Hop and Malt. Introduction to brewing.

The genesis of this article can be traced back to the uncorking of a bottle of Belgian ale—a rich, robust, and aromatic concoction, skillfully brewed with a trio of hop varieties.

Memories of my first encounter with hop plantations were kindled during my school days in Altay, Siberia. Those autumns were dedicated to assisting local farmers in the harvest, be it apples, potatoes, or, as fate would have it, hops. While the legal intricacies forbade us from enjoying the literal fruits of our labor for several years, the experience was lighthearted and memorable.

It was in Altay where I first laid eyes on hop plantations, an event that stands out even in a region with wild hops like South Siberia. Post Altay, hop plantations remained elusive until my relocation to Washington state, heralded as the hop basket of the USA. Here, in East Washington, lies the heartbeat of American brewing, with a staggering 90% of the nation’s hops thriving in this fertile soil, extending its influence into neighboring Oregon.

The effervescent sip of hop-laden ale stirred a cascade of memories, guiding my musings toward the sanctum of brewing. Herein lies the foundational essence of the brewing process.

In the alchemical realm of brewery, ethanol emerges through the yeast-driven conversion of sugar. Unlike winemaking, where sugars naturally abound in raw materials, brewing mandates a preliminary extraction of sugars.

The elemental constituents of beer reside in water and barley, with barley standing as the cornerstone of this brewing alchemy (other grains are also used, but the role of barley is incomparable).

Water, an unsung hero, must meet the dual criteria of purity and palatability, for it profoundly shapes the taste of beer. Classic beer varieties forge an intimate bond with the local water profile, lending each brew its distinctive regional character.

Barley, however, demands a transformative journey. It metamorphoses into malt, a process shouldered by some brewers or delegated to specialized malt production companies. In the initial stages, the grain undergoes a mild malting, activating enzymes that catalyze starch-to-sugar conversion. Subsequently, the grain is meticulously dried to arrest further germination. The hue of the beer—be it pale, dark, or intensely dark—dictates the extent of drying. Dark beer, in particular, witnesses a tandem dance of roasting for sugar caramelization, a delicate interplay where roasted malt and unroasted malt intertwine, safeguarding the survival of enzymes against the rigors of high temperature. With the malt now primed, the brewery processes unfurls.

Malt, diligently subjected to milling and potentially augmented with supplementary grains such as rye, wheat, or corn, undergoes a transformative process known as mashing. This procedure involves a gradual temperature elevation, typically traversing 45-62-73°C, meticulously optimizing the functionality of diverse barley enzymes. Within this temperature regimen, starches metamorphose into oligosaccharides and eventually into sugars, seamlessly integrating with water over the course of an hour. The culmination of this process results in the creation of a sugar-laden solution known as wort.

The ensuing phase, lautering, orchestrates the separation of the mash into clear wort and residual grain. This process involves three steps. The initial step, mashout, elevates the liquid temperature to 78°C, a decisive measure to deactivate enzymes fostering fluidity. The second step, recirculation, involves the methodical drawing off of wort, facilitated by the slotted top of the double-bottomed Lauter tuns. The final step, sparging, delicately entails the trickling of additional hot water through the grain, extracting residual sugars that requires 1.5 times the water employed in mashing. The liquid progeny is reunited in the brew pot, while the spent grain finds a purpose as fodder for cattle.

With the wort now prepared, the next stage is its boiling for a one-to-two-hour that orchestrates both volume reduction and sterilization. It is time for entering the hop for infusion the concoction with bitterness and aroma.

Within the extensive amount of hop varieties, a dichotomy emerges: the first group, regal in bitterness, and the second emitting intense aroma with subdued bitterness, aptly christened the noble group. Tradition dictates specific hop varieties for established beer brands, whereas avant-garde brewers curate selections aligned with envisioned flavor profiles.

Photo of the hop plantation in East Washington.

The beer that motivated me to write this article was brewed with three hop varieties, two of them are noble.

The liquid, now infused with the hop aroma, should be quickly cooled down. Nowadays, counterflow chillers are used this; they decrease the worth temperature from 100C to room temperature in mere seconds.

The baton now passes to the time of yeast—a crucial phase where wort metamorphoses into beer. In contrast to viniculture, brewers engage two distinct yeast species—Saccharomyces cerevisiae and Saccharomyces pastorianus. This taxonomic distinction, not merely a strain variation abundant in viniculture, holds paramount importance as it delineates the type of fermentation. In the grand tapestry of beer, these yeasts orchestrate two colossal categories: ales and lagers.

Ales, with a historical precedence, are the progeny of Saccharomyces cerevisiae, commonly known as baker’s yeast. This top-fermented yeast operates at room temperature, concentrating its activities at the liquid’s summit, where it fervently multiplies and transforms sugars into ethanol. The outcome is a rich, dark, and robust beer.

On the other hand, lagers, emerging later in brewing history, harness the prowess of Saccharomyces pastorianus. Operating at cooler temperatures around 10°C, these bottom-dwelling yeasts foster a more subdued fermentation process. The resulting lagers exhibit a paler and lighter complexion compared to their ale counterparts.

The fermentation odyssey unfolds over approximately 7-10 days. Subsequently, the nascent beer undergoes a cold conditioning phase lasting 1-3 weeks, followed by optional filtration. The final step involves bottling or kegging the beer.

Bottled or canned beers often undergo pasteurization (heating at 60°C for several minutes) or sterilization through filtration, endowing them with a shelf life of up to six months. Conversely, kegged or bottled non-pasteurized beer maintains its freshness for several weeks.

And thus, the symphony of brewing concludes—beer, now fully realized, stands ready for consumption. This serves as a fundamental introduction to the intricate world of brewing, with more detailed explorations of diverse beer styles to follow in subsequent articles.

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