First off there is the plan. The plan covers the setup, the brewing, and the clean up at the end of the brew. Before we get underway the first thing we need to do is get hot water ready as it's used not only for brewing, but for cleaning as well so we like to make sure that we have plenty on hand. We fill up our hot liquor tank (simply a large vessel where the water is heated and stored in preparation for the brewing) and set the temperature so that it can start heating up. Bringing that much water up to temperature can take awhile so that gives us plenty of time to start getting everything else ready. During this time we start by setting up the pumps and various hoses. We also use this time to weigh out and measure the grain that we're going to use for the particular style of beer that we happen to be making that day. The major portion of the grain bill (which types, and how much of each type of grain we'll be using) is made up of a base malt. The base malt provides the major portion of fermentable that the yeast will eventually consume and create alcohol from. Speciality malts help to provide coloring, body, and contribute to the flavor of the beer. Once all the grain needed is measured out we mill it on site, cracking open the husks to expose the inner part of the grain kernel. By the time all of this is done and the water is up to temperature we're ready to move on to the next step.
A portion of the grain is added to a vessel known as the mash tun. The mash tun is where grain sits on top of a false bottom and hot water is added to the grain to bring it to a specific temperature to begin activating enzymes that convert the starches in the grain in to sugars that can be used for fermentation. We continually stir the grain as it is added to the mash tun to make sure that it is throughly saturated and that no doughy grain balls develop. Once the grain is added along with the desired amount of water, we hold it at the proper temperature (depending on style of beer this can range from about 148 to 155 degrees F) for an hour to allow the the starches to fully convert to sugars. This process is also where the grain contributes both color and flavor to the beer, which at this point is known as wort.
During this hour we begin setting up for the transfer from the mash tun to our boiling kettle. We also take this time to do other odd jobs around the brewhouse such as cleaning up, fixing anything that needs tending to, and making sure any beers in the fermenters are chugging along like they are supposed to. Once the hour has passed we begin to transfer the wort from the mash tun to the boil kettle. We do this through a process known as sparging. This is where as water is going from one vessel to the next we continually add hot water to not only rinse the grains of all the sugars, but to bring our boil kettle to its full volume. During the mashing process a large portion of the water is absorbed by the grain and lost, so there is a need to run more water through the grain in order to reach the desired amount. Once the boil kettle has reached the desired volume we crank up the heat on it in order to bring it to, yup, you guessed it, a boil.
We boil the wort for sixty minutes, during which time hops are added to the wort. Hops, a cone like flower of the humulus lupus plant, are used in the bittering of the beer. They also can contribute aroma, and flavors to the beer as well. Many popular varieties of American hop tend to have distinct citrusy characteristics. Other hop flavors can be described as fruity, earthy, or herbal. Hops can contribute a wide variety of characteristics to the beer, much like grapes do for wine. Hops that are added at the beginning stages of the boil have much of the flavor and aroma oils boiled off and end up contributing primarily to the bittering of the beer. Hops added near the very end of the boil add little to the bittering, but contribute flavoring and aromatics to the beer. While the beer boils we set up the equipment to cool the hot wort down as well as transfer it to the fermentation tank. We also have to make sure that both the equipment and the fermentation take are not only cleaned, but sanitized as well. The boiling wort will kill off any potential contaminants in the beer, so we have to make sure that anything touching it after it has cooled down has been sterilized.
Once the boil has finished we begin pumping the hot wort through two chillers (hot wort circulates one way, cold water flows the other way creating a heat exchange by which the hot wort is rapidly cooled) and in to the fermentation tank. Once the wort has been transfered the yeast is added to the fermentation tank and it is then sealed up so that no outside elements can get in and infect the fermenting beer. When that is accomplished we then have to begin cleaning the mash tun as well as the boiling kettle. The used grain is scooped out of the mash tun and composted, everything is hosed down, and then soaked with a cleanser that breaks down the organic matter in the stainless steel tanks, and then is rinsed out. Floors are scrubbed, hoses and pumps are flushed out, and things are put away.
That's the plan. However a typical brew day for a small brewer is rarely ever that neat and tidy. There's always something that attempts to throw a monkey wrench in your brew day and as brewers you have to learn to problem solve on the fly. Once the brew begins there is no turning back. Fortunately most problems simply make the day a little longer, but are easily addressed with a little bit of MacGuyver like finess. The process takes about 7 or 8 hours, and once the day is done, everything is put away, and the lights are turned out, it's time to have a cold one and enjoy the fruits of our labor.