Here’s how beer gets made: dried grains get boiled in hot water, strained out, hops are added, yeast is introduced and the product ferments. Sounds simple, right? Not so. It all begins with the grain and choosing which one to use is more difficult than it seems.
First off, there’s the nitpicking over using central European grain crops – harvested in spring for a cleaner, grassier quality – versus western European crops – fall harvested for a more robust flavor. Step two is deciding what variety of grain; barley (most-often used), wheat, oat, rice, sorghum or spelt. Next, you want 2-row, 4-row or 6-row? Those refer to the number of seeds growing along the central stem of the stalk. The 2-row has higher starch content and, therefore, yields more sugar to be converted to alcohol. American macro producers like Bud and Miller use 6-row as it’s easier to grow and possess more enzymes needed to convert its starch.
Okay, you’ve got your grain. Now what? Now it needs to get soaked for a couple of days. That “fools” the grain seeds into thinking they’ve been planted and they germinate. Germination begins to break down the starch, cellulose and proteins. Next the grain is dried in a kiln or over open flame to halt the chemical breakdown. The product is now known as malt. Depending on what process is used to malt will determine the color and flavor of the beer.
That’s a lot of science… a lot of chemistry. Except Larry Bell doesn’t see it that way at all. He’s the owner and brewmaster of Bell’s Brewery in Comstock, Michigan. To him, making good beer thoughtfully is more about biology than chemistry. It’s an organic process that considers the source materials and what they can provide to us, the drinkers.
He certainly put a lot of grain and biology into his Special Double Cream Stout. Ten different grains make up the malt base for this ale and, despite the name, no lactose extratives at all. Rather, the name refers to the smooth texture of the beer. Those ten different grains must have been dried for a long time over a nice fire because this beer is dark and toasty. It’s almost jet-black with a mocha head that recedes nicely down the glass. Smells of espresso, vanilla, chocolate and brown sugar come out wonderfully. There’s so much vanilla and malt sweetness Larry’s coaxed out of the grains that it’s easy to think there is lactose in this beer. The creamy texture and abundant carbonation round out the roasted grain and coffee flavors. Science lesson over, pour me a pint.