Beer & Wine Beer

Beer Brewing Basics: How Your Favorite Beverage Is Made

An essential introduction to the terms and processes of beer brewing.

The brewery at Jack’s Abby
The brewery at Jack’s Abby. Image:

Jack’s Abby

Water aside, humans across the planet drink only one beverage more than beer. (That would be tea.) Beer is often cited as proof God exists, and in that vein, the famed church reformer Martin Luther basically told his throngs of followers that beer drinkers get an express pass into heaven. One of the highest compliments in a sphere of life not known for praise—politics—is that a candidate is “one you’d like to have a beer with.” The beverage’s origins date back to at least 3,500 BC, making a certain piece of Mesopotamian papyrus the oldest recorded recipe known to exist.

But for as much as it’s consumed, adored and time-honored, the basics of how beer is made are lost on many beer lovers. Jack Hendler marvels at how little lay people understand about brewing, despite its relative simplicity. He earned a diploma in brewing technology at Chicago’s Siebel Institute of Technology. That’s the University of Oxford of beer, with 150 years and alumni from 60 countries to its name—a number of them titans like August A. Busch, who have gone on to shape the world of beer. He’s also central to the success of Jack’s Abby in Framingham, Massachusetts, an ambitious precision-driven brewery specializing in difficult-to-make lagers. (As he puts it, “We do a lot of really difficult German techniques that a lot of breweries of our [small] size don’t do.”)

“Beer is pretty straightforward; there are only four ingredients involved,” says Hendler. “But for three of them—barley, hops and yeast—people have no idea what they are or how they’d be used in anything else besides beer. Nobody buys those at the grocery store, and few people know what beer is or how to make it.”

We’re here to change that, with Hendler’s help and explanations. “It’s what I dream about, think about and do all day,” he says.

These are the fundamentals of beer-brewing, including basic ingredients, essential steps and relevant terms.

A good initial ingredient: humility. “For as much information and literature that’s out there and for as long as we’ve brewed beer, it’s still a little mysterious because it depends on a living organism that [drives] the fermentation, and you have to treat that yeast fungus well. If you don’t treat it right, you’re at the mercy of this tiny micro-organism,” says Hendler. “Fermentation is amazing and another thing many people don’t understand all that well,” he says. “But without it, life on earth probably isn’t sustainable.” 

Brewing beer at Jack’s Abby
Brewing beer at Jack’s Abby. Jack’s Abby

Ingredients

When it comes to beer, the whole is certainly greater than the sum of the rather humble parts. It’s mostly water, plus starch, yeast and flavoring agents. For any given brew, the proportions of starch inputs—aka mash ingredients—comprise the grain bill.

The vast majority of beers deploy malted barley as its primary starch, which is barley that has been soaked in water to trigger germination, then dried for the brewing process. Wheat, rice, oats and corn are the other common starches.

Below are the relevant terms to know. 

Adjuncts: Additions to the primary starch, such as corn, rice or wheat

Barley: Cereal grain starch most commonly used to brew beer

Fermentation: In the context of brewing, metabolic process driven by yeast to convert wort into beer

Hops: Bitter flowers of the hop plant used to flavor and stabilize beer

Grain bill: Proportion of grains in a beer, i.e., mash ingredients; basically the beer recipe

Malt: Grain that’s soaked in water to make it germinate and convert starch into sugar

Mashing: After malting, the mixing of the grain with hot water to convert starches into fermentable sugars

Starch: Building block for beer, usually cereal grain, which is steeped and fermented

Wort: Sweet liquid created by steeping malted barley in hot water

Yeast: Microorganism that essentially eats the sugars present in wort and turn them into alcohol

Jack Hendler sampling beer at Jack’s Abby
Jack Hendler sampling beer at Jack’s Abby. Jack’s Abby

Essential Steps

Fermentation methods vary slightly. Warm fermentation, also known as open-top fermentation, takes place at around 70 degrees Fahrenheit and is used to produce ales that are ready to drink in a couple of weeks. Cold fermentation, or bottom fermentation, happens with a closed-top tank at around 50 degrees Fahrenheit and is a slower and longer process that produces lager-style beers. Spontaneous fermentation happens with open vats that welcome in wild yeast, forgoing any inoculation by brewers.

Brewing can also be differentiated according to how large a brewery’s output is and how mindfully an operation is conducting it. 

Homebrewing is the brewing of beer, mead and ciders on a small scale for personal, noncommercial purposes. A nanobrewery is the smallest type of commercial brewery, one that doesn’t brew batches bigger than three barrels. A microbrewery is typically the next size up and often independently owned. Craft brewery is a subjective term historically applied to microbrewery-like operations; the Brewers Association describes the American craft brewer as small and independent with limited production, high-quality standards and style. A commercial brewery includes any company producing beer for sale, whether that’s craft or more mainstream. Macrobrewery or megabrewery refers to large-production brewers such as Budweiser and MillerCoors. A brewpub is an operation that sells beer (and usually food) at its on-site brewing facility.

Regardless of the fermentation methods used or the scale of brewing, the below steps are always involved, in chronological order.

Malting: Soaking, germinating and drying a grain such as barley, sorghum, wheat or rye

Milling: Grinding the malted grain prepares it for the mash turn

Mashing: Combining and steeping the milled malted grain and adjuncts in hot water

Lautering: Separating the spent grains from the wort with a mash filter

Boiling: Flavoring wort with hops and other seasoning agents in a brew kettle

Fermenting: Adding yeast after the wort cools (so it won’t cook the live yeast), which converts the sugars in the malt into alcohol and carbon dioxide

Conditioning: Aging for anywhere from two weeks to several years, in a tank for up to eight weeks or in wood barrels for years 

Filtering: Removing much of the yeast and any solids (though not all beer is filtered)