Home Culture Anchorage Science Pub Good Beer is Hard to Make: The Science Behind Beer Flavor

Good Beer is Hard to Make: The Science Behind Beer Flavor

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Have you ever wondered how, exactly, such a large variety of beer types and flavors have developed? Well, if you wanted to learn you could have attended the Anchorage Science Pub‘s latest presentation.
Lesson One: Don’t lose hope! I’ll do my best to tell you about it, and you can always watch the videos we recorded to enjoy it for yourself.
The event opened with a scene from “The Bard’s Tale” video game, involving a celebration of Charlie Mopps, the mythical inventor of beer.
It set the right tone. Everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves as orders for the special King Street Brewery flight and yam fries were put in before things really got going.
“Malt, Hops, and Yeast: The Science Behind Beer Flavor” was, first and foremost, a science lesson. The three presenters, each experienced home brewing experts in their own right, progressed from the malting process to the science of hop flavor and onto the transformative power of yeast. Each of these gentlemen could have easily gone on for hours on the topic of brewing and its intricacies, but their time was limited. They tried to parse each topic down in five-to-ten minute lectures.
Malting, Kilning, and Mashing
Dan Bosch laid down some knowledge. He had a very detailed series of graphs and diagrams demonstrating the malting process, which helps develop the enzymes that can break down starches into sugar and proteins into a form that yeast can use.
Malting is followed by kilning. Kilning involves controlling the moisture and temperature of the malt to control the development of those enzymes. It’s also the stage that the flavor of the malt develops. Since the malt is essentially the food for the things that make your beer, it’s an important stage to get right. Bosch had the organizers pass out different kinds of malt for audience members to taste. (It was a bit like chewing on a piece of dry oatmeal, but I suppose that makes sense.)
Next comes mashing. Bosch described the goal of of mashing as getting the remaining starches converted into sugars. This process involves a variety of words that end in -ase: amylase, glucanase, protease – this is where I started strongly feeling that my passing Intro to Biology might have been a fluke.
The important thing is that mashing is the final stage that gets the grains to produce the sugars and the sugar is what controls the alcohol content.
 Into the Boiling Kettle: The Science of Hop Flavor
Breck Tostevin described hops as “the spice of beer.” While not everyone is a fan of hoppy beer, it is a trusted way to add a big dose of flavor. He said the flavor components of hops are essential oils and resins, contained in the flower pollen of the hop vine. Hops add bitterness, stability, flavor, and aroma to beer. Like the tannins in wine, the bitterness of hops gives balance to the beer. The resins within the pollen provide the different flavor and aroma elements.
hops-in-hand1Most interesting (at least to me) was learning the stability provided by the hops results from antibacterial properties that provide a toxic environment to bacteria but a welcoming environment to yeast. This increases the shelf-life of the beer.
Hops’ beneficial properties are released through boiling, and can be added into the brewing process during the first or second fermentation. There are many different strains that provide different levels of bitterness and flavor, so their use depends on what kind of beer you’re trying to make.
Tostevin pointed out later that hops vines don’t fare very well in Alaska. More specifically, the vines fare very well and grow very quickly, but the light isn’t right to cause the flowering process, so it’s not practical to try and grown them up here unless you have control over the growing environment. Also, you’ll need good bit of cash to pay the energy bills and a lot of space (hops vines can grow multiple stories high, and do so quickly).
 It’s Not Beer Yet, Not Until Yeast Has it’s Way
Last, but certainly not least, is yeast. Without the right kind of yeast, your beer isn’t really beer. Aaron Christ rattled off the scientific names for different brewer’s yeasts with style and explained which kind different Alaska breweries tended to use. I would tell you which ones, but my Latin isn’t that strong.
Warm Ale Yeast vs Cold Lager YeastChrist compared the different strains of yeast to the variety of dog breeds: both have evolved naturally in different regions of the world or been artificially developed by humans. Ale yeasts like to ferment at a higher temperature, generally between 60-75 degrees Fahrenheit, and they like to ferment at the top of the wort (the mix of sugars and liquid produced from the mashing process). Lager yeasts, in comparison, do better at a colder temperature, generally between 40-50 degrees Fahrenheit, and tend to ferment at the bottom of the wort.
Next we learned about pitching rate. We learned about (brewing) gravity. We learned more about how temperature can affect the fermentation process and different yeasts, which very much seems to be a Goldilocks and the Three Bears situation: yeasts each have a temperature that’s just right for them, not too hot and not too cold.
Lessons Learned

  • Good beer is hard to make if you don’t know what you’re doing.
  • A demonstration like this would have possibly helped me focus better in Chemistry class.
  • It gets harder to concentrate on the scientific names of yeast if you are sampling the King Street Brewery flight at the same time.

The presentation was interesting and relevant as a budding home-brewer, and I appreciated the way that these three gentlemen broke up their lesson into more easily-absorbed segments. The science of beer flavor is complicated, but it’s nice to come away knowing a little more about why it tastes so good.