While we consider ourselves extremely important, the truth of the matter is we humans are vastly outnumbered by the microbes that inhabit every surface, every breeze, and every square inch of planet Earth. It’s humbling to consider. These invisible organisms are continually engaging in their transformative works, but we only notice when the bread gets moldy or the bag of veggies turns to slime.
When most people make beer at home, they harness the power of our microbial cohabitants and create a controlled version of an entirely natural process. At its most skeletal, this is how most people make beer at home:
- Extract sugars from barley, or use pre-made extract
- Boil the sugars, creating a liquid called “wort”
- Add hops and/or other herbs and spices at intervals, for flavor and anti-microbial properties
- Cool the hopped wort
- Transfer into a sanitized fermentation vessel where an airlock can be applied to maintain sanitary conditions
- Add yeast.
Depending largely on how Step 1 is handled, the process can take anywhere from two or three hours to all day or longer. And while this looks like a highly regimented procedure, the truth is that this is an entirely natural process.
If you want to experiment with wild fermentation, it’s easy enough. Put a cup of honey into a quart jar and top off with water. Stir to mix it in, then cover it with a towel to keep bugs out. Stir it several times every day, whenever you think about it. In a few days, you’ll remove the towel to discover a white froth forming at the surface. Keep stirring – your honey mixture is turning into mead. (This is, incidentally, equivalent to making sourdough starter. You’re basically catching and farming wild yeast that live in the environment all the time.)
Fermentation is a process that, strictly speaking, doesn’t require human intervention. But making beer at home? Well, our ancestors put a lot of time into figuring out how to direct our microbial friends toward making things that are awesome. Home brewers are just continuing the tradition.