Through the Tap: How Beer is Made

If I’m going to be completely honest, I was never really a beer guy. I started out with ciders, then moved up to harder beverages like sake, whiskey, and gin. I even took tours to learn how these delicious drinks were made. I felt like I could sip on a dram of brown and look cool explaining to others why you could smell and taste certain notes of the different elixirs of choice, all while sticking my pinky out, which come on. Was totally the dream.  (Yes, I was that guy).

I love learning about the process of craft distilling, and I’m always looking for ways to learn more. Then I found out April marked the beginning of North Carolina’s Beer Month. An since craft brewing has exploded with happy drinkers in Charlotte over the past few years, I decided to put aside my prejudices and give craft beer a shot. (Liquor pun intended)

As I walked into The Unknown Brewing Company (which coincidentally is who hosted our last Films on Tap event ­ thanks Unknown!), I first let the bartender know I was recovering from a bad relationship with beer. Based on that information, she recommended I go for their Ginger Wheat Ale... and then she offered a sample.

I took a deep breathe. I raised the glass for a quick ‘Cheers!’ (stalling, obviously), and then had nowhere else to go. I put it to my lips.... And was pleasantly surprised! Not only did I not gag in disgust as anticipated, but I actually rather enjoyed this slightly gingery concoction. I ordered a glass and made my way through the double doors in the back of their taproom to start a tour of their brewery. Here’s what I learned about how they make their beer:

It starts with grains. Well, malted grains to be precise (pinky out!). “Malted” means the grain (barley or wheat) has been grown to a point when natural sugar­-producing enzymes are activated, and it’s slowly roasted and dried out to create the malt flavor in the beer.

A totally non self-plug image..

These grains are then broken up and put into the grain mill to soak and become the mash. Remember those enzymes I was talking about? It’s in here that they start to party and break down the starches into sugars. Once the sugars are broken down to make the sweetest mess around, that sweet liquid is drained into the next container and on to the next step in this delicious journey.

The sugary water is then boiled so that we have what’s called the “Wort.” At the beginning of the boil, hops are added. Hops ­­ the little green cones almost all beers are made of ­­ are used throughout this process for many reasons, but in the beginning they’re intended to add some bitterness to the sugary water we have so far and help balance what will inevitably end up in your glass. Towards the end, hops will be added more for flavor and smell.

Back to the tour! A whirlpool magically appears through the power of science to get rid of the rest of the debris. The wort is transferred to yet another container, where it’s cooled to 68*F. Yeast is already chilling inside, and once the still sugary liquid hits, fermentation begins.

Allow me to explain via a fun farm analogy: See, the yeast is like a pig. You feed it stuff in the hopes it will become delicious, fatty bacon after... farm things happen. But instead of bacon, with yeast you’re producing alcohol and carbon dioxide. The carbon dioxide is what helps carbonate the beer, while the alcohol... Well you get the point of that. Once the fermentation is done, the container is cooled to 32*F so the yeast stops doing it’s thing. It falls to the bottom of the container where it can be used a few more times before being discarded.

Finally, the beer is drained, the brewer allows it to finish carbonating, and then it’s bottled/barreled/canned and delivered to drinkers like you (and now me) to enjoy!

It’s up to you whether or not to enjoy your next beer with a pinky out (I do recommend it though!), but even if you’re just getting into beer (like me), it’s always fun and interesting to understand all that goes into making your favorite craft beer.