Beer Byte – October

Yeast: Operation Fermentation

Fermentation may have been a better invention than fire

David Wallace

So we’ve already talked about hops and malt, but we’re still missing a key ingredient in the beer making recipe. Yeast is the third main component of beer and it’s extra important since it gives beer it’s booze! Making beer is one big science experiment and that’s most evident in the fermentation process. Things can get a little technical here, but we’re gonna try to simplify it for everyone!

Yeast is one of the last ingredients added in the beer making process (aside from final flavoring hops). We’re gonna dig into this a bit more in another post, but briefly the beer making process starts with adding hot water to malt which yields a sugary liquid called wort. Then the wort is boiled and hops may be added at this stage. At this point, there is no alcohol yet in the beer! That’s where the yeast comes in. The mixture is transferred to the fermenter and brewer’s yeast is added. The yeast then feeds on the sugars from the malt, resulting in alcohol and CO2. Still with me? Cool.

So what exactly is yeast? Yeast is a microscopic, single-celled organism that’s part of the fungus kingdom. Feeling thirsty yet? Yeast cells feed on carbohydrates (which are made of sugars) and convert them to alcohol and carbon dioxide. This process is called fermentation.

Is there yeast in other alcohols too? Of course! Since fermentation occurs with yeast, it’s a primary ingredient in all alcohol. In wine, the yeast feeds on fruit sugars and in clear spirits, it feeds on starches like potatoes. And remember that whiskey also uses grains! Fermentation isn’t just in the drink world either. Lots of foods are made using this process, including bread, soy sauce, vinegar and more!

What a minute, why isn’t bread alcoholic then? Well actually it is! Yeast used in brewing and baking undergoes the same process of converting sugars into ethanol and carbon dioxide. The CO2 is what causes bread to rise! But when bread bakes, the alcohol cooks off. But bread does in fact have traces of alcohol even after baking. You’d get stuffed long before getting tipsy from bread though!

Are there different types of brewer’s yeast? – Definitely and it completely depends on what you’re making. Some yeast strains have specifically been cultivated for certain flavors. Generally, there are two types of yeast in brewing: top-fermenting and bottom-fermenting. Top-fermenting yeasts react best in warm water and are generally used to make ales. Bottom-fermenting yeasts do better in cold temperatures and are used to make lagers. But within these two categories, there are thousands of strains of yeast to choose from. Definitely gives me a new appreciation for some of my favorite beers. 

My dad’s homebrew ready for fermentation.

How long does fermentation take? Like most things with beermaking, it depends. Lagers take much longer to ferment than ales. Also a high alcohol beer will need a longer conditioning (also called secondary fermentation) time. And the darker the beer, the longer the fermentation process. Brewers really need to know their stuff to make sure their product has had adequate time to bubble.

So there you have it! Hops, malt, yeast and water, what more could you need??


Beer Byte – August

MALT: The Backbone of Beer

Barley is one of the main grains used in beermaking

So we’ve already talked about hops, let’s get to the next main ingredient in beer: MALT! Okay so we need to clear something up first. Malt is actually a verb and a process but in the brew world it’s generally understood as the grain used in beer. It’s better to understand malt as “grain that has been malted” 

Malted Barley

What is malt? – Malt is one of the four main ingredients of beer (the other are hops, water, and yeast). It refers to the roasted grain in a beer recipe

What is it for?  – Malt adds flavor, sweetness, and color to beer. It’s what adds carbs to beer, giving it the classic “liquid bread” nickname. 

A maltster raking grains to dry out before kilning

What is the malting process? – Let’s keep it simple. First, grain is picked and allowed to dry. Water is then added so the kernels sprout. Then heat is added to stop germination and finish drying out the grain. The temperature and time used in the roasting process creates different malt. This whole process allows for the starches in the grain kernels to begin to convert to sugar but stops them before they can grow into new plants. This sugar is key to the brewing process since it’s what the yeast will feed on! (Spoiler alert: yeast is my next Beer Byte!)

What type of grains are malted? – Most brewers use malted barley in their brews. Wheat or rye are also common but barley is definitely the king. But any grain can undergo this process. Over 90% of malted grains processed around the world end up in beer! Some beer are even made with unmalted grains

Beermaking Term: Grain bill refers to all the grains used in a specific beer recipe

Is malt used for anything else? – There are plenty of other things that use malt! Whiskey also uses malt (think a blended vs a single malt scotch). Malted grains can also be used in baking, either as the ground up grain or as an extract that takes the form of a sweet syrup. Malt is also found in treats like malted milk balls, malted milkshakes and Ovaltine. Malts are more common than I thought!

Are there different kinds of malt?  – Just like hops, there’s a huge variety in the types of malt used in brewing. The type of malt used is really determined by the type of beer one is making. The majority of the malts used in a recipe are called base malts which make up 60-100% of the grain bill. But their flavor can vary wildly based on type of grain used, where its grown, and how it is malted. These base malts also effect the color of the beer! Pale Malt is the most commonly used variety which gives the resulting beer a nice golden color. Malt that is roasted (kilned) for longer are darker and are used in dark beers like stouts. Some of these darker grains are called specialty malts and are used in lesser quantities than base malts. The biggest difference between base and specialty malts is that base malts must undergo the mashing process to add fermentable sugars to the beer. Specialty malts add color, aroma, and flavor and only need to be steeped in hot water to add their deliciousness to the beer. Science!

What about non-barley beers? – until the early 2000s, beer needed to have at least 25% barley to be considered a beer. But with increasing interest in gluten-free beer, that definition has changed to include any cereal grains. Now, brewers make beer using sorghum, millet, buckwheat, corn, rice and more! In fact, some breweries are completely gluten-free! I’ve personally been to Aurochs Brewery a completely gluten-free brewery in Pittsburgh and had the Session IPA made with millet and quinoa. Fascinating, right?

All of these beers have a different grain bill that gives them all unique colors and flavors!

I’m already learning so much about beer! I can’t wait to dive into yeast next month! Cheers!


Beer Byte – July 16

Hops Lightning Round – Beer’s Misunderstood Ingredient

What are hops? – they are the flowers of the Humulus lupulus plant, which needs a lot of sun and a moist environment to thrive. That’s why most American hops come from the Pacific Northwest

Why add them to beer? – hops add flavor (often balancing out the sweetness of the malts) to a beer, but most of all they stabilize it! Back in ye olde days, beer was made from a herb mix and was very prone to spoiling. Hops actually helped preserve it, plus were much cheaper then those herbal concoctions. Fun Fact: Beer made without hops is called a gruit. Not too many people make them anymore but I’m now determined to track one down someday!

All of these beers have hops!

Hops are only in “hoppy” beers, right? – NO. All beers have hops. Along with water, yeast, and malt, they make up the four main ingredients of beer. If someone tells you they don’t like hops, I give you permission to set them straight!

When are hops added? – Hops are generally separated into two main categories: bittering and aromatic. Bittering hops are added earlier in the beer making process but lose much of their flavor during the boiling. Aromatic hops are added later in the process and are more what we think of as “hoppy”. And of course, it can get a lot more complicated with things like dry-hopping, wet- hopping, hopback…honestly I think we’ll save all that for another time!

Can I grow hops? – It depends. Although you might see a small hop plant at your local brewery, the best environments for growing hops are temperate and moist. Today about 75% of the American hop market is grown in the Yakima Valley area of Washington State.

Hop Farm in Washington State (Source: Creative Commons)

Hoppy and bitter are the same thing right? – Yes and No. So hops do add bitterness which helps to balance the sweetness of the malts. But bitterness in beer can also come from other things like fruit or herbs (think spruce tips). And remember, all beers have hops but not every beer is bitter! I think people think this because IPAs and hop-forward styles have just flooded the market. If you don’t like bitterness, try a malty beer like an Oktoberfest, or a nice thick stout. Or if its summer go for a refreshing Gose! There’s plenty of beers out there without the bitterness!

But wait, why do hops in a brewery look like rabbit food? – okay yes, this was my first thought when I saw pelletized hops for the first time. I wasn’t entirely convinced the brewer hadn’t just gone to Petsmart. In order to preserve the fresh hops, they are dried, ground up and made into pellets. This is the most common form of hops on the commercial market.

Pelletized vs fresh hops (Source: Creative Commons)

Thanks for reading all about hops! It’s so fun learning more about my favorite beverage as I grow this blog. Got any fun beer facts for me? Or resources I’ve got to check out? Let me know!