What is the difference between beer, spirits, and wine? The first and most obvious answer is their main ingredient. Beer and many spirits, such as whisky, are made from grains, while wine and similar beverages are derived from grapes. But these products differ far beyond their appearance and can be traced back to their production processes. Generally speaking, there are three main types of alcoholic beverages: brewed, distilled, and fermented. Brewing is, of course, how beer is made. Distilled beverages include alcohol like whiskey, tequila, vodka, etc. There are usually several steps involved in the production of alcoholic beverages, but not all of them are necessarily used in every sector. These steps include malting, grinding, mashing, filtering, boiling, fermenting, filtering again, and distilling.
Malting is the process of soaking the grains (usually barley) in water, allowing them to germinate, and then drying them. Both beer and distilled spirits are derived from grains. Germination is essentially how a seed grows into a plant. After germination, the grains are dried, and some people also roast them. One of the most important purposes of germination is to produce enzymes, such as alpha-amylase and beta-amylase, that convert starch into sugars. It can also affect the color and flavor. Breweries mix malt extract with water to create a solution called wort, which is a fundamental component in most brewing industries. Brewers add their own unique blend of other ingredients to create different types and flavors of beer. The wort mixture is then boiled to allow proteins to aggregate, and the brewer takes necessary steps to prevent any remaining protein from creating an unpleasant taste in the liquid. Afterward, it is cooled to the proper temperature. Cooling the wort is crucial because the next step is to add yeast for fermentation, and heat would kill the yeast. On the other hand, malting in the production of distilled spirits typically involves using corn and/or rye as catalysts to produce sugar, as well as pre-malted substances that reduce the viscosity of the solution and minimize the risk of caking. Saccharification is the technical term for mixing and heating the grains to activate starch into sugars. In both brewing and distillation, malting/mashing breaks down the grains into sugar, which ultimately becomes alcohol.
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Next is milling. Grinding, or a variation of it, is used in all three areas of the alcoholic beverage industry. In beer production, milling crushes the grains in preparation for the mashing process. It is similar to how grains are used in the production of distilled spirits. In winemaking, no grains are involved, but crushing grapes is a closely related process that can be considered the winery counterpart.
Filtration and boiling are two steps unique to the brewing industry. Filtration separates the wort from the grains and provides the brewer with the opportunity to dilute the liquid to achieve the desired alcohol content. Boiling is self-explanatory—it heats and sterilizes the wort, and hops and other ingredients are added to create the desired flavors and undertones for the brewery’s beer.
While filtration and boiling are exclusive to brewing, fermentation is a commonly used process. In breweries, yeast is added to the wort to initiate fermentation. In the production of distilled beverages, the basic ingredients may vary (grains, fruit, etc.), but fermentation always occurs when yeast is added to the mixture. In winemaking, yeast is mixed with crushed grapes to initiate the fermentation process. After fermentation, the product ages with the wine and is then filtered to remove any impurities. Distilleries rarely filter their products in a similar fashion because it is not necessary due to the nature of their process. Finally, we come to distillation, which, as the name suggests, is unique to the production of distilled beverages.
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One common concern is the tingling or burning sensation that some distilled beverages can cause. Few, if any, beers produce this feeling. Therefore, it may seem logical to assume that the burning sensation is only present in beverages with a higher alcohol content, but this is not necessarily true. It happens because alcohol pulls a small amount of moisture from the skin, causing a burning sensation as a signal to the body that it is slightly drier than before. Alcohol also dilates blood vessels, creating a warm feeling after the drink passes through the throat. While this may sound harmful to the dehydration of skin cells, as long as the drink is consumed responsibly and in moderation, it is not really a problem.
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