Have you ever wondered what it takes to make a beer? If your thoughts on the beverage never went much beyond its inebriating effects, knowing a little something about one of the world’s favorite drinks might bestow a deeper level of appreciation and equip you with enough knowledge to join in on beer talk with aficionados.
According to Ira Sawyer, The Home-Brew Guru and owner of The Brew Shop located at 2915 Common St. in Lake Charles, the basics are fairly simple: Beer requires water, a source of fermentable starch, yeast and hops.
Beers are usually made with a grain such as barley, which is malted and prepared into a sugary mixture called wort. Though barley is one of the most commonly used types of grains, others like oats, wheat, rye and even corn and rice can be used as well. The starches in the grains are converted by the grains’ own enzymes into sugars during malting, a process which causes the grains to germinate.
Sawyer offers malt extract, in both a syrup and dry form, for brewers to make their wort, but some brewers prefer to do the work themselves.
"We actually have a lot of people who brew their beers from scratch,” Sawyer said. "We actually sell them the grains, they’ll have to crack their own grains, they steep them, they cook them, they’ll add their own hops, and whatever type of flavoring grains they want to put in there.”
Yeast is added to the wort, which converts the sugars into alcohol and carbon dioxide over a length of time, usually determined by the type of yeast used. The finished product will have somewhere around five percent alcohol by volume, though some do try for even higher alcohol content.
"I’ve seen some of them go up in the 25 percent alcohol range. I’m not too fond of them, but that’s a big beer,” Sawyer said.
Beer is naturally sweet, since it is brewed principally from grain sugars. A flower called hops is added not only to act as a preservative but also to enhance the beer’s flavor by balancing sweetness with a measure of bitterness. Much of a beer’s flavor comes from the amount of hops used in brewing, and some beers, like Indian pale ale, are brewed to have a substantial hops flavor.
Sawyer says Indian pale ale first became popular with English soldiers stationed abroad. "They would ship beer to the soldiers in India, and to make sure that it got there without spoiling, they added a tremendous amount of hops as a preservative. The people there developed a taste for that type of beer,” Sawyer said.
Beer can be split into varieties based on the type of yeast used or grains fermented, in addition to additives that can enhance the flavor and color. Ale is usually brewed withSaccharomyces cerevisiae, a yeast that floats to the top as it ferments, while a lager is brewed withSaccharomyces pastorianus,a slower, bottom-fermenting yeast that works better in colder temperatures.
A beer’s flavor and color, however, is determined mostly by the grains used, Sawyer says. Colors can range from the pale yellows of blonde ales to the deep browns of beers brewed with roasted grains. Dark beers are not always bitter, however. Porters tend to have milder, sweeter tastes while stouts are a variety that will have a much stronger flavor.
Brewers can adjust the properties of their beer in a few ways. Crystal malt, which comes in various colors, can be added to create beers of darker yellows, like amber ale, as well as add extra sweetness. Some types of crystal malt can give beers very distinctive chocolate, toffee or coffee flavors. In addition, many other kinds of flavors can be added, such as fruit juices, honey, or even coffee itself.
"A couple of weeks ago my son made a beer using the juice of a prickley pear to flavor his beer a little bit,” Sawyer said. "It had a beautiful color.”
Beer knowledge comes both from experience and from those enthusiastic about sharing the culture. Sawyer learned his craft first from his Uncle Wallace, who had been a bootlegger in the late 1940s. Wallace taught his nephew his beer recipe, but Sawyer had trouble finding equipment and had to use whatever parts he could find. Brewing soon became a hobby, and Sawyer opened The Brew Shop, now with locations in both Lake Charles and Beaumont, Texas, to provide ingredients, equipment and advice for anyone interested in beer and the art of making it.
And in case you were wondering about Sawyer’s moniker, the Home-Brew Guru, it turns out a local radio station working on a radio advertisement for Sawyer’s shop came up with the name and found it catchy.
"Everybody laughed at it because you’ve got a lot of people who can do it better than I can,” Sawyer said. "I mean I can do a good job but I know some friends that are better.”