Bulls & beers
Cold, Hard Football Facts for Oct 09, 2005
By Cold, Hard Football Facts brew guru Lew Bryson
I took a tour of the Brewery Ommegang once (yeah, the same Belgian-owned place outside of Cooperstown, NY where I got down with the hippies back in July), and it was one of the best I've ever been on. Our college intern guide was bright, thorough, and not wearing one stitch of clothing more than she absolutely had to, a great incentive to pay close attention to her every ... ah, word.
She explained how – and why – the malt was mashed, strained ("lautered;" brewers are like foreigners, they have a different word for everything), boiled, cooled, "pitched" with yeast (it's near Cooperstown, remember?), and how the liquid ("wort," last one, I promise) is sent to the fermenters. That's where someone must have been paying too much attention to how the cotton clung and slid over the divine curves of her moon-like buttocks, because when the end of the tour came and she asked "Are there any questions?", this boob sticks up his paw and asks "Yeah, I get all the stuff about the spices and the flavors and the warm room and that, but ... where do you add the alcohol?"
So you don't completely shame yourself like that dolt, and so we can get into some more detail later – only when it's needed, I swear – here's a basic layout of how beer gets from the grain and hops and water into your glass. Despite what you may have heard, it doesn't involve running it through a Clydesdale, but unfortunately, it doesn't necessarily involve any more moon-like young buttocks, either. Sorry.
The first ingredient is malt. Malt is barley that's been tricked into germinating by warming and wetting, a process not unlike jerking bulls to harvest their goo for artificial insemination (except you don't have to rub each individual barleycorn till it sprouts). This isn't to frustrate the barley; the early stages of germination release enzymes that turn the hard starches of the seed into softer starches and sugars, and that's the stuff you need to make beer.
Once the conversion is complete, but before the seed really starts sprouting, the malted barley is shoveled into a kiln, where the heat kills the sprout before it can use up any more of the valuable beer-making ingredients. The kiln also roasts the malt, and like roasting meat or coffee, the longer it roasts, the darker it gets. Use darker malt, you get darker beer. Contrary to popular opinion, dark beer does not necessarily have more alcohol. It's color is simply the result of using these darker malts.
Hops are the other main ingredient. Hops grow on long vines; they are like flowers, or leafy pine cones. The important part is inside the little leafy green cones, at the base of the leaves; little greenish-yellow sacs full of bitter, aromatic resins and oils. They're a weird but useful little chemical factory: they've got bitterness; aromas of pine, grass, grapefruit pith, spices; a mild preservative; and a mild soporific as well. Not really surprising that they're related to cannabis sativa, eh?
Now we work 'em. The malt gets crushed, wet down, and heated to make a gruel called the mash. That's where the enzymes and soft starches from the bull jerking (I just like saying it) finish their work and convert into the sugars that will make the yeast happy. There's a point in the mash where if you're stirring it, you can actually feel the change; the thick heavy starches transform into thin, slippery sugars, and the mash becomes much easier to stir. It's like when the bull's eyes start to roll back in his head and ... never mind.
Now, that "lautering" thing. The gruel is pumped to the "lauter tun" (this jargon's all designed to make you feel ignorant; working yet?), a big vessel with a slotted false bottom that strains the liquid out of the gruel. This is the "wort" – essentially sugar water – that is now boiled in the kettle.
Boiling will get rid of proteins that could make the beer cloudy, and it's when the hops are introduced. You put them in early for bitterness ("kettle hops"), and then add another charge of hops near the end to get the more fragile aroma and flavor compounds ("finishing hops"). The wort goes through a whirlpool to lose the protein (which looks like rubbery brown goop) and hop leaves, and then goes to a heat exchanger to cool down; it's essentially a big radiator like the moonshiners use.
Up to this point, it's pretty much the same for any type of beer. There are some differences in how things are done traditionally, especially with the mashing, but they're pretty minor. But now the yeast gets added, and as I mentioned last week, it can make a difference, matched with the temperature at which it is allowed to work.
Lagers, the beers we're most familiar with (light beers, pilsners, ice beers, and "regular" beers like Bud and Heineken are all lagers), take a no-nonsense yeast that works cold and clean, and doesn't play games: ja, ja, here ve go, make bier und dot's it. Ales work in warmer conditions and throw off fruity and nutty aromas and flavors. The hefeweizen yeast is quirky and spicy, there's another German yeast they use to make altbier that's very clean, and there are some beers that use multiple strains of yeast. There are even beers like lambics and Berliner Weisse that use bacteria for fermentation, producing a tart beer that will pucker you right up, in a real good way.
But all these yeasts do the same thing: eat sugars, piss alcohol, fart carbon dioxide, and reproduce like mad (it's all single-cell budding, though; no sex involved. Kind of like the British). This is "where they put the alcohol in." That takes about a week to chew up the sugar, less for the faster-working ales, and then the beer goes to maturation, where it sits in the tank and chills out for a few weeks or months, getting used to itself.
This is an important step, and if you rush it, the beer tastes immature – "green," as brewers and beer geeks like to say – and will give you gut-ache. The flavors are melding, the undesirable flavors and aromas, like sulfides, are gassing off, and the beer's getting rounded and ripe – much like our nubile college-age beer guide at Ommegang.
That's just about it. They put it into a bright tank to give it a final polish, leaving the mung that falls out during maturation behind. Then it's packaged: keg, bottle, or can. It goes through the chain to you, you drink it, and your eyes roll back in your head, and you know how that bull feels. Mmmmm, boy.
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