Beer, in the most general sense, is a mildly alcoholic beverage made from a fermented liquid extract of grains. Unlike winemaking, which is keyed to an annual harvest cycle, brewing is largely an “anytime” process, in which a given type of beer can be made by recipe, when and where the brewer wants. All beers are produced by more or less the same process, but minor differences along the way make all the difference in flavor, aroma, color, strength, and other attributes of individual beers and styles.

 The  following is a rough guide to the brewing process; more specifics are discussed elsewhere in the book in the profiles of various brewing styles. Some of the terms are defined in the Glossary of Brewing and Tasting Terms. But the best way to learn about the brewing process is to take a brewery tour; most brewers both large and small love to talk about the intricacies of their craft, offering samples of the results.

The basic ingredients of beer are water (up to 95 percent of the finished product), barley (and sometimes other grains), hops, and yeast, all of which are readily available to West Coast brewers. Most of the West was settled near sources of water, particularly the soft, neutral runoff from rain and snow that falls on the Cascades, Sierra Nevada, and other West Coast mountains. A lot of the barley used here is locally grown, although some brewers prefer the flavors of imported  grain.

While they make up a relatively small portion of the recipe, hops are an essential part of beer. The aromatic dried blossoms of a perennial vine native to central Europe, hops contain a complex blend of essential oils, acids, and tannins that give a distinctive aroma and refreshing bitterness to most  beer. Several places in the Pacific Northwest, especially the semiarid region east of the Cascades, turn out to have ideal soil and climate for hops, making this the largest hop-growing region outside Europe. Perhaps coincidentally, perhaps  not, West Coast brewers are among the world's most enthusiastic in the use of hops.

The first step in making beer, malting, usually takes place in a separate facility from the brewery. While it is possible to make beer from unmalted grains, malting converts barley to a form in which much more of the carbohydrates are available for fermentation. Roasting the malt stops the germinating process, which would otherwise turn the grains into green sprouts, and dries the malted grains so they can be stored without spoiling. Equally important, the degree of roast determines the color and flavor of the malt, from pale golden to almost black.

In the first step in the brewery, mashing, crushed malt grains are combined with warm water in a large vessel called the mash tun. In a few hours, the water dissolves the maltose, as well as small amounts of protein and other carbohydrates. The choice and combination of malts, from pale golden through various shades of brown to nearly black, determines  the color and flavor of the resulting liquid, called wort, and whether the final beer will be a delicate, pale golden lager, a thick, blackish stout, or anything in between.

After filtering, the wort goes into a brew kettle for the actual brewing, in which the wort is boiled with hops to destroy any remaining enzymes  or spoilage organisms and to extract the flavor of the hops. Brewers can select among dozens of varieties of hops, some with more bittering power, others especially aromatic. Because much of the aroma of the hops is lost in boiling, brewers sometimes add more hops at the end of the brewing stage.

From the brew kettle, the wort is strained again and rapidly cooled (sometimes using an intercoolerthat warms the next batch of wort) to the proper temperature for fermentation. The  brewer introduces a carefully cultivated strain of yeast, a single-celled fungus which grows rapidly in the wort, feeding on the sugar and converting it to ethyl alcohol and carbon dioxide. Here again, the brewer has choices to make: for ales, to ferment at warm cellar temperature with "top-fermenting" yeasts (so called because they form a thick, foamy mat on the surface of the liquid), or for lagers, to ferment at colder temperatures with a different variety of yeast that remains suspended throughout the wort and is known as "bottom-fermenting."

Early in the fermentation process, the carbon dioxide is allowed to escape, but at a certain point the brewer may seal the fermentation vessel so the gas stays dissolved in the beer. Others prefer to let the beer ferment to nearly flat, then reintroduce the CO2 under pressure to reach the desired level of carbonation.

Over the next few days (up to two weeks in the case of lagers), the yeast cells consume the sugar, then gradually die off for lack of food and settle to the bottom of the vessel. At this point the beer is transferred to another container for a resting or conditioning period. Ales are gener- ally ready for consumption after just a few days, while lagers (which take their name from a German word meaning to store) are held for at least two weeks at near-freezing before being packaged. After a final filtering (omitted in some cases, such as hefeweizens and  "cask-conditioned" ales), the beer is put into bottles or kegs for sale. With a few exceptions, beer is at its best as soon after packaging as possible, and  should be enjoyed within weeks or at most a few months.

Also from The Microbrew Lover's Cookbook

• Brewing in the West

• The Brewing Process and glossary of terms

• Beer at the Table

• From the Beer Belt (includes recipes)

• Pizza and Beyond (recipes)

• From the Spice Bazaar (recipes)

• Malt and Hops, Meet Ginger and Soy (recipes)

• From the Home of the Chile Pepper (recipes)

• Beer in the Melting Pot (recipes)

The Microbrew Lover’s Cookbook 

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From The Microbrew Lover’s Cookbook, Copyright © 2002 by Jay Harlow. Used by arrangement with Jay Harlow.