From a basement batch of home brew to the commercial kettles of your local brewery, the rules and chemistry of brewing hold true for anyone cooking up a craft beer.
Southwest News Media stepped behind the scenes at Spring Park's Back Channel Brew Company and Minnetonka's Unmapped Brewing to learn how grain, yeast and water turn into your favorite after-work drink.
Anyone can brew
Mat "Olie" Olson, Back Channel's co-founder and brewer, and Marc Makarem, head brewer, are the driving force behind Back Channel's brews, and Derek Allmendinger is head brewer at Unmapped. Many commercial brewers, including Makarem and Allmendinger, started brewing with a kit in their own backyard.
What appealed to Allmendinger, who began brewing in 2005, was creating the craft drinks he enjoyed. For Makarem, it was the ability to experiment with new flavors.
"The thing that got me was being able to control what I'm making," Makarem said.
He recommends reading "The Complete Joy of Homebrewing" by Charlie Papazian or visiting howtobrew.com before starting with a home brewing kit, which starts buyers off with every component they need to start brewing. But in the end, experience is the best teacher.
"At the end of the day, it doesn't matter how much you read about it, you've got to do it," Makarem said.
Know your ingredients
Grains have names like Special B and Chocolate Malt and deliver notes of cherry, plum and chocolate. Makarem has spent hours tasting samples in grain rooms, seeking flavors that will turn out well in the final product.
"If you taste it in the grain beforehand, you'll taste it in the brew," he said.
Recipes can take up to 1,100 pounds of grain, which is cracked open in a grain belt, exposing the enzymes that will break the grain down in to sugar, Allmendinger said. He uses city water in his brews, which is packed with minerals like calcium and magnesium. Makarem and Olson pump their water through a reverse osmosis machine and add various amounts of city water back in to control the hardness of the water. Both methods make great beer, Allmendinger said.
"As long as you know the existing chemistry, you can work with it," he said.
The mixture of water and crushed grain, called a mash, boils for around an hour before the liquid, called a "wort," is drained out, ready to ferment into beer. At Back Channel, the remaining soggy grain is given to a local farmer, who uses it to feed his pigs and cattle, Olson said.
Turn on the heat
Contamination is the specter that lurks for a novice brewer, ready to infect a fermenting batch that hasn't been properly sterilized.
"It's easy to happen if you don't have the processes down," Makarem said.
Every commercial brewer thoroughly sterilizes every piece of equipment after it's been used to prevent contamination by unwanted bacteria. Makarem boils the wort for anywhere from 90 minutes to eight hours, which sterilizes it, removes the wort's dimethyl sulfide, which would make the beer taste like "celery or corn," Makarem said, and removes excess bitterness from hops, which are in every beer.
Boiling also means it's time for hops. Adding them at the end of the process allows the hops' flavorful oils to permeate the brew, while adding them at beginning of the boil emphasizes bitterness, which can balance out a sweeter brew. Hops growers are always churning out new varieties with innovative flavor profiles, Allmendinger said, to keep up with the demand for new beers.
"The question I get the most is, 'What do you got that's new?'" Allmendinger said. "Some people will never drink the same beer twice."
He's excited about two new hops that Unmapped received in late May: Sabro and 472, which is so new it doesn't have a name yet. Both look like small green pellets, but Sabro smells strongly of pineapple and 472 carries a distinct coconut fragrance.
When all the ingredients have been added, the brewers recirculate the wort to create a whirlpool in the kettle that makes any remaining sediment sink to the bottom and cools the liquid quickly, which preserves some of the hops' rich flavors. The final step is fermentation.
Watch the clock
Fermentation can take anywhere from 10 days for an ale to 35 days for a long-fermenting lager, Allmendinger said, noting the word means "to store" in German.
Olson and Makarem control Back Channel's six fermenting tanks with a smart display that allows them to make minute temperature changes between 50 and 70 degrees. They can sample a small amount of beer to test its sugar content and adjust the heat to speed up or slow down the yeast inside the tank. The yeast devour sugar and create ethanol and carbon dioxide, which creates the fizzy alcoholic beverage you recognize as beer.
If a brewer hasn't done their due diligence while sterilizing, this is where it shows, Makarem said. Yeast will create a foamy top to the brew, but an unwanted bacteria can create a filmy pellicle on top of the liquid or devour all the sugars, turning it to vinegar.
In general, you don't have to worry about serious illness from a contaminated batch, Allmendinger said: Most of the bacteria will cause an upset stomach at most. Brewers can even use an accidental vinegar to cook, and pellicles can result in a tasty sour beer.
Ask and learn
While Allmendinger, Olson and Makarem have their operations down to a science (for Allmendinger, complete with a centrifuge, test tubes and a microscope), they emphasize that home brewers do everything a commercial brewer does, just on a smaller scale. Home brewers often stop by with questions about how they achieved a flavor or color, and they're all happy to answer.
"I know what it's like, I've been there," Allmendinger said.
Plus, it's that element of community that makes the work worthwhile. Creating a product from scratch and watching strangers enjoy it is a feeling like none other, Olson and Makarem said.
"People work hard and then they come in here as the place to enjoy themselves," Makarem said.
"You truly get to see your product go into somebody's hand," Olson added.
Allmendinger and Unmapped's other two brewers focus on crafting beers that they enjoy and are always glad when a customer enjoys them.
"The fact that they come back is a compliment," Allmendinger said.