"Within the world of food and drink, there lives a family blessed with eternal life – the family of the fermented." - Michael Jackson, Beer
Beer is a drink made from fermented grain, most commonly barley, though wheat, rice, sorghum and millet are all used in different parts of the world.
The origins of beer may be lost in the mists of time, but there is no denying it has played an important role in cultures since the dawn of civilisation and continues to be an import part of today’s society. Ever since early man discovered that damp grains started to ferment under the right circumstances, the production of beer has been refined and formalized into styles. The Aztecs boasted their own beer gods; remains of beer have been found in Egyptian Pharaohs’ tombs; the Chinese were brewing beer in the same époque, based on millet and rice; and the Africans were making their own intoxicating drinks using sorghum and millet.
Beer in medieval times was a staple, like bread, rather than just a stimulating refreshment. It provided quick calories and as it was boiled and sterilised, it was safer to drink than water. In 3,000 BC an intoxicating drink made from grain was providing nutrition to the people of Egypt, and Roman records show that an alcoholic brew made from corn and water was drunk regularly across Northern Europe.
The Greeks recorded in 430BC that the Egyptians drank a wine which they got from barley, as they had no vines in their country. Outside the warmer wine regions the everyday drink was weak table beer. Stronger brews were used to celebrate the main religious and social occasions. According to Norse mythology, Valhalla, the warrior’s resting place was where Viking slain in battle passed their days happily drinking beer. In Denmark it was discovered that a young woman buried 3000 years ago had a pail of beer at her feet to help her after death.
Across Europe the monks helped to nurture the art of brewing. During the 5th century large-scale breweries could be found in all the main monastic settlements, supplying the monks and thirsty travellers. Gradually a number of monasteries began to sell their ale; and by the 9th century the St Gallen Abbey in Switzerland boasted its own maltings, mill and three brewhouses. The church used ale initially in communion and regarded it as a blessing from God. The city Munich derives its name from the German word for monks; the city still has a number of breweries with monastic origins. Throughout Europe a number of monasteries still brew beer today.
European royal families recognised the importance of breweries and the Bavarian royal family exercised a monopoly on brewing from the 1400s to 1800s. In Bohemia the town of Budweis made beer for the royal family and its beers were known as the “beers of kings”.
While wine has taken on a certain snobbish value with many wanting to study it, with huge sums being paid for certain bottles, beer has remained an affordable and dependable friend. While the upper classes of the Northern hemisphere were drinking wine the masses drank beer and its popularity grew as these countries industrialised. Beer being a long drink could rehydrate a steelworker or remove eight hours of cold dust from a miner’s throat. Its malt sugar could restore his energy, and it worked as hard as he did.
Industrialisation and improvement in transportation led to brewing on the large scale we are used to today. Water is heavy so transportation is hard; hence many breweries were located by rivers. The development of canals and the spread of railways allowed for the movement of large casks and the steam engine allowed breweries to increase capacity. Whitbread installed a steam engine in its factory in London as early as 1785.
The 19th century saw the development of pilsner in the Bohemian town of Plzen, a golden coloured bottom-fermented beer produced in the German cold fermented lagering style. Demand for chilled beer was growing and brewers wanted to be able to brew all year round so the advent of mechanical refrigeration changed the industry. In 1870Anheuser-Busch launched a fleet of refrigerated railway wagons and the concept of ice-cold, pale lager had arrived.
With wine, fermentation is a fairly simple process; natural yeasts present on the skins will begin to convert the grapes’ natural sugars as soon as they are crushed. Barley, however, does not contain these sugars in a form that yeast can readily consume. Before fermentation can begin, it is necessary to convert the starch in the grain into fermentable sugars. The first stage of this is done by malting, a process designed to trick the grain into germinating and producing enzymes which will break down the complex starches.
The grain is first steeped in water for a couple of days, then left to stand; traditionally spread out on the floor of a maltings, where it would be turned and raked regularly by hand in order to aerate it. More modern maltings have giant revolving drums which blow air through the grain as it turns. This causes the grain to germinate, starting natural chemical processes which begin to change proteins into enzymes, which will in turn convert starches into sugar. If the grain continues to grow it will use up these enzymes; and so once an optimum level is reached the germination is halted. This is done by cooking the grain by heating it in a kiln.
Initially the malt is heated to 60°C to arrest the germination process, the temperature is then increased and maintained for a period of time. The temperature and length of the kilning play an essential role in deciding the character of the final beer, with a spectrum ranging from ‘white malt’ for lagers, through ‘pale malt’ for lighter ales all the way to ‘amber’, ‘chocolate’ and ‘black malt’. Irish stout makes use of heavily kilned unmalted barley. After the kilning is complete the malt is ground to a coarse flour and soaked in hot water in a mash tun; and the starches begin to break down into sugars. At this stage other grains may be blended in if desired, the most common being wheat, maize or unmalted barley. This mash is left for a couple of hours to allow all the starch to convert to sugar, then the sweet liquid, known as ‘wort’, is run off and put into a giant kettle-like piece of equipment called a ‘copper’. Here the wort is heated and boiled which sterilises it and releases oils and flavours from the hops which are typically added in batches at various stages to ensure optimum flavour extraction.
Once the wort has cooled it is transferred to large steel fermentation tanks ready for the addition of yeast. Depending on the style of beer, different strains will be used. The main varieties are saccharomyces cerivisiae, top fermenting yeasts that act at relatively warm temperatures (15-20°C) and are used in the production of ales; and saccharomyces calsbergensis, bottom fermenting yeasts that prefer cooler temperatures (around 10°C) and are used to make lagers. Belgian lambic beers are fermented by wild yeasts such as Brettanomyces lambicus and B. bruxelliensis. The beer will then be left to ferment for seven days or more before being transferred to conditioning tanks where it will mature and mellow. Lagers will be kept longer and at a colder temperature for this stage. Once ready, the beer will then be filtered, packaged and pasteurized (although some beers remain unpasteurized, and others, such as bottle conditioned beers and English real ales, will not have the yeast filtered out).