Beer School

As a beer bar we spend an awful lot of time talking to you folks about what beer is, and specifically what makes the beer we serve different to the beer’s you’ll find on tap in most pubs.We get asked weird and wonderful questions and every one of us enjoys the chance to engage with people on a day to day basis about our favorite subject. It’s always a challenge when we take on new staff though, as rarely are we able to take people on that have been as immersed in beer (there’s a nice thought..) as we are. So we find passionate people who have a real desire to learn and we try to help train them so when they do stand behind the bar they can talk as passionately as we do about our beers, and become a real part of the team.

We invest hugely in our staff training, from putting all new members through their Level 1 Cicerone Beer Server Exam and funding anyone that wants to through their Level 2 Beer Server (we currently have 3 on the team, with another 3 studying to sit) and we run a funding programme to pay for and allow our team to take time off work to go and visit the very best beer destinations on the planet. We believe that while education is great, actually experience is the best way to learn (and it’s pretty fun traveling to drink beer!)!

We also have our own in house training programme though, and it is this that this blog is primarily about. Jack and I (Bruce) have been working pretty hard over the last month or so to modernise our in house beer training. We have computerised the system so our training (for everything, beer, license, H&S etc) is moving all online, allowing our team to access them wherever they may be. This has led us to review all our training and in doing so it occurs to me that a lot of the beer training may be of interest to you, our customers. And as such, in the coming week’s I’m going to release section by section onto our website. We’ll leave it there as a permanent reference point for you all, so you can read them at your leisure and refer back whenever you like. They are a starting point, designed to give people a foundation as to what beer is and hopefully encourage and impassion them to seek out further knowledge. We hope you find them interesting and enjoy them and much as we enjoyed writing them.

 

PS If any bars out there want to use any of the materials we have put together please feel free. It would be nice if you gave us a nod of credit when doing so but is not a requirement ;-)

 

 

What is Beer?

Beer is, fundamentally, simply Water, Malt, Hops and Yeast.

Luckily for us the end product is not quite as straightforward as that little list there and certainly cannot be summarised into 4 words.

Craft brewers will go to great lengths to source the very best malts, hops and yeast they can to allow them to maximise the flavours in their beers. Think of it like cooking a great meal. To get great results you need to put in the best ingredients. Industrial brewers on the other hand, use all kinds of junk in their beer. To cut corners and keep costs down they use rice, corn, maize, extract oils, adjuncts, preservatives and chemicals. This is fundamentally against everything that the breweries we love are about, and it is this fundamental difference that sets an industrial brewery apart from a craft brewery.

Water

May sound like a silly ingredient to kick this off with; water is just water, right? The water source can have a huge effect on the final flavour of the beer, and is one of things that can make a great brewery have a very distinct flavour. Water has different ph levels, and salt and mineral contents which all impact hugely the final product. Breweries always have a very tough time when they are forced to either move premises, or have someone else brew their beers for them (contract brewing) as they need to try to recreate the water conditions at their originalbrewery. It has been known for water to be piped from source to a new premises to avoid a variance in the beer.

Hops

One of the most impactful ingredients in beer. Beer has been around for thousands of years (some think originating in ancient Egypt) but only in the last couple of hundred years has the brewing world been introducing hops. Hops are part of the same family of plant as cannabis, and are the female flowers of the Humulus Lupulus plant. Hops are today used as a bittering and aroma agent, and there are over 60 different types of hops from around the world which produce different levels of bitterness and various different aromas. Much like introducing herbs into the cooking process, the brewer balances flavours by introducing different hops to produce the desired flavour. It is no coincidence that ‘balance’ is one of the most commonly usedterms in beer circles, as a balanced beer is a thing of beauty (an unbalanced beer can also be, but is a much harder challenge) and a badly balanced beer can be undrinkable. There are over 60 varieties of hops used around the world. British hops tend to be earthy & spicy in flavour, American hops tend to be citrusy & resinous whilst New Zealand hops are loaded with tropical fruit notes.

A term that you should remember to do with hops (or bitterness, ultimately the same thing) is IBU. This stands for International Bittering Unit. It is a measurement of the bitterness of a beer and can be used to give an indication of how bitter the beer is going to taste. It is not entirely accurate however, as a beer with big sweetness will mask to a large extent a big bitterness, whereas a beer with low residual sugars (the unfermented sugar left in the beer) will taste extremely bitter with very low hop levels. So you could have a beer with an IBU level of 40, but with low levels of residual sugars which is very bitter to taste, and a beer with an IBU of 100 with large amounts of residual sugars which balances perfectly and tastes great.

Malts

Malts are germinated cereal grains (in beer, usually barley), which are used to introduce the sugars into beer which will later be either converted into alcohol, or left in the beer to impair sweetness and body.

There are a multitude of different types of malt which can be used which impart different flavours, aromas and body into a beer. Primarily malts are introduced into the brew to access the sugars contained within them. The sugars are then food for the yeast to do its job in many cases, however dependent on the types of malts and the temperature of the water the malt is mashed in at there will be different types of sugars that will react in different ways during fermentation and in the final product. The creation of a malt bill (the list of malts to be used in the brew recipe) for the brew and the execution of that to create the beer that the brewer is trying too is one of the most underrated skills in the Brewhouse. All great brewers pay huge attention to their mash, monitoring the temperature and the consistency to ensure the results they are after.

The mix of malts in the brew will also hugely affect the colour of the final beer. A dark beer is dark because the brewer has introduced dark malts to the malt bill (the list of malts to be used in the brew recipe). The malts will either have been naturally dark, like chocolate malts (as tasty as they sound!) or the malt will have been roasted (similar to coffee beans) which gives a dark colour and (not surprisingly) a roasty flavour.

Yeast

The magic ingredient… Yeast is a tiny organism that lives in the air around us. Originally beer was produced by letting a sugary liquid stand in the open air. The airborne yeast would be attracted to the sugary liquid, would eat the sugars and convert them to alcohol. What would be left is an alcoholic drink that would be fairly far removed to what we know as beer now. In this day and age we are very lucky that laboratories the world over produce strains of yeast, and a brewer can have exactly the same strain to introduce into his beer each and every time, ensuring that the final product will taste the same each time. Breweries are very protective over the cleanliness of their equipment as the yeast is a living organism and can easily become infected, ruining the beer. The exception to this are sour beers. The Belgians are best known for this type of beer, but it is produced the world over. Essentially the beer is left to ferment in open tanks (though wild yeast can be bought from the aforementioned laboratories, or harvested from the bottom of another bottle of sour beer), the airborne yeast infects the sugary liquid and hey presto, we have beer…….but sour. Tastes like nothing else on the planet, and for my part is my favourite style of beer!! 

                                                     A Heavily Fermenting Barrel

                                                     A Heavily Fermenting Barrel

The Brew Kit

Mash Tun

Where the hard work begins. The malts are introduced into the Mash Tun along with hot water (at around 70’C) where the malts release colour, flavour and most importantly their natural starches are converted to sugars. A Pale Ale will have (not surprisingly) very light malts, whereas a stout or a porter will have a much darker malt bill. After around 2 hours the Wort (the resulting sugary liquid) is ran off from the now spent malt and transferred over to the kettle.

Commercial brewers do their first bit of cheating at this part of the process. Rather than using the very best malts they can find they substitute malts for rice, wheat or corn which is much cheaper than malt. They can still extract the necessary sugars to create beer, but the resulting product will lack body and flavour and be very obviously inferior.

The Kettle

The Boil can take from 1 hour up to 12 in some very extreme cases but more normally takes around 1.5 hours. It is at this stage that hops are added to the wort to start to balance the extreme sweetness of the sugary wort. Traditionally hops were added to help preserve the beer (as they are a natural preservative) but they have developed into an integral part of the flavour and body of the beer.

Hops can be added at any point through the boil depending on what the brewer is trying to achieve. Hops added early in the boil will steep for much longer and release far more of their alpha acids (the reason hops impart bitterness) into the wort. Added later in the boil the hop will impart less bitterness and more flavour and aroma.

The boil also acts as a sterilisation process for the beer. Afterwards the beer is cooled down to around 18’C and transferred over to a fermentation vessel.

The Fermentation Vessel  

This is where the magic really starts to happen. The yeast is introduced into the newly boiled wort, where the little yeastie monsters begin to hungrily devour the sugars in the liquid. Over the course of around 7 to 14 days the yeast will gorge themselves, multiplying, creating alcohol and carbon dioxide. The beers final alcohol content is governed by the levels of sugar present in the beer when transferred from the mash tun right back at the start of the process. The higher the sugar content, the more work the yeast can do, and the higher final abv. There are various types of sugar present in the wort however and the yeast is only able to access some of them, hence why sugars can be left in the beer to create body and sweetness.

 

There are various different types of yeast and most of them do their work at the top of the FV. If you look into a FV as the fermentation process is happening you will see a maelstrom of activity, with a heavy white foam being produced. During a heavy fermentation it has been known for the foam to overflow the FV and spill onto the brewery floor. There is however an exception to this, and that is lager yeast. Lager yeast operates at the bottom of the FV, so if you were to look into the FV you would see very little activity. Ale yeast is known as ‘top fermenting’ and lager yeast as ‘bottom fermenting’. Imaginative names indeed.

The Conditioning Tank

Once the fermentation process has finished the yeast will be removed from the beer and the beer will be transferred to a Conditioning tank where the final part of the production process will take place. The beer will be slowly cooled down to around 0’C over the course of around a week and kept there for usually around 2 weeks, though this number can vary hugely from brewery to brewery, and can in the case of lager be extended up to 6 months (the word Lager is actually German for ‘cold storage’). It is during this period that all the flavours that have been lovingly imparted into the beer are able to blend and fuse together, creating depth and body, providing that wonderfully balanced product that will end in our glass. The cold storage process also allows brewers to stabilise the beer and extend the eventual shelf life of the product without having to add horrible chemical preservatives or pasteurising the beer.

 

Filtration

This is a hot topic in the world of craft beer and is one of the steps of the process that so differentiates commercial, large scale breweries from craft breweries. The final product in the conditioning tank is the beer that the brewer has so lovingly created, however this product needs to be cleansed and all the final larger bits of yeast and hop left over from the kettle and FV need removed. Large breweries producing tasteless products will filter the hell out of their beer, forcing the product through a filter with the tiniest holes, stripping away all the body and a lot of the flavour. A craft brewer wouldn’t dream of doing this after all the hard work put in creating that flavour, so in most cases will simply filter the beer through a far less dense filter. This is still a step too far for some though. There are various other methods including the centrifuge which essentially is a very high powered whirlpool which forces larger materials to the side allowing the clearer liquid to pass through.