The Science of Perfect Beer

Wonder how your favorite beer is made? Experts and amateur brewers alike use a combination of chemical and technological techniques to achieve their perfect beer.


Ever wonder how your favorite beer is made?

Experts and amateur brewers alike use a combination of chemical and technological techniques to achieve their perfect beer.

Here's a look.


I used to say, earlier on in my career, 'If you master the art, the science will naturally follow.'

That's kind of true, because in order to understand how to make beer, you're dealing with science almost if you're not knowing you're dealing with science.

Once you get to this level, consistency and quality is such a major factor in what we do that the science is now helping us create a better product.

So, we're Willow Rock Brewing Company.

He's Kevin Williams.

I'm Rockney Roberts.

We started this, basically, from a love of home brewing.

We home brewed for about eight or nine years and decided eventually that, you know, we didn't want to work for a living and we wanted to make beer for the rest of our lives.


I decided to get into home brewing because I really needed a winter hobby.

Winters here in Syracuse are long and gray, and it's... You know, I definitely got to a point where I knew I needed something constructive and productive to do during the winter, and, you know, pretty much love at first malt.

[ Drill whirs ] One of the interesting things about home brewing is that the general process is really not that different on a home-brew scale or a professional scale.

You're really trying to accomplish the same thing.

So, step number one, creating your water profile, is one of the most important things you can do.

We have to put our water, our brewing water that we use, through a reverse-osmosis system mainly because the village of Cazenovia, the water here naturally is so hard, they soften it at the municipality.

Well, how do you soften water?

You do that by adding sodium to it.

Certain levels of sodium are okay in brewing beer, but high levels of sodium are not okay for brewing beer, and when it comes to sodium, once it's in there, it's in there, and you have to remove it.

So, we put that through reverse osmosis, and what that does is it basically gives us a clean slate to work with.

What we'll then do is we'll go and look through water profiles that we're trying to achieve, be it a certain region of the world, or certain beer styles are known for certain water profiles.

We'll then go ahead and add minerals and salts back into the water before we use it to brew.

What you're doing, really, is you're using your malts to get your sugars, and that's gonna be very important later on in the process.

You do that by soaking your malt in a hot bath, essentially, and that draws the sugar out from the grain.

So, you can do it in multiple vessels.

So, you have your mash tun, which is a separate vessel which you mash in.

You heat the water, you add it, you add the grains.

I like this for its simplicity.

You only need your kettle.

I mash in here, and when I'm done mashing, I'll bring out the bag with all the grains still in it, leaving behind the nice, sugary wort, and then I can just start up the boil right there in the same kettle.

So, what we're doing now is very manually mixing in grain with our treated strike water.

What we're looking for here, basically, is a certain temperature range where we get some enzymatic action that's gonna turn the starches in the malted barley into sugars, because that's what we're gonna be looking for as we move through the rest of the process to make the alcohol.

We're specifically targeting beta and alpha amylase because what that'll do is that'll assist in breaking down some of the longer chain starches so that we get more maltose, which is an easily fermentable sugar.

It just makes it easier for your yeast, and it allows your beer to finish kind of dry and crisp.

All of those variables change with the temperature of the water that's coming in, so what we're targeting now in the batch that we're making is the lower end.

So, we're looking for a lot of those easily fermentable sugars so that we do get a nice, dry, crisp final product.


Nice semi mash.

Kind of like a porridge.

So, in this beer, we target 151 degrees, so you'll see our mash is pretty good right now.

Kevin'S done a great job of kind of mixing everything together.

You'll see that, as he stirs, there's no clumps or anything like that.

So, basically, you're making sure that all of the available starches in the malt are exposed to the proper temperature of liquid, because that's what's gonna get you the maximum conversion efficiency.


You take the grains out, and you have this nice, sugary liquid left over.

You boil that, and during the boil, you add hops.

These will add components of flavor and aroma, and they also provide the very important bitterness that balances out the initial sweetness of the wort.

Hops contain an acid inside of them that's called alpha acids that's created when the hops are grown.

That alpha acid is contained inside a little -- what's called a lupulin gland inside the cone of the hop.

That's where all the goodness is, and that's really what you're trying to extract.

Again, that flavor and aroma will not be pulled out of that lupulin gland or that alpha acid unless it's at a certain temperature, so the boiling process is gonna help you determine, as I stated earlier in the process, what your beer is gonna actually taste like.

And it used to be thought that you should never dry hop during active fermentation, but what they're discovering now is that if you put in hops during active fermentation, the yeast actually interacts with the hop oils in such a way that it creates new flavor compounds.

When you're done, you get to add your yeast.

Yeast is a living organism, and then that goes to town on all the sugars in the liquid.

The yeast eats sugar, and then the by-products of that is alcohol and CO2.

So, this is the stir plate.

Built this using a computer fan and rare-earth magnets.

And...once you have your starter in here, there's a stir bar, and it's magnetized, and it'll be stirred -- literally stirred around by the magnets attached to the computer fan.

[ Stir plate rattling ] ♪♪ And what that does is it keeps the yeast in solution so it keeps eating away at the sugars in there, and it keeps oxygen being introduced.

It keeps it at the right stage for the reproduction.

When you get to this level, technology becomes important because of consistency.

You know, you can brew very basic -- you can have very basic systems, but the problem that you run into is if things aren't being done exactly the same way exactly the same time by whoever's making the beer, you're gonna notice slight inconsistencies.

Technology helps us be consistent as far as temperatures and controls and gallonage of water and speeds at which things move throughout the system in order to create a consistent product.

That's very important, again, once you get to this level.

Your customer, if they grab your IPA off the shelf and they really like it, the next time they go back to that six-pack, they want it to taste the same as it did the time before.


Normally, mashing would be done in a single vessel.

Given the uniqueness of our smaller brewing system, everything is kind of done in two separate tanks, and we manifold it all together.

It's not the most efficient way to do it.

However, it does allow us to make the largest volume of beer given...the small vessels that we have.

As far as hops go, there's a lot of technology that's advancing with hop oils, CO2 extracts that are gonna... You know, we're gonna see less and less actual hops, and we're gonna start dealing with more oils and things of that nature.

Those are gonna help in a number of ways as far as efficiency goes.

I think that's where things are mainly gonna trend.


Flavorings -- There's a lot of technology on where you're trying to -- people are trying to make beers that taste like things that really aren't beer -- you know, like pumpkin beer for example, or, you know, cherry beer, those types of flavorings.

There's labs all over the country that are working on developing those flavors to make it easier for us to make beer taste like things other than just using that actual ingredient, and there's nothing wrong with using those actual ingredients.

In fact, I'm a big fan of that, and we do that quite often, but, again, it comes to efficiency and consistency in quality, where those technologies are gonna start helping us out.

[ Pump whirs ]

I think, for me, brewing is like 90 percent science and 10 percent magic.

It's probably 100 percent science, but I don't have a strong science background, so there's, you know, a magic portion to me.

But, really, you don't know exactly what you're getting, especially on a home-brew level, until you pop open that bottle and after you taste the finished product.

And it's just a lot of fun to explore and make something that really is your own.