The Beer Brewing Process: Your Questions, Answered

People have been enjoying beer in one form or another for millennia. Archeology points to evidence of beer brewing in some of the earliest written artifacts discovered in Babylonian ruins, and scientists have discovered trace elements of beer in pottery dating back to 3,400 B.C. Whether crafted from grains — such as oats, rice and teff — or sweeter substances, like honey and fruit, humans simply love their beer.

The beverage has long played a significant cultural role in many societies. In the past, beer was an important trade good as well as a product that brought communities together at social events. Those key components remain the same today, with a few important safety additions, thanks to scientific and technological innovations.

While the beer-making process retains its basic structure and steps, modern brewing differs from that utilized in ancient times in several ways — especially when it comes to beer testing and safety. Read on to discover the answers to three questions about beer testing and brewing.

What Are the Main Ingredients in Beer?

Though beer comes in what seems like an infinite amount of flavors, aromas and colors, in most cases, the beverage is crafted from just four ingredients:

  • Grain
  • Hops
  • Yeast
  • Water

Most commonly, beer is made from grains such as wheat, rye, oats or barley. Regardless of the type of grain, it must undergo a process known as malting. During malting, harvested grains are soaked in water until they germinate. Then they’re heated in a kiln until they dry and crack. This part of the process helps to isolate certain enzymes.

Next, the cracked grains are ground in a gristmill, which releases enzymes and long chain carbohydrates, starches that are necessary to create sugars that will be fermented into alcohol . Once the grist — as the ground-up grains are now known — is ready, it’s time for mashing.

During the mashing process, grist is combined with water. The mixture, known as mash, is heated and steeped for a few hours. The heat activates enzymes, which break down starches into fermentable sugars. Different levels of heat result in different sugar and protein levels, all of which affect taste, color, foam and other qualities. The liquid that’s left is known as wort.

How Do Wort and Hops Turn Into Beer?

Wort is thick, sticky and packed with sugars that will later ferment and turn into alcohol. But first, the wort must be lautered. During this process, the wort is heated to a temperature that halts enzymatic reactions. Grain husks are filtered out and sparged, or rinsed, to extract every bit of sugar.

Now it’s time to sterilize the wort. It’s heated to boiling for up to two hours to kill unwanted microorganisms and reduce the liquid.

At this point, hops are added to the mix. First, what are hops? These small, green fruits come from a vine that’s found across North America, Europe and Asia. Cone-shaped hops are a natural preservative, and they impart taste, aroma and bitterness to beer.

Beer-making is often described as both science and art, and the addition of hops makes it clear why. The point at which hops are added to the boiling wort influences the beer’s ultimate flavor and fragrance. They also impart bitterness to counterbalance the sugars from the grains. Generally:

  • Hops added at the start of the boil impart more bitterness; more time boiling = more bitter flavor
  • Hops added mid-boil add more flavor
  • Hops added late in the boil impact aroma

After the boil is finished, a “whirlpooling” process removes proteins and hop solids. Some beer makers also introduce more hops at this point to achieve a desired flavor or scent. For beer connoisseurs, a certified beer flavor standards testing kit can help pinpoint desirable flavors and weed out those less-pleasant tastes, from metallic to papery to musty.

What Roles Do Yeast and Fermentation Play?

After the mixture cools, it’s time to add or pitch yeast to the wort. Yeast plays a key role; during a one- to six-week fermentation process, it converts sugars into alcohol, ethanol and carbon dioxide. The type of yeast and the fermenting temperature determine the type of beer:

  • Ale ferments with yeast that rises to the top and is held at 60 to 68 degrees F
  • Lager ferments with yeast that sinks to the bottom and is held at about 50 degrees F

Fermentation is also affected by the water used in the process. It’s key to test water for mineral content, as elements commonly found in municipal water supplies impact beer flavor. Performing analysis for minerals such as sulfur, sodium, magnesium, chlorine and calcium are key. For example, the presence of chlorine may give beer a “plastic” taste.

Testing for microorganisms is also key to beer safety. Tests such as microbe testing kits identify the presence of unwanted, and potentially harmful, elements such as wild yeasts and bacteria.

After the fermentation process is complete, the beer needs to rest for a few weeks. This conditioning or maturing process allows the beer to smooth. Testing for alcohol content is easy, thanks to technological advances such as the Densito meter and beer pH meter kits.

The beer is now alcoholic, but flat. That desired fizz can be forced by adding CO2 manually, or by simply letting the beer sit until the combination of yeast and sugar causes carbonation to form.

Learn About Weber Scientific

When brewing beer, along with a desirable flavor and aroma, it’s essential to prioritize safety. The yeasts and sugars that create alcohol and fizz also create a welcoming home for unwanted microorganisms.

At Weber Scientific, we’re committed to laboratory safety. That’s why we offer a full range of testing equipment for your beer-making needs, from hydrometers to microbe testing tools and more.

From malting to lautering, fermenting to maturing, the beer-brewing process is both an art and a science. Weber Scientific’s beer-testing tools will help you achieve a beverage with the flavors and aromas you desire, with a focus on safety.