Chapter 3: The Art of Brewing and Distillation
The art of brewing is an energy-intensive process that requires both thermal energy and electrical energy to boil, cool and ultimately package the completed product. It takes many years of study and experience to master the art, but the basic steps for brewing beer begin with malting the barley. As mentioned above, whole grain barley needs to be malted before it can be used in the creation of beer. The same process will also need to be conducted for the creation of malt whiskey.
However, many brewers may not need to worry about malting their own grain, as malt extract is available in the modern age. The extract provides the sugars needed to begin the mashing, boiling and fermentation processes. The early steps for whiskey are nearly identical to those of beer. For beer, the sugary wort is fermented with yeast and then the conditioning process begins, while creating the spirit occurs through distillation and aging in wooden casks.
These are the steps involved in making both whiskey and beer:
Milling is a means of processing the grain that will be used in the mashing process, and is a vital step that needs to be conducted before you can begin making beer. The grain is crushed through milling in a way that exposes the starch of the seeds without destroying the hull in which they are encased. As mentioned above, the starches of the grain are converted into sugars.
Milling is so important that, if it’s not performed correctly, it will prevent the proper creation of the beer. If not enough starch is exposed because the grain is milled too thick, the essential fermentable sugars will not be present for the yeast during fermentation. Likewise, if the barley is crushed too finely, the husks will not provide a natural filter during the process, making it unusable for brewing.
Following the milling process, you’re ready to begin mashing, which will activate all of those rich enzymes in the malted barley. This is conducted by adding the milled barley to a large vessel with heated water that allows the starches to be converted into the essential sugars that will be metabolized by the yeast.
Mashing involves monitoring the temperature of the mash so that the desired results can be achieved. If temperatures are low, more fermentable sugars are generated. Higher temperatures result in sugars with a slower digestion for the yeast. This yields a sweeter flavor. After approximately one hour of mashing and allowing the starch of the barley to be converted into a sugared liquid, the process of “mashing out” ends the process and is conducted by raising the temperature to around 200 degrees Fahrenheit.
Now that the sugars have been generated through the mashing process, it’s time to separate the grain from the liquid, known as the wort, from one another.
Lautering is conducted by separating the mash into a lautering tun so that the wort can be drained. Additional water is then added to the remaining mash to further the extraction of sugars in a process called sparging. This is usually done by adding additional water as the wort is being drained. In this process, the grain husks act as a natural filter, which is why milling should be conducted properly, or it will ruin the final product.
After lautering, the wort, or the sugary liquid that separated from the mash, is boiled over a period of one to two hours. Boiling is an important process that not only sterilizes the brew, but also breaks down the acids of the hops, which act as a spice to flavor the beer.
As mentioned above, hops can be added after fermentation through dry hopping, but if they’re added at the boiling stage, they will imbue the brew with their bitterness and acidity. If they’re added later, the hops will not lend the same flavor, but will instead contribute aromatic properties. Depending on the temperature and duration of their addition, hops can change the overall taste and aroma of the finished product. Typically, the final 15 minutes of the boiling process is when most brewers will add the hops.
Following the boiling process, the wort is then whirlpooled before being cooled. This step is done to gather any stray remnants of the hops or accumulations in the wort. To prevent oxidation, cooling the wort as quickly as possible is important, and whirlpooling also helps chill the liquid faster.
Whirlpooling results in a better overall flavor for the final product. This is done in a variety of ways — with a spoon for small operations, or with a pump for larger breweries.
Cooling the wort during and after whirlpooling is an important step for preserving the flavors and aromas of the final product.
The cooled wort, which will be converted into either beer or malt whiskey, is at this point ready for the fermentation of the sugars through yeast. Depending on the style of beer, or the desire to create malt whiskey, different strains of yeast are selected based how they will metabolize the sugars of the wort at the desired temperature. The fermentation process is where ethanol is born, and carbon dioxide is produced along with other byproducts like esters — which create the rich flavors and styles of beer we have come to know.
For stronger flavors like ales, fermentation is relatively short and occurs at room temperature, while longer fermenting periods are needed to yield lagers, which typically occurs at temperatures between 45 and 55 degrees Fahrenheit. For whiskey, distiller’s yeast is added in place of top-fermenting ale yeast or bottom-fermenting lager yeast, and is cast into a vessel known as the washback, which yields ethanol as well.
At this point, the processes involved in making beer and malt whiskey diverge. The fermented wort to make whiskey is moved to a still for distillation, a process that purifies the substance into a spirit through thermal energy and condensation.
Conditioning and Distilling
For beer, the fermentation process has now generated ethanol and the distinctive carbonation of the beverage, but it has also generated some other flavors that are not intended in the final product.
After fermentation, the beer is allowed to mature, or be conditioned, as the yeast continues to metabolize and absorb some of the less desirable flavors present in the brew. This process can take upwards of a week for ales and possibly several weeks for the production of lagers. As the beer matures, the yeast settles and finishes its role in the process before being filtered out of the product, leaving only the beer left for packaging. This is done through filtering, and can be sped along mechanically or with filtering agents.
For the creation of malt whiskey, the fermented wort, or wash, is sent to be distilled. Distillation stills are commonly made from copper, which is conducive for siphoning away impurities from the spirit. The shape of the still, commonly rounded on the bottom with a short neck at the top, will also help determine the flavor of the malt whiskey. The taller the still, the more likely it is you can produce a lighter spirit, while shorter necks provide a richer, fuller spirit.
Distillation is a process where the wash is heated, causing the liquid to evaporate. The narrow neck will capture this vapor, causing condensation and generating the spirit. From there, it’s taken to oak casks and matured over a length of time, resulting in its unique flavor. The spirit’s elements, combined with the properties of the wood over a period of years, is what gives whiskey its color, aroma and flavor. Because wood allows air to seep in, air quality, temperature and humidity can all affect the final product.
For each year a whiskey is aged, approximately two percent escapes in the form of evaporation, which is known as the “angel’s share.” The older the whiskey, the less there is to bottle.
The final step of the process is packing the beer, or malt whiskey, so it is deliverable to the consumer. Whiskey is typically bottled, but beer can be packaged in kegs, bottles or cans.
Since much of the carbon dioxide from fermentation escapes during brewing, the packaging process is when most brewers add the carbonation back into their beer. This is done by forcing carbon dioxide directly into the product or by adding additional yeast to the bottles, which will continue the fermentation process and absorb any oxygen that finds its way into the beer.
Compressed air systems assist in bottling and canning beer. Compared to doing it manually, these systems greatly expedite the packaging process, provide cost savings, and increase energy efficiency at distilleries and breweries.
Brewing and distilling is a highly energy-intensive process, and in combination with refrigeration and packaging, compressed air requirements for brewers consume approximately 70 percent of the total electrical energy involved. Because of the high demand for compressed air systems in packaging, energy efficiency is essential in reducing energy expenses — especially for microbreweries who typically do not generate the same kind of profit margins as larger breweries.