Beer – The “Magical Elixir” – from ingredients to cask

As a beer enthusiast, have you ever wondered how the beer you’re drinking, that magical elixir, came into existence?  To find out, let’s go through the steps from ingredients to cask.

Beer is the product of four main ingredients: barley (malt), hops, yeast, and water.  Change the malt to lighter or darker, change the type of hops, change the type of yeast, or change the water chemistry and with those four ingredients alone, a myriad of styles, and therefore flavours, can be created.  That being said, the number of styles and flavours explodes exponentially when other grains (e.g. wheat or rye) or adjuncts (e.g. spices, fruit, etc.) are added, or the brewing process is altered.

Tricities Brew Club, Beyond the Grape, and Moody Ales took all of this into consideration when deciding to brew a collaboration beer for the upcoming Tri-Cities Cask Festival.  Within the group, ideas were bounced around…  Which style?  What ingredients?  How much funk?

In the end, a decision was made to brew a specialty beer – a balanced “Belgian Wit”-styled India Session Ale with hints of coriander and tangerine; all backed with a healthy dose of the new German Mandarina Bavaria hop.  To get to the end product the beer would include the following ingredients:  pilsner malt, wheat malt, oats, coriander, tangerine peel (bitter and sweet) , Mandarina hops, and a Belgian Abbey yeast.  The alcohol by volume was to be “sessional” at slightly less than 5%.  The colour would be light and the bitterness at 50 IBU’s.

The first step in brewing beer is “mashing” the grains in a temperature controlled vessel called a “Mash Tun”. The process involves steeping the grains at approx. 150 °F. so that the naturally occurring enzymes in the barley can convert much of the starch into useable sugars.  These sugars become the food supply for the yeast and will be transformed into a number of end products including alcohol, carbon dioxide, and (depending on the yeast strain) flavours (more about that later…).  Mashing (and the steps that follow) creates the sweet liquid ( “Wort”) that becomes the base for the beer.  As noted above, changing the process can change the beer: the brewer can control aspects of the finished beer through the mashing process.  For example, the final body of the beer can be set by the mash temperature because the mash temperature impacts the enzymes’ abilities to break down the starch molecules.; lower temperatures (E.g. 148 °F.) produce lighter bodied beers while higher temperatures (E.g. 158 °F.) produce fuller bodied beers.

The collaboration beer was mashed at a mid-range temperature (approx. 152 °F.) with a goal of producing a medium bodied beer.

Once the grains have been mashed and the starches converted, it is time to drain and rinse all the sugary goodness out of the grains.  (At this point a “Mash Out” can be performed: hot water is added to the mash tun to raise the temperature of the mash to 168 °F.  This water addition deactivates the enzymes and thins out the wort allowing it to flow better from the grains.)  The process of rinsing the grains is called the “Lauter”.  Lautering is a process that includes “vorlauf” and sparging steps and is made possible with a “Lauter Tun”.  A lauter tun is simply a vessel that allows the liquid to be removed from the grains while leaving the grains behind.  In homebrewing, it is not uncommon for the mash tun to serve as the lauter tun.

Lautering starts with the vorlauf (a German term that translates to “temporary”).  The vorlauf sets the grain bed so it can act as a natural filter for the wort.  Liquid is slowly drawn from the lauter tun, collected,  and then carefully poured back on top of the contents of the tun until the wort runs free and clear of debris.  When the wort is clear then sparging can begin.

Sparging is the process by which hot water is added to the grains to rinse the remaining sugars from the grain bed.  There are two popular methods when it comes to sparging: “Fly Sparging” and “Batch Sparging”.  Each method has its positives and negatives and therefore which method to use comes down to the homebrewer’s own personal preference.  Fly sparging provides a higher yield, yet is time consuming.  The opposite is true for batch sparging (i.e. lower yield, yet faster).  If you would like to know more about the two methods I would suggest reviewing Brad Smith’s description of the two methods.  Upon completion of the sparging process the brewer is ready to start boiling the wort.

The boil is typically 60 to 90 minutes in length; outside of sterilizing the wort before it is put into the fermenter, the brewer can set a number of the important final characteristics of the beer during the boil. For instance, during the boil the brewer can set the bitterness level of the beer. Hops are added to the boil kettle at varying times during the boil.  Early hop additions add to the level of bitterness while late additions add flavour and aroma to the beer.  The hops themselves, depending on the variety, can add a multitude of flavors to the beer including everything from citrus notes to pine, herbs, etc.  (For more information on the types of hops available see Hopunion’s website.)  The brewer can also add other items to the boiling wort in the form of “adjuncts”.  Adjuncts can be spices and other flavouring compounds.  This is a fairly simplistic description of the boil process – for more information there are a number of sources on the internet.  John Palmer’s website is a good starting point.

The boil for the collaboration beer followed the process above.  Mandarina Bavaria hops were added early on to produce much of the 50 IBUs of bitterness and then again with only 15 minutes left in the boil.  These same hops were then added at “flame out” and were allowed to steep in the hot wort.  Again, the late hop additions were to provide more flavour and aroma than bitterness.  On top of the hops, the boil for the collaboration beer received adjuncts in the form of coriander and orange peel.  The adjuncts were added with only 5 minutes left to help preserve their aromatic oils.

[It is important to note that from this point forward the brewer must try to maintain a high level of sanitation for up to this point everything has been boiled.]

At the completion of the boil process the wort is ready to be rapidly chilled to a temperature just below the yeast’s optimal fermentation temperature.  Once the wort is at the desired temperature it is transferred to the fermentation vessel where it is aerated/oxygenated and then finally, the yeast is added or “pitched”.

The yeast chosen by the brewer is another area that the final beer can be finessed.  As living organisms, yeasts create their own characteristic by-products and as you can imagine, these by-products end up in the beer.  For example, by choosing a specific yeast the brewer can make a beer that has hints of banana or cloves without actually adding these items as adjuncts.  More information on yeast is available on the internet.  A good source to start with is White Labs’ website.

The collaboration beer was pitched with White Labs’ WLP530 Abbey Ale Yeast.

You would think that the brewing process would be all but over at this point.  In some cases the brewer may leave the yeast to do its work and when the fermentation is complete the beer (and yes, it is beer at this point) would be transferred to the keg (or bottles).  In other cases the brewer may decide to wait until the bulk of the fermentation (the “primary” fermentation) has completed and then add more adjuncts (e.g. fruit) or more hops (“dry hopping”) to the fermenting beer.  These additions are done late in the fermentation (the secondary fermentation) so that the carbon dioxide created in the primary does not scrub or carry away the flavours and aromas.  The length of the fermentation process is dependant on the style of beer being made, and can range from a couple of weeks to months.

For the collaboration beer, a decision was made to accentuate the flavours provided by the Mandarina Bavaria hops and to that end, hops were added to the fermenter after the primary fermentation was complete.  As described above, the process of dry hopping allows more aromatic oils that would otherwise be lost in the brewing process to infuse into the beer.

When the beer is ready to be kegged (usually after the fermentation is complete) the beer is transferred from the fermentation vessel.  The brewer has a number of options for carbonating (conditioning) the beer. It can be force carbonated with the addition of carbon dioxide or cask conditioned with the addition of a ,small amount of sugar to the cask which is then converted by the remaining yeast into alcohol and carbon dioxide.  Finally, if the brewer were to put the beer into the keg before it had completed its fermentation, the remaining sugar would be converted, thereby conditioning the keg without any additions.  Force carbonation is the quickest of the methods, taking only hours depending on the gas pressure used, while cask conditioning takes upwards of two weeks to complete.

And there you have it… Beer from ingredients to the cask.

This is by no means a complete description of how beer is brewed for I haven’t even touched on how sour beers are produced or how beers can be fermented with other yeast strains (e.g. Brettanomyces) or aged or…

In the end, we hope you enjoy the beer as much as we enjoyed making it.


The Collaborators (Tricities Brew Club, Beyond the Grape, and Moody Ales)

Like us on Facebook: Tricities Brew Club, Beyond the Grape and Moody Ales


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