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The Basics of Beer Brewing

Beer has a very long history, going back around 5,000 years to ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt. The basic recipe is:

  • Steep malted grain in hot (but not boiling) water to release its sugars.
  • Boil this sweet "soup," adding hops.
  • Cool it and add yeast.
  • Let it ferment.

In malting, grain is steeped in water for a few days, to encourage germination. This makes the profile of sugars in the grain optimal for brewing. The grain is then dried, to prevent further growth and sprouting. Barley is the principal malted grain used. Many classic beers, mainly from Germany and Belgium, also use wheat. Oats and rye are used much less commonly. Some mass-market American brews also toss in corn or rice, neither of which is malted, but are cooked instead.

Both the types of grain used and the manner in which they have been dried affect the taste of the final product. For example, the roasted, coffee-ish flavor of porters and stouts comes from grains that have been toasted, not just dried.

Hops serve several purposes. They offer bitterness, offering the taste buds a contrast to the sweetness of the sugars from the grains. They act as a preservative, give aroma, and add oils that help retain the head. Numerous varieties of hops have been cultivated, each with a distinctive aroma and flavor.

Yeast also has a critical impact on the taste of beer. Many different strains have been isolated for use in brewing. There are 2 broad categories:

  • Ale yeasts. These are active at "room temperature" (normally from 59 to 77 degrees F) and concentrate at the top of the fermenting vessel while they work. The resulting beer (technically called an "ale") tends to have a fruitier flavor than a lager (see below). Some ales are ready to drink with minimal aging, sometimes within only a week or two from the start of the brewing process. Other ales benefit greatly from months of aging.
  • Lager yeasts. These are active at cooler temperatures, normally in the range of 41 to 48 degrees F, and concentrate at the bottom of the fermenting vessel while they work. Fermentation proceeds more slowly than with ale yeasts. Lagers also require weeks or months of maturation at temperatures close

    to 32 degrees F. Lager comes from the German word for storage. These beers are drier (less sweet), smoother and less fruity than most ales. They also tend to be golden and clear, while many ales are cloudy or opaque. Most mass-market beers worldwide are lagers.

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