When I first turned 21 and could finally enjoy drinking alcohol in bars, I often found myself ordering mixed drinks, particularly any drink that could drown out the taste of the alcohol. With traumatizing flashbacks of college parties where vodka is served out of a plastic handle, wine out of a bag and watery, bland beer from cans or kegs, good alcohol seemed like an oxymoron.
Then, I tried my first Big Eye IPA beer on draft, and everything I thought about alcohol, and more specifically beer, changed. How was it possible that this IPA and the Keystone Light served at parties were both considered beer?
Through research and with the help of Alexei Vranich, a beer enthusiast and former UCLA archaeology research professor, I discovered the ins and outs of the beer brewing process, and the possibility of actually enjoying a nice, cold brew.
First and foremost, beer-making is all about fermentation. Through his anthropological research in South America, Vranich learned about the beer fermentation process, which plays an important role in some South American societies.
South America is known for corn beer, or “chicha,” which, according to Vranich, is made through a fermentation method that involves chewing up corn, spitting it into a bucket of water and allowing it to ferment using the enzymes from the saliva. Vranich also mentions that fermentation techniques have been used even before the development of agriculture and have been an important part of human life for centuries.
Unlike in South America, however, the beer fermentation in the United States revolves around four main ingredients: grains, hops, yeast and water.
The process begins with water and a fermentable starch, the most popular being barley, but starches such as wheat, oat, corn, rice and rye can be used as well. The starch is soaked in water and dried in a process called malting, which produces enzymes through germination and enables the starch in the grain to be converted into simple sugars. The temperature and length of time at which the grain is dried and toasted affects the color and taste of the final product. Stout beers, for example, are brewed with roasted barley, which is why they are often dark in color and can smell of coffee or chocolate.
To offset the sweetness of the sugar provided by the malting process and to add a new depth of flavor, hops are added to the mix. Hops actually refer to a plant, or more specifically, the cones of the hop vine. Before hops were discovered, other plants were used to flavor beer, but hops have become the plant of choice due to their bitter yet intricate flavor and their preserving effect on the beer. The intensity of the hops flavor is dependent on the variety of hops used and when the hops are added during the beer-making process.
The last ingredient needed to make beer is yeast. Before the addition of yeast, the unfermented beer is referred to as wort. Once the yeast is added, it immediately begins metabolizing the sugar made from the malting process and converting it into alcohol and carbon dioxide, transforming the flat wort into carbonated beer.
The different variants of yeast used to ferment beer are responsible for the separation of ales and lagers. Ale yeasts require higher temperatures, which cause the fermentation process to speed up and allow the yeast to add a stronger flavor to the beer.
Lager yeasts need cooler temperatures, which enable the yeast to work slowly and retain its flavoring agents.This allows the hops and malt to play a bigger role in the taste of the beer.
Wild bacteria and yeast can also be used to ferment beer, a process called spontaneous fermentation, which creates a lambic, or sour, beer. This technique first emerged in Belgium, but is now used all over the world.
These four ingredients make beer-brewing possible, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t be replaced, or that other ingredients can’t be added. The huge variation in beers that exists today is caused not only by the manipulation of hops, grains and yeast, but also by the addition of other ingredients such as fruit, spices, and extracts.
Once the beer is fully fermented and drinkable, it is packaged into a keg, bottle or can. Beer served from a keg is referred to as beer on draft or beer on tap.
Vranich notes that while the taste does not vary much between a draft beer and a bottled or canned beer, the draft beer is usually fresher, because most busy bars drain and replace kegs quickly.
“Yeah, we knew that. Who’re the connoisseurs now?” said all fraternity brothers everywhere.
He also finds that a skilled bartender can enhance a beer’s aroma and form through properly pouring a beer and choosing a glass that is suited for that particular beer.
Now that you have the skills to decipher the flavors and intricacies of a variety of beers, what are you waiting for? Grab your friends and head into Westwood to start applying them. An exciting journey into the world of craft beer awaits you.