Let’s talk about beer. Specifically, the kinda technical way it’s made. Brewing is an old-school tradition spanning thousands of years, but today’s beer makers use state-of-the-art technology and refined ingredients to produce a huge range of types and styles. They haven’t entirely turned their backs on their roots, though — lots of those tried-and-true methods are still part of the process.
So pull up a barrel and have a seat. Let’s take a closer look at how beer is made.
- Sourcing good water
Water makes up 90 percent of the suds that end up in your glass. And the different compounds within H2O can actually make or break a good beer. Brewers avoid using water with any noticeable tastes or aromas (think chlorine or algae) that are hard to erase in the end product. You don’t want your beer to smell like a swimming pool, right? They also find their stride by choosing the right balance of minerals, such as calcium and magnesium, to achieve the clarity, flavour and acidity levels they’re looking for.
Speaking of acidity, or pH, the fancy enzymes that convert malt starches into sugars will only work within a narrow acidic range (5.2 to 5.5 pH, for those of you who are counting), and water is crucial for creating this ideal environment. Without sugars, there’s no fermentation and no beer — boo!
There are exceptions, but barley is the typical grain used to make malt — and most of the world’s supply is grown right here in Canada! Getting malty is a seven- to nine-day process that starts with soaking the grains in water to get them to germinate. Doing this unlocks a special plant enzyme that later transforms starches into tasty sugars.
Next, these sprouted grains are dry-roasted in a kiln (yep — like the kind used for pottery, only way bigger). The dry heat hits pause on the germination process and preps the malt for the next brewing step. Going for a round in the kiln helps the grains influence the finished beer’s flavours and colours like so: A light roast will make a pale, grassy-tasting brew (such as a pilsner), while a dark roast will develop a toasty, chocolaty sweetness and turn out a rich, dark beer (like a stout or porter). Fun fact: Malt also has a home in baking and cooking. It makes a nice syrup you can use in bread making and a powder that gives malted milkshakes their amazing sweetness.
From here, the toasty malt is crushed or cracked (the pros call these smaller pieces grist) to get them ready for a soak in purified hot water. In this steamy, porridge-like concoction, those special enzymes get to work converting starch molecules into sugars. The enzymes can be a bit shy, though, only showing their sweeter side within a specific pH range and at a certain temperature. A large insulated tank, called a mash tier or mash tun, keeps the mix at a steady, enzyme-friendly heat level.
At this stage, complex proteins within the malt also get broken down into simpler amino acids, which help with healthy yeast development later on. For a lighter taste, some brewers add different grains, like corn or rice, to the mash. Mashing is a pretty quick process, only taking about an hour.
- Lautering and sparging
A sweet liquid called wort (pronounced “wert” or “wart”) appears when the mash has steeped long enough. Now it’s time to lauter! The brewer releases the wort through a false bottom inside the mash tun tank, and the liquid recirculates up and over the malt solids one more time. Then the liquid strains out of the mash tun tank and into a giant brew kettle.
After lautering, the brewer pours boiling water over the leftover mash solids to remove as much of the remaining sugary wort as possible — and adds that to the brew kettle as well. (This step is called sparging, in case you were wondering.) Lautering and sparging take one to two hours in total. And that spent grain isn’t wasted, either. It usually goes back into the food supply, often as livestock feed. (True story: Cows and horses love the taste of beer, too.)
- Boiling and hopping
If hops come to mind when you think about beer, you’ve arrived at the right step. With the wort now in the brew kettle — a humongous cauldron-like tank — it’s brought to a boil to help clarify the liquid. Here’s where the hops get added. The aromatic, terpene-rich flowers of the hops vine add bitterness as the brew boils, which balances out the sweet wort. This process takes about two hours.
At the end of the boil, some brewers add even more hops to bump up the flavour and aroma. (Think of it like popping a handful of fresh herbs into a stew in the last few minutes of cooking.) The wort is then drained again, leaving any solids behind in the brew kettle.
The hop-flavoured mixture now takes a trip to the hot wort tank, where it’s cooled just enough to create a happy environment for yeast. The icy-cold steel of a plate cooler is the tool that lowers the temperature quickly — in a matter of seconds, actually! Doing this allows the brewer to drop in the yeast almost immediately and kick-start the fermentation process. (Hang on, that’s the next step.)
Quick cooling also keeps any stray wild yeasts in the air from settling in and changing up the desired flavours of the finished beer. Although, brewers who are cooking up a wild beer will slow their roll a bit and let those untamed beasties in on purpose (see below for more in-depth intel on this).
This is the part where the cooled wort mixture gets moved to a fermenter and finally becomes beer. And it’s all thanks to a family of living single-celled fungi called yeast. Yeast quickly gets to work gobbling up all the sugars in the wort and producing both carbon dioxide and alcohol in the process. Brewers can choose from a variety of yeasts, and each strain lends its own distinctive taste and texture to beer. Once a yeast is selected for a specific recipe, the brewer takes precautions to ensure this organism stays consistent year after year, so the resulting beer’s flavour and texture are always the same.
Fermentation is where beer separates into different types and styles. Ales use one kind of yeast that ferments at room temperature and rises to the top of the liquid; lagers use a different strain that ferments in a cool environment and settles to the bottom of the fermenter when it’s finished its work. Ales typically ferment in a week or two, while lagers play a long game, taking twice as much time.
Brewers who dabble in wild beers, on the other hand, take advantage of naturally occurring yeasts in the immediate environment. Some let the wort stand uncovered so it captures the ones that are floating in the air. Others add specific wild strains in a controlled environment. Either way, fermentation of wild beers can take months or even years to complete. Yep, you read that right!
Most beer is cellared, or aged, in cold tanks for one to three weeks, which helps its flavours and textures reach optimal levels. To make the clean, clear beverage we all love, the brew is filtered once (sometimes twice) during cellaring to remove residual yeasts and other solids. Certain brewers offer unfiltered beer, which is cloudy but adored by some for its interesting, complex flavours.
Now the matured, filtered beer is ready for bottling, canning or racking into kegs. Here’s what each process looks like.
- Bottling: This step happens fast — some large facilities can fill 1,200 sterilized bottles every minute! Once they’re topped up, the bottles get capped, pasteurized, inspected, labelled, boxed, stacked on pallets and carried to the warehouse for shipment. Bottled beer has a shelf life of about three months and should be stored upright at home.
- Canning: Cans are also sterilized before they’re filled with beer. As they run down the production line, they get lidded, seamed and quality checked before being dated and carefully arranged into six-packs (if that’s their final format). Canned beer also has a shelf life of about three months.
- Racking kegs: Draft beer is normally sold and consumed within a few weeks, so the finished beer is sealed in sterilized kegs and quickly shipped to its destination, where it’s kept cold.
You know what’s really cool? Around here, we recover about 96 percent of industry-standard bottles. How does The Beer Store get that high of a recovery rate? Simple. Our producers take great care at the packaging stage to ensure we can reuse these containers over and over again.
- Quality assurance
While brewing today takes advantage of modern science and technology, our enjoyment of beer depends on the same thing it always has: the quality of the final product. We can be proud of beer made in Canada because our manufacturing processes are carefully controlled and strictly supervised. Every ingredient used in brewing is approved by Health Canada, and regular brewery inspections happen at both the provincial and federal levels.
In other words, beer made here is so great because teamwork makes the dream work. Collectively, we make sure of it.
So the next time you sit back to sip some suds, raise your glass for all the hard, technical work that goes into brewing. Cheers!