What is Wort and How is it Made?
To answer the question technically, the wort is a liquid solution of extracted grains, a sugar source that brewers create and then ultimately feed to beer yeasts. Non-technically, the wort is sugary grain water.
All fermented beverages—wine, beer, hard cider, or spirits—start with some liquid sugar source. The yeast then eats the sugar, which creates alcohol, CO2, and additional flavors. For example, in wine, the sugar source you start with is grape juice; for cider, you start with apple juice; and for beer, you start with wort.
Before we can even begin creating wort, the grains must be prepared with malting. Most, but not all, brewing grains are malted before use.
Malting is a complex process, but we’ll keep it simple here. Generally, the maltster (the malting person) takes raw barley (or other grains) and soaks them in water. The grain is then encouraged to sprout on a large floor or tank. This germination process activates enzymes inside every kernel of grain, eventually allowing the grain to create the sugars that brewers are looking for.
After the grains are germinated, they are kiln-dried to various degrees, creating many different potential flavors and colors in the final beer. As in, if we roast a grain until it’s nice and brown, it could be used to make the dark hue in a stout. Or if we lightly dry a grain, it could be used to make the light-golden color you’ll find in a pilsner.
Brewing (briefly) explained
Ultimately, brewers will take their grains (which they call “grist”) and, after milling it to crack open the grain’s husks, complete the following four steps that encapsulate the very fundamentals of making wort.
They soak the grains in hot water in a process called mashing.
They then rinse the sugars off all grains during the lautering phase, where the wort is created. Mashing and lautering, combined, can take around 2 – 3+ hours.
Once the liquid wort is drained from the mash/ lauter tun, it is then boiled. During the boil is typically when the first hops are added.
After boiling comes the whirlpool, where more hops or spices can be added and where brewers remove any solids that have formed in the wort (think of how eggs go from liquid to solid, the same happens to glutens in grain when they’re heated up).
The result is our good friend wort (now with hops added to it), which, if we had to describe it, tastes like lovely liquid bread with a touch of hop aroma and bitterness.
After that, the wort is cooled, and the yeast is added.