Grains and the Magic of Enzymes

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Pictured: Caravienne Malt, Photo Cred: Ian Steele

Alcohol can realistically be produced from just about any sugar source. The proof is in the pudding. On liquor store shelves today, we have mead from honey, wine from grapes, beer from grains, vodka from potatoes, and so much more. Sure, some sugars are extremely difficult to ferment, such as lactose, but who needs that crap anyway?

For the first ask a brewer post, I just went ahead and started writing about one of the most fascinating parts of beer production for me- the total package that is malted grains. In order to make malt grains, a farmer will, in a very basic description, begin the sprouting process of a grain, which kickstarts the production of the amylase enzyme that will the turn starches to sugars, then kiln them, or dry them out for later rehydration, essentially freezing the grain with both starch and enzyme content that will then produce the sugars that yeast consumes to produce alcohol. At first glance, it’s a very boring process, but when you consider the other implications, it becomes a “Goldilocks” scenario in my eyes.

The mash-in process is, in essence, the process of grinding dried, malted grains into a coarse mixture known as grist. The grist is then added to water that is generally somewhere in the ranges of 145-160 degrees fahrenheit. What this process does is re-activate the enzymes responsible for the conversion of starches to sugars, the most commonly known of which being alpha-amylase enzyme. This enzyme can be purchased in extract form for the creation of Brut styles of beer, as it renders any remaining starches that may not have been changed the first time around into sugars for yeast consumption. The end result is a beer with a gravity of 1.000FG, or zero remaining unfermented sugars. 

When you consider, though, that there are other sweet plants that are high in starch that do NOT contain their own enzymes, perhaps new styles of beer could arise. In Latin American countries, there are corn-based beers known as Chicha and Pulce that were tradtionally the result of the brewers chewing corn and spitting it into vats, using the enzymes in their saliva to convert the starches. Similarly, when corn is added to a standard style of beer (cream ales, Mexican lagers, etc.), the enzymes in the grain are then lent to the corn, where the starches are converted to sugars. Any cream ale you’ve ever had has likely been created this way, as the corn adds a layer of non-malty sweetness that is difficult to recreate otherwise.

The moral of the story is that nature finds a way. Whether by producing its own starch-converting enzymes, or by human intervention, alcohol will exist.