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Feature Fri Jan 15 2010

Home Brewed In Chicago, Part 1: The Beer Primer

There is a practice in Chicago that's as traditional as the old world, yet as robust and proud as the American Dream itself: Brewing.

Taking water, malted barley, hops, and yeast, and with a little bit of work and patience transforming those four ingredients into a magically delicious beverage that is the third most popular in the world and found in nearly every culture on the face of this planet throughout history.

As the Midwest metropolis, Chicago has history of brewing that goes all the way back to the city's founding. German immigrants built the first brewery in Chicago in 1833, the same year the city was incorporated. Beer was the reason for Chicago's first civil disturbance during the Lager Beer Riot in April of 1855. And by 1900, Chicago was home to 60 breweries that pumped out more than 100 million gallons a year.

20 years later, Prohibition put paid to that industry as the majority of those breweries closed their doors.

Brewing on that scale in Chicago has never recovered, but the 1980's renaissance in craft and micro-brewing meant a small resurgence. And today, breweries and brewpubs abound.

Strolling into your local brewpub and supping down a delicious ale or lager is easy, but more rewarding is reaching into your refrigerator, and taking out a bottle of beer that you've made yourself. While home brewing in Chicago isn't anywhere as popular as it is in the Pacific Northwest, as a hobby it couldn't be easier to get into. But before we discuss the process, let's take a look at the ingredient list:

Water

We drink it. We bathe in it. We wash our clothes in it. And we live right next to one of the world's largest sources of it.

When it comes to brewing, cleanliness is imperative, and when it comes to water some brewers will swear by filtered water, bottled water, or distilled water. Fortunately, Chicago has some of the best water quality in the nation right out of the tap, and a medium hardness that makes it really good for brewing. Why? Because the dissolved ions in water can directly affect the taste of your brew. Chicago's water has a nice amount of sodium and chloride ions in it, which contribute positively to create a full-bodied to taste in most brews.

The reality is that so long as your water is potable, you can brew beer with it, and water quality (hardness and pH) is something you can explore when you become serious about brewing as a hobby.

Malt or Malted Barley

The traditional cereal grain of beer is malted barley, a grain that after being harvested is soaked in water to allow the germination to begin. When barley germinates it begins to convert its starches into sugars. The germinating barley is then quickly moved to a kiln and dried, usually with hot air being blown through the grains. This drying halts the germination, fixing the sugars for yeast to consume during fermentation.

In addition to the the alcohol the sugars make, malt contributes body and taste to the final product.

Traditionally, ground whole grain or grist was used in the mashing (or boiling) process to create a sweet liquid (or wort) to be fermented. A lot of home brewers today still use whole malted barley to brew with, but there are malt extracts in the form of thick syrups or even powders can be used for convenience and simplicity that still result in delicious home brewed beers.

Hops

Let's talk about adding flowers to our beer, because that's what hops are. The cone flowers of the Humulus Lupulus plant. Hops contain small glands that produce resins that give flavor and aroma to the beer. These resins are made up of alpha acids, which add bitterness, and beta acids, which add aroma.

Different styles of hops have qualities that make them more useful for either affecting the beer's bitterness or its aroma. Noble hops are four styles (Hallertau, Saaz, Spalt, and Tettnanger) of hops originally grown in Germany and Bohemia that are low in alpha acids and high in beta acids, which mean that they don't add much bitterness, but a lot of aroma. Conversely, in the Pacific Northwest, Cascade hops have been cultivated that produce a much higher alpha acid content, meaning a much stronger bitterness, but not as much aroma.

As a brewer, you can customize the bitterness and aroma of your brews by combining different styles of hops and adding them to the boiling of the wort at different times.

Yeast

This little baby is what's responsible for it all. Saccharomyces cerevisiae. Yeast is a single-celled fungus that consumes sugar and produces alcohol and carbon dioxide. Added to the wort, yeast gets to work right away and begins greedily consuming all that sugar and producing alcohol.

Yeast is also what defines the difference between ale and lager. Ale yeasts, or top-fermenting yeast, are typically more productive at higher temperatures (say 60° to about 75° F) and the beers they produce tend to be fuller bodied, sweeter, and a higher alcohol content. Bottom-fermenting yeasts are used for Lagers, and are more productive at lower temperatures (say 40° to 55° F), usually producing lighter-bodied beers with a crisper finish and less sweetness than ales.

There are other ingredients that can be added to beer. These are known as adjuncts, and are used primarily because they are cheap or because they produce a specific flavor, but according to the Reinheitsgebot (the German beer Purity Law of 1487) only water, malted barley, and hops could be ingredients for beer. While the Reinheitsgebot has been changed in Germany, many brewers still adhere to it.

In the next segment, we'll take a look at the equipment used in brewing.

 

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Drive-Thru is the food and drink section of Gapers Block, covering the city's vibrant dining, drinking and cooking scene. More...
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Editor: Robyn Nisi, rn@gapersblock.com
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