As the number of breweries has steadily risen over the last four decades, one happy byproduct has been the ability for drinkers to not only taste a dizzying array of styles but also see first-hand where the beer is made and how it is produced.
No two breweries are completely identical. Of the more than 8,000 in the United States, breweries differ by size, equipment, ethos and intent. Still, they all turn water, malt, hops and yeast (plus other specialty ingredients) into a delightful beverage.
Most breweries offer tours. In some states, like New Jersey, it’s a law that visitors to a brewing establishment must tour the facility at least once a year. While some breweries approach tours in a perfunctory way, others make a show out of showing off their stainless steel and raw ingredients. A good brewery employs energetic, passionate and knowledgeable tour guides who bring fun and education to the process.
Since it might be a while before we can get back into the brewhouse to walk among the equipment, consider this a virtual tour to help you better understand the brewing process and to get you excited for an in-person visit.
The life cycle of beer
A brew day begins with getting the ingredients ready. Grains are up first and depending on the recipe or style, a variety of malt and grains can be used. Larger breweries will have a grain tower attached to the brewery for storage, but most breweries in the U.S. store grain in sacks on shelves or on palates until they are ready to be used.
Whole grains are put through a gristmill that cracks and opens the kernels. From there, it’s transported to the mash tun where it is mixed with hot (upwards of 155°F) water where it steeps for a time. During this process simple sugars in the grain are released, which will later help create alcohol.
The result is a thick oatmeal-like substance called mash. The sugary liquid, now known as wort, is drained from the mash tun and transferred into a brew kettle. While in the brew kettle the wort is brought to a boil, with a standard time for many beers around 90 minutes, although some go for longer and others shorter. Usually during this process hops are added at different intervals to extract aroma, flavor and bitterness. Different recipes dictate when hops are added, affecting the final result.
When the boil is completed the wort can head off into different directions. In most cases, for ales and lagers, it’s transferred through a heat exchanger that helps to rapidly cool the liquid before it’s pumped into a fermentation vessel where yeast will be added.
In other cases, the hot wort can be transferred to a coolship, sometimes spelled koelschip. This is a shallow tub that allows the liquid to be exposed to the open air. As the wort cools in this vessel, it reacts with ambient yeast that kickstarts the brewing process. After about a day the beer is transferred to another vessel, like a barrel, foudre or stainless steel fermentation vessel.
There are two main types of fermentation vessels. Horizontal tanks are most often used for lagers, while conical fermenters, which stand upright, favor ales. These, as well as brew kettles, are measured in volume by the barrel, where a standard barrel of beer is 31 gallons. Larger breweries will have fermentation tanks that are many hundreds of barrels in size. Smaller breweries can use vessels that hold just half a barrel.
Yeast is added to the fermentation vessels to begin the process of converting the sugars of the wort into alcohol, while also releasing CO2. There are many different yeast strains that can impart a wide variety of flavors and aromas. Certain beer styles also rely on a specific type of yeast to achieve a desired outcome.
It’s also during the fermentation process that some brewers will dry hop a beer, adding hops to the cooled wort in the vessel to impart a more vivid and juicy hop profile without the bitterness. This is particularly popular with the New England-style IPA.
Fermentation can take a matter of days for some ales, though will typically go on for many weeks when lagers are being made. Some can even be left for a year or longer when making big boozy beers, like an imperial stout aged in Bourbon barrels.
After fermentation is complete, many beers are filtered or run through a centrifuge to remove any particulates. Some may also be transferred to brite tanks, to allow more time for maturation.
To create some extra fizz, before it’s packaged the beer receives a healthy dose of additional CO2. Beer can be packaged in kegs, cans or bottles. Some brewers will add a small amount of yeast to a bottle before it is filled, to allow for bottle conditioning or secondary fermentation, where the yeast will slowly consume any residual sugars and cause the beer to evolve in the bottle.
Finally, the beer is ready to drink. Consuming fresh is best for most beers. When a brewer releases a beer to the public it’s usually an indication that they believe that it is at its peak and most desirable. Still, other beers can be cellared for a time and continue to evolve with age.