Did You Know: Brewing Process Basics

Ok, so you have decided that brewing your own beer is your next adventure. Maybe you want to get into it because you are creative and like “to make” stuff. Maybe it’s because brewing great beer at home can be done at a fraction of the cost of commercially bought craft beer. Or maybe you want to fine-tune beers to your personal taste preferences.

Whatever the motivation, as a new brewer, there is a steep learning curve and myriads of brewing systems and setups to choose from, ranging from the very basic and inexpensive, all the way to mini-professional brewing systems that cost thousands of dollars. So before you dive in, it pays to understand the basic brewing process, so you can make smart choices as you put your brewing system together. No matter how simple/basic or how deep/involved you go, there are a few fundamental steps you go through to make beer. Let’s take a quick look at them.

First comes the wort...

The whole process starts with generating wort, which is the sweet water that you will later boil with hops and other ingredients. Sugars, typically from carbs found in malted barley, wheat, rye, and other grains, are dissolved in water, and that’s your starting wort. There are many ways to get this done, ranging from simply mixing liquid or dried malt extracts (commercially generated concentrated sugars) into hot water, all the way to performing your own mash “from scratch” using crushed grains. But no matter how you go about it, you need to collect a quantity of wort as your starting point.

...Then comes the Boil...

The collected wort is heated to a boil, which typically lasts an hour or more. During the boil you can add various ingredients to the wort, such as hops, additional forms of sugar, flavors, etc. The boil is essential for the finished beer as it enables various natural chemical processes in the “soup” and aids in extracting flavors and compounds from the various ingredients.

...Followed by the Chill...

Once the boil is over, the wort needs to be chilled down to room temperature or lower before yeast can be added in the next step. If yeast were to be added to the hot wort, the yeast would be killed and all the work so far would be wasted. You also want to chill the wort as rapidly as possible: as the wort cools it is susceptible to infections from air-borne bacteria and other impurities, which could foul the finished beer. The fastest you can get the wort cooled, the less chance you have of suffering infections. Brewers use many different methods for quickly chilling their wort, ranging from immersing their boil kettle into an ice water bath in the kitchen sink, to using various types of chiller accessories designed to quickly cool beer wort.

...Followed by the Fermentation…

The chilled wort is put into a clean and sanitized container and yeast is added to it. A quote most often attributed to Fritz Maytag of Anchor Brewing fame is that “Brewers make wort, yeast make beer”. Very true! Here’s where the magic happens, and the yeast take over from you, the brewer to turn your wort into beer. Yeast are live microorganisms, and when “pitched” into a beer wort, they will consume the dissolved sugars in a process that simultaneously creates alcohol, CO2, and various flavor and aroma compounds. This is the step that requires you, the brewer, to be patient: the whole process up to this step takes a few hours at most; fermentation needs several days at a minimum, usually a few weeks, to run its course. The actual time needed is heavily dependent on the beer style being made, how potent the end product will be, and a number of other factors. The result, however, can be very gratifying!

...Finally, you condition and “package” your beer...

Once fermentation is complete, the finished beer is pulled off the fermenter, separating it from spent yeast and remaining impurities like hop and grain matter. It is then put into containers like bottles or kegs from which you can drink it, and it is carbonated and chilled. At this point, you are ready to finally taste it!

The basic point of this write up is this: there are probably infinite ways you can go about this process, and you can start with a very modest setup not requiring a lot of money, or you can go as complex and customized as your wallet can manage. But it all comes down to making a wort, boiling it with added ingredients, chilling it, fermenting it, conditioning it, and packaging it. You will no doubt have fun experimenting and finding out the best ways to accomplish these basic tasks to suit your needs, but if you understand them and why you are doing them, you will be well on your way to crafting awesome beer.

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