Beer 101: Fermentation

I know I’m skipping around a little bit (after all, there are several steps that come before fermentation in the brewing process), but it’s kind of because fermentation is my favorite. After all, it’s responsible for some of the best-tasting things in life: beer, wine, cheese, and chocolate to name a few. It’s a  crucial step, chemically, as it creates the alcohol that we all enjoy (presumably you enjoy alcohol – you are on a beer blog).

Beer 101 Fermentation

Photo from uncommoncaribbean.com

The Basics

Fermentation, at its very simplest, is the chemical process by which yeast converts the malts‘ sugar (glucose) into ethyl alcohol and C02 gas – this yields both the alcohol content and the carbonation that make beer, well, beer.

 

We’ve explained a little bit that temperature is important for this process, depending on the kind of yeast being used and the beer style that is being made – an ale needs to be kept at 68 degrees Fahrenheit for about two weeks and a lager needs to stay at 48 Fahrenheit for about six weeks. This process creates a lot of heat as a byproduct and so the container in which the fermentation happens generally needs to be carefully cooled.

To avoid contamination by stray, wild yeasts, fermentation tanks are generally sealed off from the air with only a small vent for the CO2 buildup to exit the tank.

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The Details

I’m no chemist, so I’m not going to go into that level of detail! However, there are some interesting things that go on during the fermentation process that need to be addressed. Yeast basically works in two stages during fermentation: the primary stage and the anaerobic phase.

In the primary stage, the yeast consumes all of the oxygen in the cooled and aerated wort mixture. During this stage, sterols (which are a type of cholesterol that make up part of the yeast’s cell wall) are produced. These sterols allow the cell wall to be permeable so sugar and alcohol can move in and out of the yeast cells; they also allow the yeast to survive in an increasingly alcoholic environment

Once that oxygen is gone, the yeast moves into the anaerobic phase, during which most of the sugars in the wort are turned into ethanol and CO2. Additionally, flavor compounds like esters (fruity notes) , diacetyl/ketones (butterscotch notes), fusel alcohols (responsible for a hot or burning sensation), and other chemicals that can make or break the flavor of a final beer.

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Other Uses for Fermentation

Cacao seeds must be fermented (often out in the sun, on large tarps) before being dried and then roasted in order to create the chocolate flavor that we know.

In winemaking, fermentation begins naturally when the skin of grapes is broken and the wild yeast on them and in the air begin the primary fermentation stage, turning sugar in to alcohol.

Fermentation happens several times along the journey from milk to cheese, developing flavors and even creating the famous holes in Swiss cheese.

The workhhorse of bread making, yeast-based fermentation creates the textures, flavors, and rise in bread doughs.

Pickles, sauerkraut, kimchee, and more can be fermented during the pickling process, allowing natural bacteria to create acids needed to preserve foods.

 

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Review: New Belgium Brewing Company Fat Tire

If you’re on the east coast like me, this is a pretty prevalent beer. It’s easy to find six packs of it, even in convenience store fridges, and it’s not hard to locate it on tap at many bars. Even if you’re at a dive bar or sports bar, which may not serve the widest variety of brews, Fat Tire is becoming a more common option on draft. For me, it’s a solid go-to beer in bars that I might otherwise be very unhappy in.

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New Belgium Brewing Company, based out of Fort Collins, CO, has been brewing since 1991. They opened a second location in 2012 in Asheville, North Carolina, a notoriously beery town. This opened up their ability to distribute in the east and southeast of the US and the beer has spread like wildfire since then. As of October 2016, New Belgium beers are available in 45 states.

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It pours a dark golden color with a slight reddish hue to it. There’s a small, off-white head that sticks around for some time. The beer smells grainy and bready to me, but doesn’t have a particularly strong nose to speak of.

The taste is malty and balanced with almost no hops at all. It’s sweet (but not cloying or unpleasant) with caramel and toffee notes. I’d say that the mouthfeel is a little on the thin side and with a higher carbonation level. It paired well with chicken breast roasted with Turkish spices (garlic, cumin, oregano, paprika, and sumac) and some roasted root vegetables. I’d say it stood up fine to some of those stronger flavors and continued to be refreshing as it warmed up.

Beer 101: Yeast

Yeast is one of the four main ingredients that go into making beer, beautiful beer. The others are hops, malt, and water (this post is next in my Beer 101 series). There are certainly other ingredients that can be added to the beer process, but these four are the core pillars that hold up the whole thing.

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These itty bitty single-celled microrganisms are technically classified as a fungi. They reproduce by an asymmetric division process called budding. Their job is to convert fermentable sugars from the malt into alcohol and other byproducts. There are hundreds of varieties and strains of yeast out there, some of which are commonly used to brew beer.

Yeasts are generally put into one of two categories: ale yeast (top fermenting) or lager yeast (bottom fermenting), depending on how they behave during the fermentation process. There’s also a nebulous third category, known as spontaneously fermenting yeasts, which result when beer is left exposed to the air and is literally infected with wild yeast strains as they wander by – this is what creates sour beers.

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Ale yeasts generally sit on top of the beer-to-be, fermenting away between temperatures of 10° to 25°C (though some yeasts won’t activate below 12°C). These guys rise up to the surface, forming a thick raft of a head as they bubble away. These yeasts tend to yield beers higher in esters, which are the chemicals that give fruits their characteristic flavors. In the case of Hefe Weizen beers, the yeast produces the ester iso-amyl acetate, the same one that is found in bananas. Other esters include ethyl acetate, which can be flowery, and ethyl caproate, which is kind of wine-like and fruity. Top-fermenting yeasts are used for brewing ales, porters, stouts, Kölsch, Altbier, and wheat beers.

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Lager yeasts create much less of a head and tend to settle at the bottom of the tank as fermentation nears completion. They grow less rapidly than the ale yeasts and don’t create that layer of thick foam on top of the beer. These yeasts work at lower temperatures, around 7° to 15°C.

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In addition to making beer the alcoholic beverage that we so enjoy, it also has a large impact on the flavor of the final beer. The flavor and aroma of beer is complex and is influenced by  many factors, including malt, hops, and the yeast strain. The synthesis of yeast creates many byproducts, including ethanol (alcohol), CO2 (carbon dioxide), and also some flavor compounds like clove, butterscotch, and green apple.

Yeast may be tiny and invisible to the naked eye, but it plays a huge role in making beer what it is.

 

 

Review: Great Divide Samurai Rice Ale

Normally, gluten-free or rice-based beers are just not up my alley. Rice is often an additive in cheap, mass-market swill and so it has, to me, a negative connotation (which is maybe an unfair attitude of mine, but that’s another post for another day). GF/rice-based beers have, generally, been fine, but a relatively unimpressive lot. All the same, I have to say that I enjoyed Great Divide‘s Samurai Rice Ale.

Now, I have to clarify: Samurai is not a gluten-free beer; barley is still used in the brewing process.

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I enjoyed this beer on draft at Noraneko Ramen in the waterfront district of Portland, OR. And let me tell you, Noraneko is an experience not to be missed. I know ramen shops are a bit popular these days, but not all of them do an amazing job. Noraneko really does. I ordered their regular  shoyu ramen with the “special egg” (a soft-boiled egg soaked in vinegar and soy sauce, if I know my ramen toppings) and the pork belly chasyu (slowly braised to perfection).  I also ordered kara age (fried chicken) and tsukemono (pickled vegetables) for the table to share.

The chicken and some of the pickles may have been a little too salty, but the ramen itself was very good. A fine portion for $9. Mild broth, not too salty, and with firm noodles that don’t just fall apart. The pork  belly was tender and flavorful and the egg was exactly right (I love a soft/runny yolk). The toppings included some bamboo shoots, green onion, and leafy greens, but the egg and meat are add-ons and will run you about $3 per item. It adds up, but it’s a great meal.

Right! Sorry ! Beer! Good Japanese food just gets me all excited.

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The Samurai was a draft beer poured into a pint glass. It was a beautiful golden color with a smallish white head. Not much of a nose on it – maybe a hint of cereal and something a little floral. It was served quite cold, so the smells may not have opened up yet. It tasted a little sweet at first, but very light overall. There may have even been a hint of something fruity to it. It was lightly hoppy, and a tad citrusy, but not “fruity” I guess. Not compared to, say, something like Mad Fox’s Orange Whip IPA.

It ended up as a very easy to drink beer, perfect for some flavorful food, which is kind of why I ordered a lighter rice-based ale in the first place.

My friend Sara ordered the Pho-style ramen bowl and an Off Color Troublesome Gose (which turns out to be a blend of two beers: a wheat yeast ale with coriander and a second beer brewed only with Lactobacillus bacteria). The Gose had a very sour nose, a zippy lemon taste, and a fairly light finish. James had the special BBQ ramen bowl (he was saddened by the lack of protein in it, save for the little scraps of what seemed to be brisket ends at the bottom of the bowl) and the Samurai rice ale along with me.

Cheers to good beer, good friends, and good food!

 

 

Review: Worthy Brewing Farm Out Saison

Bend, Oregon haunts me. I did enjoy my short jaunt there about a year and a half ago, during which my friends and I tried at least two dozen beers across eight breweries. Two days wasn’t enough to see all of the places we would have liked, but it did give me a taste of the place: beautiful high plains country and mountain slopes as far as the eye could see. It was peaceful there. Peaceful and full of beer.

 

Worthy Brewing hails from Bend, like so many other wonderful small breweries do. Like several other of the beers that I’ve had this trip, they call the central Oregon town home. In this way, I swear, Bend is haunting me. I just keep arbitrarily grabbing beers that piqued my interest and they turned out to be Bend natives.

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Worthy Brewing Farm Out Saison was another off-the-shelf pick from the Belmont Station bottle shop. It is a seasonal brew, available from June through September, and Worthy calls it a Belgian-style ale. A Saison beer is generally a French or Belgian spring-time brew using a European Pilsner malt. They were traditionally made in a farmhouse brewery to quench the thirst of the farmhands that would populate the farm in the summer. It tends to be low ABV (alcohol level) often made with local yeasts and other local ingredients, giving each take on a Saison a unique flavor profile.

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This beer poured out a beautiful golden hue from a 22oz bomber and into a pint glass. It featured a lacy white head, which dissipated very quickly. I really was taken by the color. It had a slightly sour, funky nose to it. Maybe a little fruity and a bit grainy-smelling. The first sip was very highly carbonated to me, featuring only a very, very faint hint of banana and clove essence. It was a touch bready-tasting. There were notes of peppercorn and fresh, green grass.

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It was very drinkable, very enjoyable, nice to sip on over a few hours while watching a movie with friends. It warmed up nicely, continuing to be pleasantly grainy. I suppose I have to say that I wanted more banana and clove taste from this beer. It’s personal taste, but I really like the banana flavor profile that a lot of Saisons tend to bring to the table. This may be because I am allergic to bananas and this is the only way I can get my fix, but I still just like the taste of them. So, I guess, Worthy Brewing Farm Out Saison is solid, but maybe just a little lacking in depth of flavor.

 

 

 

Review: Deschutes Black Butte Porter

Black Butte Porter is the flagship beer of Deschutes Brewery of Bend, Oregon. They call it “the beer that started it all.” For me, it was one of the first west coast beers that I’d ever had and so, in some way, it started a lot for me, too.

I had this beer on draft at Dar Salam, an Iraqi restaurant in Portland, Oregon.It was their only draft option (they only had one tap in the Alberta location) and it was on happy hour special, so it was an easy choice.

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It poured a dark, almost-black brown with a small, light tan head. It didn’t offer much in the way of aroma, but that may be because it was served extremely cold. Cold was fine; Black Butter Porter is a very easy-drinking beer and this temperature works just fine with it. It tasted of roasted, toasty malts. It was not dry (as some roasty porters can be) and a hint sweet. There were subtle notes of chocolate to it.

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Black Butte Porter is a strong, sturdy beer without being overwhelming. It’s an excellent, well-balanced porter that people who want to learn about dark beers should definitely try. It paired well with the strong flavors of the Iraqi food. Flat bread and a fig dip, a salad with feta and sumac dressing, a big falafel sandwich (which was delightful, by the way) – the porter held up. I could definitely still taste it after I’d eaten my flavorful meal.

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Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, several Deschutes beers are readily available in the D.C. area. They travel far to come and bring us east coasters joy. I’ve absolutely seen the Black Butte Porter and the Mirror Pond Pale Ale in local pubs out here. I’m so grateful for the craft beer movement that has made such a variety of beers easier to find with every passing year.

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I’m writing this from home, having returned from Portland a week ago (though I’m still working on a backlog of beer reviews from when I was out there) and I’m pretty determined to live out there in about a year. I’m in a very tumultuous time in my life (divorce, my own health issues, a very sick parent, job hunting), but this blog gives me something to look forward to and enjoy doing. it gives me joy. It gives me hope.

Beer 101: Hops

You’re going to hear me talk about a hops a lot in this blog. Partly because they’re a huge part of what makes beer, well… beer. But also because my tastes run toward IPAs right now and those tend to be hoppy by nature.

This first post in my Beer 101 series will take a look at what hops are, how they are used in the brewing process, and the effects they have on the flavor profile of a finished beer.

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Hops are one of the key pieces of beer brewing (the others being water, grains, and yeast) and are the flower of the female hops plant, Humulus lupus, which is related to the hemp family. Hops contain an essential oil that the tongue reads as being very bitter. This dry, bitterness can be used to balance out the sweetness that the malts in a beer create. Hops also act as a natural preservative and have antibacterial properties.

A beer made without hops can exist, but it would be cloyingly sweet and very one-note. Hops aren’t the only plant that can be used to flavor beer. Spruce, herbs, flowers and more can be used. But hops are the go-to if the brewer isn’t making anything too out there.

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Let us turn our attention to this helpful graphic! The parts of the hops flower are easily labelled here. The entire flower can be used as-is, though compressed pellets of hops exist and are used by some brewers to flavor their beer. Deep inside of these buds are little packets of resins and oils that lend that bitter flavor profile to beer.

Hops are actually kind of a newcomer in beer brewing, when you consider that beer has been made for around 9,000 years. Beer’s origins are more closely linked to the malt ingredients in the brew and were made with grains and yeast from bread making in its early years. Hops were first used in beer around 822 AD and even then, somewhat sparsely. Before the use of hops, beers were flavored and preserved using a mix of spices and fruits called “gruit” or “grut.”It’s really only in the last 200 years that hops have had their day.

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There are several steps in the brewing of beer and hops can be added into the mix at almost any of them, depending on what the flavor profile goal is. Hops can be added before or during the first boil of the beer, in the mash tun, or during tank or barrel conditioning. Each of these choices will affect the final beer product’s taste.

There are also a wide variety of hops available, each bringing its own unique flavor profile to the mix. There are several Continental or Noble Hops, which originated in central Europe and have a mild bitterness and spicy/floral aromas: Hallertau, Tettnang, Spalt, and Czech Saaz. English hops, which are herbal, grassy, and fruity: East Kent Goldings, Fuggle, Challenger, Target, and Progress. Bright, fruity, and resinous American hops: Cascade, Centennial, Chinook, Willamette, and Amarillo.

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Photo from menuinprogress.com

The above list is far from comprehensive. There are a large number of hops that I didn’t name in those little lists, many of which are American hops that are being hybridized, grown, studied, and analyzed even by Universities. There have been exciting new hops making their way into the market over the last decade.

So while hops aren’t truly necessary to brewing beer, what we think of as modern beer just wouldn’t be the same without them. So the next time you hear some know-it-all like me talking about “hoppiness” or “a hop-forward beer,” you can understand that I’m trying to find a way to describe the aromatic and bitter flavor profile that these plants bring to beer.

Review: Stillwater Artisanal G13

Har har, I know, I know. I went to Oregon to get local beers there and accidentally bought a beer from my home state. I see the irony. You don’t need to point it out. I’ll admit that the label on the bottle seduced me; I have no background in graphic design myself, but I can definitely appreciate when it’s done well. The Stillwater Artisanal G13 bottle is very attractive to the eye and very different from the art on many other typical beer bottles.

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It is described as an wild India Pale Ale aged on cedar. The word “wild” is something very key here. It means that a wild yeast called Brettanomyces is introduced during the brewing process, which can produce very unpredictable results int he areas of funk, spice, and acidity. Beers that are spiked with this yeast get the affectionate nickname of a “Brett IPA.” And, as far as Bretts go, this is a pretty good one.

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This beer was poured from a 22oz bomber bottle into a pint glass. It poured a medium golden yellow with a generous white head that left behind minimal lacing. It smelled like a tangy, tropical fruit and maybe something a little sour, and something a little grassy-green. If I remember correctly, my brain wanted me to think that I was smelling pineapple or passion fruit.

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It tasted like a wheat beer with some subtle banana or pineapple notes over a layer of what I swear tasted like hay or straw. It is, in my opinion, on the very cusp of being a sour beer – which I like and am for – but it doesn’t quite reach that level of zippiness. I would say that it has medium to high carbonation, making it sort of fun to drink. It’s not bitter at all and has a very clean aftertaste.

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The G13, it seems, was brewed only once. Perhaps it will never be made again and I was lucky enough to have a taste of its only iteration. Or perhaps they will brew it again, but the Brettanomyces yeast will do its magic and create another slightly different, unique beer. Who knows? Either way, I’m happy I got to try it.

Review: Stormbreaker Mississippi Red

With a name like “Mississippi Red,” you’d think that this beer would have been brewed in the south somewhere, offering up a salute to the famous river. You would, it seems, be wrong. I sure was. Stormbreaker Brewing is located in my west coast base of operations: Portland, Oregon. Mississippi, it turns out, is the name of the street that the brewery calls home.

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This beer describes itself as a “dry hopped red ale” so I was expecting a decent hop wallop from it. In that category, it disappointed me. It was not terribly hoppy. It was not as hoppy as I expected. It was not as hoppy as many other reds that I’ve had. And it was not as hoppy as many dry-hopped beers I’ve had.

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Poured into a pint glass from a 22oz bomber bottle, this beer poured a deep red-brown. It smelled a little like an IPA, hoppy and maybe a little herbaceous with lots of brown ale notes (not brown sugar, though). At the first sip, it was perhaps a little sweet and not really hoppy at all. I was surprised. After a few more tastes, it seemed like a very well-balanced beer. Perhaps it was a touch sweet (though not much compared to, say, a dopplebock).

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I’ve got to say, I was kind of disappointed. It underwhelmed me. It wasn’t really a brown ale, nor was it really a hoppy red. It was a bit neutral and somewhat unimpressive overall. Maybe it was trying too hard to be too many thing.

If someone offered it to me, I’d definitely drink it again, but I don’t think it’s a beer I’ll ever buy another time. I’m still willing to give Stormbreaker more chances the next time I’m out in Portland.

Craft Beer Beginnings

Beer as a part of pop culture is nothing new. It’s been deeply tied to sports culture for decades and plays a big role in poker nights and movie nights everywhere. The idea of a cold brew paired with some kind of entertainment is etched deeply into our American brains.

Frat parties and beer chugging didn’t originate with the 1978 movie Animal House, but the parody of Greek culture popularized the idea of wearing a bedsheets toga while shotgunning a beer. Cheers let us know that there’s somewhere where everybody knows your name and where you can get a cold brew. Budweiser dropped memorable commercials full of clydesdales and people shouting waaaazzzzup at one another during big events like the Super Bowl.

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The thing is, most of these examples come from an era before the craft beer movement was even a twinkle in most brewers’ eyes. Generally, frat parties, Super Bowl parties, and neighborhood watering holes have featured – and continue to feature – sub-par swill from the biggest brewers and distributors in the world. These watery, additive-filled beers are best served icy cold (so you can’t taste them) and drunk quickly (so they don’t get warm, so you can’t taste them) while paying attention to something else.

But there’s been a shift in the past 20 years, and an even more rapid progression toward craft brewing and wide distribution in then past 10. It was only in 1982 that Hilton Harvest House in Boulder, Colorado, hosted a mere 20 breweries (serving only 35 beers) for the first Great American Beer Festival. Today, the annual event features more than 2,000 beers. I’d call that a turning point in the trends of what really mattered to beer drinkers.

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The Boston Beer Company was founded in 1984 and, better known as Sam Adams, it revolutionized the kind and quality of beer that was being made readily available to drinkers in the U.S. While it is now debatably too big to be called a “craft brewery” any longer, it was undeniably a huge influence on the movement as we know it. Love it or hate it, the Boston Beer Company shaped the way we drink today.

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Photo from phillymag.com

The United States is now home to over 4,000 breweries and that number is growing every month. Not all will survive. Business is booming for craft beer, sure, but it’s not sure thing. Remember: closings are a sign of competition and not necessarily a problem or a brewing “bubble” that might soon pop. Competition is good. It’s healthy. It pushes those businesses that do survive to be better, smarter, and more dedicated to their craft.

Still, let us raise a glass to fallen friends (and fallen breweries) and hope that we can all be as hard-working and successful as those who continue to thrive.