For the better part of a decade, I (J.) have been curious about the transformation of malted barley, hops and yeast into the fermented wonder that English speakers know most commonly as beer. In that time I've found books on the subject at libraries, purchased others, and found (quite literally) hundreds of sites on the internet wholly devoted to that subject alone. This post will not be (for the most part) an "academic" look at brewing, as I don't claim to be an expert.
This is how beer is made:
1) Processed grain is boiled in order to release simple carbohydrates - sugar.
2) Hops (a climbing perennial of the hemp family) are added to the grains to add flavoring. The beer is now called "wort".
3) Yeast is added (pitched) to the wort, and will begin to immediately reproduce.
4) The yeast then feeds on the sugars in the wort. The product of the metabolization of sugar and yeast is ethyl alcohol (EtOH) and carbon dioxide (bubbles in the beer). What you do with it after that is really up to you. I chose to bottle mine.
There you have it! Its all as simple (and complex) as that. One can make beer without great difficulty. Making great beer is a much more subtly difficult. Minor nuances in the selection of grain, the type and time at which hops are added... all of these things can result in vastly different beers.
My curiosity regarding brewing has peaked on several occasions, and lead me to brew on my own; sometimes successfully, others not. During college, some friends and I figured out some how that we could save money by brewing our own using a kit called a Mr. Beer. Know what we discovered? You can actually make pretty bad beer for less than you can buy the same volume. That, of course, is not to say that Mr. Beer brew is bad. It can be pretty good! However, when you're a college kid, you sometimes think you can outsmart the instructions by cutting corners and reducing brewing times.
Recently I've begun to brew again, and have switched to a more elaborate setup. Basically, this setup, Mr. Beer, and even high-end Belgian breweries do the same thing: turn water, grain, sugar and yeast into alcohol. The difference is how well they do it.
Mr. Beer: Following a very brief boiling of the malt extracts in the kit, the product is placed in a keg and left to ferment for 14 days.
My Kit: Basically the same thing, only longer boiling of the wort and the wort is transferred to a secondary fermenter after the first seven days to separate the excess bio-mass from the liquid.
Belgian Breweries: Not a lot different from that, just on a greater scale (and with much better products, I'm sure), a much more complex set up and an amazing wealth of knowledge that I can only stand in awe of.
My first batch with this new kit? Awesome. A full-bodied, dark brown British Ale with chocolatey notes at the finish. My next? An American Red Ale, and I'm very much looking forward to it.
What I've discovered is that, in my opinion, brewing your own beer is not a good way to save money. The initial investment is at least $100 US. I do not believe that people should approach home brewing for any reason other than as a hobby or the endless pursuit for the perfect brew... or both! For me? Making something from start to finish at home is something that has always fascinated me. Someday, I hope to have enough land to raise barley and hops, and drink my beer on the very spot where it was grown.
Until, I'll just enjoy that which I have brewed.