YAKIMA, Wash. -- Humans have been concocting alcoholic beverages for millennia. Archaeological sites around the world contain evidence that ancient peoples extracted starches from grains and mixed them with plants and (unknowingly) wild yeasts to create some of humanity’s first fermented beverages. Those rudimentary first beers really aren’t all that different from what comes out of the modern brewhouse. (Though now, the federal Occupation Safety and Health Administration requires proper safety gear, and you can update your Facebook status in between tasks.)
It is widely accepted that for something to be labeled as beer it must contain some combination of grain, hops, yeast and water. In fact, there are strict laws in some places dictating this. The most famous example is the Reinheitsgebot from 1516, known popularly as the German Beer Purity Law. After some evolution, and the addition of yeast to the mix (guys, they didn’t have microscopes back in the 1500s) this law still stands today. Fortunately for us, though, we’re not beholden to this set of laws, which also forbids a lot of cool things we can add to beer.
Caveat: The equipment used, variety of ingredients, recipe, brewer, regionality (think East Coast vs. West Coast IPAs) — heck, even the weather on brew day — all contribute to what a particular process will look like for any given beer. So please understand that what follows is an über-simplified version of the brewing process. It is the endless possibility of combinations that assures that no two beers, or the process of getting there, will be exactly alike. Beers are like snowflakes.
We start with the grain(s), either singularly or some combination of malted barley, wheat, rye, oats, corn or rice are milled, exposing the starches within. This milled grain is now grist and is combined with hot water in the mash tun to create what is known as the mash. The mash is steeped, allowing enzymes to convert the grain starches to fermentable sugars (food for the yeast that will be added later). After a long, hot soak, a process known as sparging takes place, that is the rinsing of the newly created sugars from the grain. We also remove the spent grain, and are left with a hot, sugary solution known as wort.
(Side note: At Varietal Beer Co., our spent grain is picked up by our friends at Newhouse Dairy and used in their operations there, so that makes us feel pretty good.)
The hot wort is transferred to the brew kettle and boiled. It is typically here that we first add hops for bittering purposes (though there are exceptions to this). Depending on where in the boil process hops are added, you can achieve differing levels of bitterness — take note, my IPA-loving friends. After the prescribed boil time, and (probably) the addition of more hops, our finished wort is now ready to be moved to yet another vessel.
The wort is cooled as it is moved (typically through some type of heat exchanger) down to a temperature that will allow yeast to live and reproduce. The new vessel is known as the fermenter, and as you may have guessed, now is when we add, or “pitch,” the yeast. The addition of yeast means we can officially call this beer, and we’ll have no stern looks from the Germans.
Fermentation occurs when the yeast feeds on the sugars and produces alcohol, carbon dioxide and other compounds. The fermenter is also the place where we add more hops. (Yay!) This process is known as dry-hopping, and it is these subsequent hop additions that give us most of our exciting flavors and aromas.
The amount of time a beer spends in the fermenter depends on the style of beer being brewed. For a typical IPA we’re talking two to three weeks, but some beer styles, like lagers, can take months to ferment. After fermentation is complete, it’s the end of the line for most beers. The finished beer is then carbonated and put into bottles, cans or kegs and distributed to the beer-loving masses.
If you’re interested in learning more about the brewing process, and especially how our Yakima Valley breweries are doing it, you’re in luck. On Saturday, breweries all around the state will throw open their brewhouse doors to take part in the Washington Beer Open House. This once-a-year opportunity, sponsored by the Washington Beer Commission, lets you visit your local participating craft breweries for a behind-the-scenes look at how your favorite beers are made.
Every brewery offers something a little different. At our brewery, Varietal Beer Co., for instance, we’ll have brewhouse tours, hop sensory activities and a special happy hour. Visit www.washingtonbeer.com for more details and a complete list of participating breweries. See you in the brewhouse!
• Malissa Gatton works in hops and beer in the Yakima Valley. Her column, Beer from Here, runs every two weeks in these pages.