlsberg Brewery in 1909!
Here’s a basic breakdown of the process. First, grains are soaked, prompting their seeds to sprout, and are then dried out. This initial step is called malting. The malt, aka the dried sprouted grain, is soaked again in hot water, activating enzymes to convert the grain’s starch to sugar. This sugary warm mixture is called wort (not the most, appetizing name). Once left with wort, the hops are mixed in. These hops flowers are what creates the distinct bitterness and aroma of beer. Finally, the yeast is added, which feeds on the wort’s sugar and converts it to alcohol and carbon dioxide (aka makes it carbonated).
As you can see, it's a lot of measuring and monitoring of different biochemical reactions. Beer always involves these four key steps. Yet, the final product tastes different based on variation in temperature, timing and amount of ingredients added at each step. Meaning, there’s a lot of room for experimentation within beer production. We’ve pulled together a few episodes from HRN’s, Beer Sessions Radio, to explore how people today riff off this standard formula. In this playlist, we’ll hear about everything from the introduction of wild yeasts to finding new uses for spent malted grains.
Episode 570: Patrick Rue: The Intersection of Beer and Wine: This episode bridges the gap between wine and beer. Jimmy first interviews Patrick Rue from Erosion Wine in Napa Valley, CA. Patrick brings craft beer methods to winemaking and explains the differences he witnessed between the beer and wine worlds. We then hear from Jake Endres of Crooked Run Brewing in Sterling, VA. Jake walks us through his mixed fermentation beers that are a part of Crooked Run’s Native Culture series, which aims to challenge people’s ideas of what beer can taste like. Then, Jimmy then closes with a hot take about wine drinkers versus craft beer drinkers.
Episode 536: Historical Brewing Techniques: More Than Just Kveik Yeast: Jimmy speaks with Lars Marius Garshol all the way from Norway. He is credited with discovering and cataloguing kveik yeast and is the author of Historical Brewing Techniques: The Lost Art of Farmhouse Brewing. John LaPolla of Bitter & Esters and Pete Legyel-Fushimi of KCBC join the conversation as well. Lars provides the history of how kveik yeast has been passed down by home brewers in Norway for centuries, while Pete shares how he is using the yeast at KCBC today in everything from fruited sours, to IPAs, and even stouts. Learn about how kveik yeast can shave time off of a strict brewing schedule, the extensive research Lars did to understand traditional brewing techniques, and the reason why people scream when they pitch yeast.
Episode 576: Finding the Perfect Beer and Flavor with ESTER: Jimmy dives into the world of flavor intelligence. We talked to Jean van Damme from ESTER in Belgium and New York. Jean kicks off the show by introducing us to ESTER, which uses flavor intelligence to help inform producers, retailers, and consumers. This company brings scientific evaluation of flavor to help producers boost profit and aid customers in finding their perfect beer.
Episode 590: Transparency and Storytelling in the Craft Malt Supply Chain: This episode dives deeper into the world of craft malt. We learn how American farmers are essential to both the story and the malting process. We talk to Brandon Howard from Amalga Distillery in Juneau, AK. Brandon introduces us to Alaskan grown barley, starting with the legendary “Failed Barley Experiment.” We then talk to Phil Neumann and Kether Scharff-Gray from Mainstem Malt in Walla Walla, WA; Kether then gets us up to speed on the Mainstem “hub,” which extends way beyond just a malthouse. This episode touches on crowdfunding, scaling exports, and judging craft malt quality professionally.
Episode 597: Second Use Fruit: Ripe with Innovation: This episode discusses the growing trends of second-use fruit in craft beer. We first talk to Mandy from @Beerswithmandy. Mandy explains the benefits of second-use fruit as creating a beer with a subtle fruity flavor while also being a sustainable way to reuse produce. We then talk to Jake Endres, cofounder of Crooked Run Fermentation. Jake dives into crooked run’s experimentation with blends of fruit wines and how informed their desire to expand into new beer fermentation territory. He also gives us a technical run down on carbonic maceration which takes place when using fruit in beer.
Episode 564: Name That Grain: Excelsior Gold Malting Barley: Jimmy highlight a new variety of New York state barley. This barley was developed at Cornell University and is now used in breweries across NY. We learn about the New York State Farm Brewery License passed in 2012, which encourages breweries to create beers made with locally sourced hops and ingredients. And finally we dig deeper into developing ‘Excelsior Gold,’ a strain of barley that can withstand tough NY conditions. This barley will hopefully encourage brewers to incorporate local and fresh NY ingredients, and to get as close to 100% NY state grains whenever possible.
Episode 573: Upcycling Spent Grains from Beer to Crackers: This episode explores what happens to malted grains after they are filtered out of beer. We talk to Kyle Fiasconaro from Brewer's Crackers in Somerville, MA. Kyle takes us back to his first memory, noticing a dumpster full of spent grain left outside a brewery. This is what inspired him to start producing crackers out of spent grain. We then talk to Tyler Fitzpatrick from Lamplighter Brewing Co. Kyle explains just how difficult it can be to handle spent grain, especially when you are in a city with limited space. We hear just how much effort goes into the grain, and how much potential is still left over after the beer has been bottled or canned.
Episode 465: Wastewater: Reducing Excess and Moving Towards Sustainable Brewing: This episode explores wastewater in beer production. Water is integral to making beer but a lot is wasted. Typically one pint of beer requires seven pints of water. For this conversation, Jimmy is joined by John Bedard of Kushner Studios, a brewery architect; Paul Mankiewicz, a biologist from the Gaia Institute; and Evan Bowles, a wastewater engineer. These experts discuss various policies surrounding the issue and the diverse challenges brewers face from New York to California. They close the conversation by imagining how they would construct a sustainable brewery from the ground up.