Food Processing

Barley and Me

“It’s BREW TIME!!!!!” JD yells at the top of his lungs. DeWitte and myself give a hoop and a holler before yelling the same thing ourselves. JD scrolls through his iPod and sends our latest catchy tune, an Avett Brothers song, over to the Bluetooth speaker. We crank up the volume and roll up our sleeves. It’s time to brew some beer!

Although I’ve done several home brews myself, today is new territory for me. I’ve never done an all-grain recipe before. An “all-grain” recipe means that you perform the initial steps of soaking malted barley grains (called malts for short) in water in order to extract the starches contained inside them. Many novice brewers, like myself, let the supplier do this step for us. We could buy the barley starch-water either condensed into thick syrup or evaporated to a dry powder (called liquid malt extract and dry malt extract, respectively). I usually bought liquid malt extract because the home brew stores back home were limited to only three or four types of grains. In fact, the stores themselves consisted of one or two aisles in the back of a garden store, or a small, cramped shop in the back of a strip mall. Imagine my surprise when I walked into the local brew store with JD and DeWitte yesterday and the grains had their own walk-in storage room, 20 feet long! There were rows of 5-gallon buckets lining the walls, each filled to the brim with different types of grain. There were both 2-row and 6-row varieties. There were Pilsner malts, Vienna malts and Munich malts, just to name a few. They had malts roasted anywhere from cappuccino brown to sunset amber to light crystal. And if you wanted to jazz up your recipe, you could have chosen from a selection of flaked oats, wheat or rye.

The majority of the malted barley for our recipe was called pale malt. I reached into JD and DeWitte’s storage closet and brought the large bag of pale malt over to the kitchen island. I undid the twisty tie, dropped my head down, and took in a deep breath, letting the scent of the grains escape from the top of the bag and flood my nostrils. The grains always smelled best right after milling. Milling was an essential step that cracked the shell of the grain open, exposing the inner starches and oils. We had milled the grains at the home brew store yesterday.

“Fill, grab the kettle and I’ll get the mash tun” DeWitte said as we walked back to the storage closet. The kettle was the same one we had used during our very first home brew back in college. It was a stainless steel, 6 gallon pot, with an aluminum plate in the bottom and a metal spigot on the outside. Although I hadn’t seen the mash tun before, JD and DeWitte had explained it to me last night while we were watching the hockey game. This particular mash tun was a cylindrical igloo cooler with a false metal bottom on the inside. It acted as an insulated container to soak the malted barley grains with hot water. The next piece of equipment I grabbed looked just like the mash tun (it was also an igloo cooler), but without the false metal bottom. It was used to store a large amount of hot water at a precise temperature (dubbed the “hot liquor tank” by home brewers).

“What’s this thing?” I asked as I picked up some small stainless steel tubing in the shape of a” T.” The bottom of the “T” penetrated a plastic rectangle before connecting to vinyl tubing. As I looked closer, the top, flat side of the T had small holes in it.

“Ahh, the sparge arm,” JD said. “That baby comes in pretty handy. You rest it on top of the mash tun and it spreads hot water over the grains like a sprinkler.”

I propped the sparge arm on the top of the mash tun and spun the top of the “T” to simulate the sprinkler effect. While I was messing around, JD and DeWitte finished bringing over all the supplies.

“Well gents…Shall we start?” I asked as I walked over to fill up the boiling kettle with water.

“Hold on Fill. We’re not ready quite yet.” DeWitte winked over at JD.

“That’s right,” JD agreed. “We can’t brew empty handed.” JD grabbed three pints from the cabinet and walked over to the kegerator. He poured three glasses of a dark black stout.

How foolish of me, I thought. You always drink beer while home brewing. It was part of the circle of beer life… drinking some of the last home brew while starting a new one… kind of like a beer phoenix.

“Good catch fellas. Let’s do this.” We clanked pints and swigged a couple gulps of the stout. The iPod switched over to some Dave Matthews and we got to work…

The first step in beer brewing was milling the grains. Milling the grains cracked them open to expose the starches inside. We had already done that yesterday. The next step was adding hot water to the grains. The temperature had to be very precise in order to activate enzymes in the grain that would break down the starches (longer chains of carbohydrates) into sugars (shorter chains of carbohydrates). We boiled water in the kettle to a temperature of exactly 168 degrees Farenheit. For this batch of beer, those grain enzymes would be activated best at 152 degrees Farenheit. And we knew from experience that the water temperature would drop 16 degrees during the transfer from the kettle to the mash tun.

After the grains sat in the 152 degree mash tun water for one hour, we added a small amount of boiling water to raise the temperature to 170 degrees Farenheit. This would allow the sugars to dissolve into the water (creating what beer brewers called “wort”, basically beer sugar-water). Then we added water from the hot liquor tank (also at 170 degrees) to rinse the wort free of the grains. The wort was then drained away from the grains into the kettle, and boiled. Among other things, boiling the wort destroyed any bacteria (a process known as pasteurization) and allowed us to steep bags of hops and other flavoring ingredients (similar to steeping tea).

During this process, JD, DeWitte and I moved back and forth between the mash tun, the hot liquor tank and the boiling kettle… double checking the temperatures, looking for leaks on the spigots, tapping the sparge arm if it got caught while turning, matching the amount of water coming out of the sparge arm to the amount of wort coming out of the mash tun, ensuring the wort didn’t boil over, sterilizing the glass carboy (where the beer would soon be stored), measuring hops on the food scale, and more. All the while, we talked briefly about the hops profile, the difference in the water composition compared to back home, and how JD and DeWitte recently started preparing their own yeast (called a yeast starter). I joked about some of our prior brewing sessions, beating the liquid yeast packets like a punching bag in order to break the inner air pocket (containing the yeast food) without opening the outer plastic seal. It was always hard to tell if you broke the air pocket until the package started swelling two hours later.

I got caught up in the whole process, and just like that, it was time for the final step…adding the wort and yeast to the glass carboy. As the wort flowed in, we admired the clear, but vibrant hue of the soon-to-be Irish red ale. We took a small sample of the wort to measure the future alcohol content, then we sealed the glass carboy with an air lock valve. We filled our pints again with the last of the stout from the kegerator.

“Well Fill,” JD said as the three of us clinked glasses again, “that’s all-grain brewing.”

There’s a lot of precision involved in brewing beer. There’s also a lot of chemistry. Most people cringe when they hear the word chemistry. It brings back nightmarish equations about acids and bases, images of the periodic table, and experiments with beakers, pipettes and Bunsen burners. As much as we would like to ignore it and focus on the bigger picture, a basic understanding of some chemistry and biology is paramount to understanding our bodies, nutrition and processed foods. Foods can be processed in a number of ways, and it would be far too difficult to explain them all at once. So we’ll start with two basic food processing concepts, both found in all-grain home brewing AND the human body… milling and enzymatic degradation.

When I say “processed foods”, what do you think of? For me, things like spam, velveeta cheese or the toothpaste-food that astronauts used to eat come to mind. Most people associate processed foods as being on the opposite end of the spectrum as something you might pull right off a tree, like a fruit. “Food processing” is a vague umbrella term, usually with a negative connotation. Many people associate food processing with the food industry combining various additives and preservatives to more “natural” food. Although this can be true, today I’d like to think of food processing in the following way.

How does our body “process” whole, natural foods? Let’s take a quick trip down your gastrointestinal system.


You take a bite of a fresh, rinsed gala apple. Your teeth act as a milling station to grind the apple into smaller parts that can easily fit down your esophagus. The act of chewing (and even looking at food) stimulates your salivary glands to release more saliva into your mouth. Saliva contains the enzyme amylase, which breaks down longer chains of carbohydrates (starches) into shorter chains of carbohydrates (sugars).


You then raise your tongue to the top of your mouth, your epiglottis flaps down to cover your trachea, and your food is propelled down your esophagus into the stomach. Here the high acid content of the stomach allows an enzyme called pepsin to help break down proteins into smaller components, or amino acids. The stomach also releases an enzyme called lipase, which helps break down fat into its smaller components, usually fatty acids and glycerol.

Small intestines

In a healthy person, most of the food in the stomach has been propelled into the small intestines after four hours. Here, additional amylase and lipase from the pancreas join the small intestines. By the time your food is in the small intestine, the majority of the “food processing” has taken place. The last step involves enzymes in cells lining your small intestinal wall breaking down the smallest “chains” of carbohydrate sugars into their individual “links” of sugar (glucose, fructose and galactose). In other words, by the time the three big food groups (carbs, proteins and fat) have reached the small intestines, they have been broken down into their smallest components (glucose, fructose, galactose… amino acids… fatty acids and glycerol) via milling and enzyme degradation. This allows these small components to cross the cells of your small intestines directly into your bloodstream (technically, fats are taken up into lymphatic vessels prior to entering the bloodstream).

Now that we know how the body processes foods, let’s compare this to the processing of the malted barley in home brewing.

Milling = Teeth

What was the first step in our home brewing process?

We bought the barley grains, then had them milled at the home brew store. This cracked the outer portion of the grain so we could expose the inner enzymes and starches. This sounds awfully similiar to what our teeth did to the apple.

Amylase = Amylase

What was our next step after milling? We soaked the barley grains at roughly 152 degrees Farenheit to activate the enzymes inside the grains. These enzymes converted the starches in the grain into sugars. What is the name of these barley enzymes?…Amylase. Sound familiar? It’s the same enzyme secreted by the salivary glands and pancreas to break starches into sugar.

Now instead of eating a gala apple, imagine you were eating malted barley. Your gastrointestinal system would still break down the barley in the same way. So brewing beer is almost exactly like eating barley! Crazy, isn’t it?

The difference is that during beer brewing, all of the sugars are rinsed away from the barley grains. So we’re discarding all of the fiber (and the vitamins and minerals inside it), and just taking the sugar water, or wort. Does this process of stripping all the sugar out of a “natural” food sound familiar? It should…it’s quite similar to making fruit juice. The major difference is that wort will go on to be combined with yeast. The yeast will consume the sugar as energy and generate ethanol (or alcohol) as a byproduct. The same process can be accomplished with fruit juice. Do you know what grape juice plus yeast creates…? If you said wine, you’re correct. This process of combining a sugar with yeast is called fermentation. It’s another popular method of food processing that we’ll discuss later.

So what happens to the barley grains after the sugar is extracted?

In the brewing process, used barley grains are frequently sold to farmers as livestock feed (at least for commercial brewers).

What about the example of eating barley grains whole? Well, your body uses the process above to extract some of the sugars from the grain, but it can’t get all of the sugars out because of the fiber in the “shell” of the grain (and because our stomachs aren’t 152 degrees Farenheit). So part of the barley grains continue unabsorbed past the small intestines, eventually becoming food for our gut bacteria, and poop.

I hope this provides slightly more clarity to the concept of “food processing.” Although there are many ways to process food, you may have a better understanding of milling and enzymatic degradation. As a product is milled into smaller pieces, it degrades the original structure of the food and exposes more surface area of the food to the body’s digestive enzymes. Then enzyme degradation cuts food into smaller pieces, just like milling, only at a molecular level. If a food undergoes enzymatic degradation before we even put it in our mouths, the sugars, amino acids or fatty acids contained in the original food will be more rapidly and completely absorbed into the bloodstream, which is usually unhealthy.

You may be wondering… “Fill, what does this actually mean? Are you suggesting we don’t drink beer?”

No. Consider this an essential building block to understanding future topics better… starting with our next food, one that is consumed by most Americans on a daily basis…wheat.

Although we used the brewing process more to understand food processing than the nutritional value of beer itself, I still think it’s helpful to visualize these two food processing concepts. So I’ve included the following video on beer making…

How It’s Made: German Beer

Of note, I omitted discussing the germination process for simplicity sake. Germination is basically simulating a favorable growth environment using water and heat. The barley grains are tricked into initiating the activation of their amylase enzymes to break down their starch food stores so they can start growing. This step is required in order to fully activate the amylase enzyme later in the process.


-Featured Image by freestocks-photos on Pixabay.

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