The by-product of yeast invisibly replicating itself is our beery bounty and that fungal fecundity gives us one of our most important preservative processes. The “ploughman’s lunch” may have originated as a cheesy bit of ’70s advertising copy but those horny-handed tillers of the sod would be eating the cheese-free version without the wonder that is fermentation. There would be no bread, pickles or beer either – so not much of a lunch at all, in fact.
The process of brewing may be longer and more complex than that of winemaking but the end-product is less complex. Don’t get me wrong – there is no man alive who loves beer more than I (or if there is, he should seek therapy immediately) but the beauty of beer is in some way in its very simplicity and straightforwardness, its honesty. If we want complexity then it is to be found in the huge palette of styles and flavours … a doom-dark dunkels doppel-bock is beer just as the lightest, laciest of lagers is beer and their footholds are analagous to those of, say, port and prosecco in the wine branch of the family tree of booze.
To make either of them the grain – inavariably barley, but wheat beer is big (I mean BIG) in Germany – is first soaked to induce the germination process and begin the release of the complex sugars locked up in the grains: after drying it’s further “kilned” to turn it into “malt” and the degree to which this is done determines much of the character of the beer – the darker the roast the darker the beer; after getting rid of the tiny sprouts from that brief germination period the malt is milled into “grist,” which then briefly becomes “mash” while it’s soaked in hot water in a mash tun before the liquid, now called “wort,” is separated and transferred to a brewing copper for the addition of the other three ingredients- water, hops and yeast. The purity and balance of minerals in the former is critical and almost mystical qualities are attributed by some brewers to the properties of the water they use – they get bored, I imagine, and pissed, of course.
No doubting the influence of the hops, though, – these primæval frilly pine cone-shaped green flowers are little resinous hand-grenades of super-charged bitterness and provide the descant flavour notes to malt’s baritone. They grow on vines (but called bines, like you have a heavy cold) in Kentish hop-gardens. They smell remarkably like their cousin marijuana – so they tell me – and have antiseptic, anti-inflammatory and preservative qualities in addition to their contribution to flavour. Discussion of the variety (the best-known English variety is Golding while Czech Saaz are the most revered), their preparation – dried or fresh (“wet-hopped”) and heady with resin – and the timing of incorporation (“late-hopped” for maximum impact) are matter for almost devout nerdism.
There is a myriad, a plethora, a cornucopia of ways of making – and tweaking – beer. Unfortunately, such things as myriads, plethoras and cornucopiae have a tendency to attract clouds of obscurantists, obfuscators and sophists. “I wanna go to an inn for some ale,” announced an in-coming Yank-in-law once, prompting the whispered conflab: “What the hell is ale? And what’s an inn?” We know in our bellies what they are but the unmemorable answer is that ales (the original beers) are top-fermented, i.e the yeast does its business on the surface of the brew. New-fangled lagers, devised only in 1842 in Plzen, Czechoslovakia as the first crystal-clear, light-coloured beer before going on to colonise the globe in double-quick time are made with bottom-fermenting yeasts and aged (“lagered”) for a period before consumption.
Bottle-conditioned beers have a little unfermented sugar remaining when bottled so undergo a second fermentation – a bit like Champagne – and they need careful pouring not to disturb the sediment (Worthington White Shield). All sorts of other ingredients are used from time to time, not necessarily to the detriment of the brew, both in the grist – rice, oatmeal, maize wheat – as well for manipulating body and alcoholic strength (sugar) and for flavouring – fruit, fruit peel, and herbs and spices like coriander, ginger, saffron and juniper. Don’t know about you, but it’s all making feel rather thirsty.