The Science of What Happens During Beer Fermentation
Fermentation is the magical process that transforms bland grains and water into the delicious, bubbly brew we all know and love. Let’s explore the science behind this process, with a focus on the vital role of our microscopic buddies: yeast! These single-celled fungi are the stars of the fermentation show. There are many strains of yeast, but the most common one used in brewing is Saccharomyces cerevisiae. Bacteria (Lactobacillus, Pediococcus, and Brettanomyces) is also used for sour beers, but that’s another story for another time.
A YEAST’S DAY AT WORK
Now that we’ve met our microscopic friends let’s follow them through the beer-making process. Beer fermentation can be broken down into three main stages: aerobic respiration, anaerobic respiration, and maturation. In each of these stages, the yeast is going through different processes, each affecting our beer in a different way.
Stage 1: Aerobic Respiration (a.k.a. Yeast Growth Party)
When yeast is first added to the sugary, malty wort, it’s like being thrown into a pool filled with their favorite food: sugar! This initial stage is called aerobic respiration, and it’s all about yeast growth.
In the presence of oxygen, yeast cells consume the sugar in the wort and produce energy, carbon dioxide, and water. This energy is used to create new yeast cells, which then consume more sugar and multiply further. Oxygen is a vital ingredient at this step. If you are working with a liquid yeast, or later generations of a dry yeast, you need to introduce oxygen through shaking, or for higher gravity beers direct oxygen aeration.
Interesting enough, aeration isn’t as important for dry yeast. During this stage, yeast also produce a compound called sterols, which help strengthen their cell walls. The point of aeration is to provide yeast the means of synthesizing sterols and unsaturated fatty acids, which allow for cell growth/division. Strong cell walls encourage cell growth, but dry yeast already comes with enough sterols for growth in lower gravity beers (<1.060). Cell growth comes in handy later when they have to deal with the stress of alcohol production.
Stage 2: Anaerobic Respiration (a.k.a. Let’s Make Some Booze!)
Once our yeast have multiplied and used up most of the available oxygen, the party transitions to the main event: alcohol production! This stage is called anaerobic respiration.
In this oxygen-starved environment, yeast switch gears and start producing ethanol (alcohol) and carbon dioxide as waste products. This switch is made possible by a different metabolic pathway called fermentation.
During fermentation, yeast break down the sugar molecules into simpler compounds. These compounds are then transformed into ethanol and carbon dioxide through a series of chemical reactions involving enzymes. It might sound complicated, but just think of it as yeast turning sugar into booze and burps!
This stage is also where the yeast produce most of the flavors and aromas that make beer so unique. Yeast produce various byproducts like esters (fruity notes), phenols (spicy or medicinal flavors), and other compounds that give beer its distinctive taste.
Stage 3: Maturation (a.k.a. Beauty Sleep for Beer)
After the yeast have done their job and transformed the wort into a young beer, it’s time for the final stage: maturation. At this point, the yeast start to wind down and settle to the bottom of the fermentation vessel.
During maturation, any remaining yeast and other particles in the beer begin to clump together and fall out of suspension, a process called flocculation. This helps to clarify the beer and remove any remaining yeast or other solids.
As the beer rests, the flavors and aromas continue to develop and meld together. This stage is crucial for the overall quality of the final product, as it allows any harsh or unwanted flavors to mellow out and gives the beer time to reach its full potential.
Maturation can last anywhere from a few days to several months, depending on the style of beer and the brewer’s preferences. During this time, the yeast may also continue to consume any residual sugars, further refining the beer’s flavor profile.
A TOAST TO YEAST
Now that we’ve looked through the beer fermentation process, it’s clear just how essential yeast are in creating the delicious brews we enjoy. From aerobic respiration to anaerobic respiration and maturation, these tiny fungi work tirelessly to transform simple sugars into complex, flavorful beverages.
So the next time you raise a glass of your favorite beer, take a moment to appreciate the hard work and dedication of the yeast that made it all possible. Cheers to yeast, the unsung heroes of the brewing world!
Don’t miss anything
New articles are out regularly and new videos come out every week. Make sure you subscribe!
Credits and Links