The Possibilities Are Endless
Combine grain, water, hops and yeast and what do you get? It’s not that simple, but these are the basic ingredients of a successful beer. Producing a good craft brew or IPA starts with a healthy, raw grain, often barley.
“With beer being an agricultural commodity at its roots, everything starts and depends on farmers growing quality grain and hops,” says Aaron Hopkins, brewer at Independent Brewing Company in Bel Air and co-owner of Chesapeake Malting Co., with partner Kevin Gilbert, which should be open for business later this fall. “Farming is generally a risky endeavor where a terrible storm could destroy a crop in an instant.
“But it is also very rewarding to see hard work pay off. I think keeping that in mind leads to a greater appreciation of every beer.”
Most brewers use the same basic process, which consists of mashing, lautering (when mash is separated into clear liquid wort and residual grain), boiling, fermentation and packaging, says Brian Burton, brewery operations manager of DuClaw Brewing Company, which operates out of a large brewery in Rosedale and restaurants in Bel Air, Bowie Town Center, Arundel Mills and BWI Airport. The differences lie in how each brewery performs the process.
Usually the process starts with malted barley. The barley or sometimes another grain like wheat or rye is malted. The malting process takes about a week, Hopkins says, during which the raw grain is soaked in water to increase its water content, then it germinates, and just when it starts to grow, it is pulled and dried.
“It’s a natural process, so I’d say a week is a standard time frame for a basic malt,” says Hopkins.
At this point, the grain is at its best for taste, and it is heated to fix the properties. The heating process usually occurs in a kiln-like oven in which the grain sits on a perforated floor. The heater includes an inner boiler, and a fan helps control the airflow. The temperature dictates the ultimate darkness of the beer. A dark stout, or porter, for instance, is usually cooked in a drum roaster like in a coffee shop at upwards of 400 degrees for a dark flavor, Hopkins says. On the contrary, a light roast for standard malt cooks at 180 to 200 degrees, Hopkins says.
After heating, the malt is cooled and packed to dry. Then it runs through a mill for grinding, which breaks it open to expose starches and sugar. Adding hot water creates a “mash.” The mashing takes about an hour and the sweet liquid is strained. Most brewers, like Independent, purchase malt and start the process at the mashing, Hopkins says.
The liquid, called wort, boils for an hour. Hops, the flower from the humulus lupulus plant that contains lupulin, is added to create the bitterness in beer. Three main types of hops prove the most popular according to Eryn Streett, owner of AleCraft Brewing Supply in Bel Air. German Noble produces pilsner and lighter beers, British hops yields more earthy flavor, and American hops provide citrus, grapefruit, tropical or super bitter brews. Hops from other countries, like Australia and New Zealand, provide tropical fruit flavors also.
The amount of hops and when to add it depends on the recipe. Hopkins prefers to add the hops as soon as the wort reaches 212 degrees. The liquid is boiled to not only keep everything sterile, but to extract bitterness to balance with the sweetness.
After the hour of boiling, the liquid is cooled to 68 to 70 degrees. Then, the liquid transfer occurs to a separate vessel, when saccharomyces cerevisiae yeast feeds on the sugar to create alcohol. Combining the yeast and the sugar produces a chemical reaction, referred to as fermentation, which yields alcohol, carbon dioxide and flavors. This process usually takes up to two weeks to complete.
After, the liquid chills at 35 degrees or lower for a few days, settling the yeast and other ingredients for filtering to produce a clean beer.
Independent prefers not to filter its beers, Hopkins says, and instead adds enzymes to break down large molecules to clear the beer out. The enzymes are added with the yeast at the end of the brewing process.
The last step is carbonation, which varies by brewer. Carbonation occurs in a separate conditioning tank using a carbonation stone, a ceramic material with small pores that produce carbon dioxide bubbles that dissolve into the beer. Then the beer goes to a keg or bottling machine.
“From grain to glass – there’s a lot involved most people don’t know about,” notes Hopkins, who graduated from the University of Delaware where Dog Fish Head became popular. He grew hooked on the beer and excited about the industry. He volunteered at DuClaw, and then worked his way up.
A few months ago, Hopkins left DuClaw to help grow Independent, which has 22 different brews available at its taproom, where customers come to taste the different beers available. Sixteen of the beers are brewed onsite, and the remaining six have added flavoring.
Flavored beers like pumpkin, peach and other fruits have risen in popularity lately. The flavorings may be added at five different points in the process, according to Hopkins, who recommends adding fruit at the end of the boil, into the mash or post-fermentation. Or, he says, some choose to add pasteurized fruit after the yeast/fermentation stage, in a separate vessel. Streett suggests adding an extract like strawberry, blueberry or vanilla during bottling, which provides an easy option for heavier flavor than using fresh or frozen ingredients. Her store also sells jars of pasteurized fruit puree to add during fermenting or during the boiling process. Street became interested in home brewing after her husband began dabbling in it 10 years ago. After growing a small amount of barley and hops and selling online, she realized the need for a brewing supply store. In addition to a variety of malts, hops, and yeasts, AleCraft sells beer ingredient kits, equipment kits, herbs and spices, chemicals and fresh vegetables during the summer months.
Sour beers, as well, are growing in popularity, according to Hopkins, who uses Lactobacillus, a bacterium that drops the Ph. in the liquid to elicit sour characteristics. Some brewers, he says, use yogurt to sour the beer as well.
The possibilities prove endless as far as recipes, which include variations in malt color, flavor and aroma, and different varieties of hops that provide varying flavors and aromas. Some are more earthy or piney and others are more citrusy or floral. Different yeast strains also affect the taste.
The process may seem complicated, but many opt to try to create their own brews at home, testing out different combinations of the ingredients and sometimes throwing in something extra.
“I think home brewing is great,” says Burton. “A lot of good ideas come from being able to just try something on a small scale. As a matter of fact, our pilot system/test batches are done on a small homebrew system. Being able to experiment is key to creating new and exciting beers.”
Supply stores like AleCraft provide the processed ingredients so that individuals can brew their own beer at home. This includes varieties of malted grain dependent on how long they are cooked and at what temperature. Lighter malts yield pilsners and darker produce stouts.
Hopkins has no preferred beer or recipe. The last few weeks he’s reached for a breakfast stout, a darker, stronger beer that contains oats as well.
“One thing about beer, there are so many different varieties and styles,” he says. “There’s always something new to try.”
Burton’s taste buds are similarly fickle. “My favorite beer is whatever beer is in my hand … I really do not have one favorite,” he says. “I am very seasonal with my drinking. I feel there is a time and place for all beers. Right now I am on a big sour beer kick. They are very refreshing on a hot summer day.” I95