Updated: Oct 29, 2019
Brewing beer saved my sanity. After college I needed a creative outlet, something to keep my mind off of the miserable, monotonous jobs I bounced around to in the years following graduation. Brewing was the meeting ground - the crossroads for all the things I value and admire about art and science. Like a chef melding flavors of food and spice, brewers meld flavors of grains and hops. It's the creative culinary aspect of brewing that makes it an art, as there is no answer, no one golden way to do things or one almighty beer to brew. Each beer is different, carefully crafted by a brewer to achieve some intangible result only they understand.
The Art of Brewing
Good beer has balance. Not too sweet. Not to bitter. Just the right mouthfeel for the style of beer you are brewing. The descriptors are endless. When writing recipes or revising old ones, these descriptors come into play and influence the make-up of the main players in any beer recipe. Ingredients play a big role in the final outcome of a beers character. But the ingredients are merely the paint - the whole picture comes to life through the brewing process.
The art of brewing comes in balancing the characteristics of the ingredients with the changes induced by the brewing process. Much like a potato tastes different raw than when it's cooked, hops and barley flavors evolve over the weeks and months it takes to brew a beer. The best beers have a good balance of sweet and bitter. Barley (and other grains) add a malty sweetness, while hops add bitterness, and flavors ranging anywhere from piney to tropical fruit-like.
For myself, the most artistically satisfying aspect of brewing is creating beers that pair to events. For example, brewing a beer for your upcoming camping trip. Down in New Orleans, I regularly brew several batches of beer specifically for Mardi Gras. When you have something to brew for, it's easy to get inspired and really unleash your creativity.
The Science of Brewing
Brewing beer is not that hard...brewing GOOD beer is. The difference lies in the understanding of what's really going on in in the mash-tun, kettle, and fermenter. On brew day, there are various points where the ingredients are transformed into something else, releasing new characteristics and flavors. The first is during the mash, when sugars are extracted from the grain. The mash process leaves the grain solids behind and drains off the sweet fermentable sugars the yeast will later on metabolize. The molecular make-up of this liquid (now called wort) greatly influences how the yeast will transform the wort into the final product called beer.
The second transformation comes during the boil where the wort is transferred to the kettle and boiled for some time. The process pasteurizes the wort, preventing any bacteria from infecting the beer, and develops the malt flavor by caramelizing the grain sugars. Boiling the wort also releases volatile compounds that create off-flavors in the final product. Hops are added by a strict schedule carefully planned out by the brewer. Timing of hop additions effects the bitterness levels and aroma.
The third transformation, and perhaps the most important, occurs in the fermenter, where billions of yeast cells metabolize sugar and produce alcohol, carbon dioxide, and flavor compounds. Creating an ideal environment for the yeast is by far the trickiest part of brewing. Maintaining constant temperatures, adequate oxygenation, and transfer timing are the main factors that influence the final beer. The brewer's ability to track fermentation patterns and recognize trends between batches adds an analytical element to an already complex process.
Bring It All Together
The beauty of brewing lies in the balance of artistic creativity and scientific mindset. Many brewers, including myself, have a difficult time finding that balance, and often look to fellow brewers to collaborate with. Brewing in teams allows either brewer to contribute artistically or scientifically to the project, increasing the odds that your beer will be well balanced and creative. However, I encourage any new brewer to take a scientific approach initially. Learn HOW brewing works, especially fermentation. Once you have a good handle on that, let your creative side out and brew the perfect beer!
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