Nothing beats an ice-cold beer, but it takes a lot of work to get from barley and hops plants to that beautiful can, bottle or glass in your hand. To better appreciate that process, we sat down with Molson master brewer Jonathan Lowes. Here’s what we learned about making the kind of beverage—like Molson M, the world’s only microcarbonated lager—that flies off the shelves in Canada, America and all over the world.
“Of course we start with only the finest ingredients,” says Lowes, stressing the importance of quality from the beginning. This includes malted barley grown on the prairies of Canada. “First we mill the barley to expose the starch.” This process is called mashing. Enzymes break down the starches into simple carbohydrates that yeast can metabolize. This also creates three things: Alcohol (of course), carbon dioxide and flavors. “After about an hour all these ingredients have been been broken down to simple sugars.” The beer is then ready for the next step…
“The best analogy is perhaps a giant coffee filter—we separate what’s left of the barley’s husk from the sugar solution.” The solution, called wort, is then boiled. Hops—female flower clusters of a hop species, Humulus lupulus, that act as a flavoring and stability agent—are added. This also takes about an hour. “The whole point of boiling the beer is first to sterilize it and second to dissolve the hops into the solution. Some color is generally added, but we also want to remove things like dimethyl sulfite, which smells a bit like canned corn.” After boiling the beer is cooled before yeast is added. The temperature varies by brand, but Molson cools theirs to 10 degrees Celsius.
Fermentation, Maturation and Filtering
Fermentation and maturation are the part of the process where wort becomes beer. “Fermentation takes 240 hours. It’s a very long and cold process.” This is where most of the alcohol and flavor comes from. The yeast is then removed from the beer because, in the words of Lowes, “it’s done its job.” It’s now time to mature the beer in food-grade stainless steel vats before filtering. This gives the beer the brilliant color, as well as rounding out the flavor notes to make them more balanced. Carbonation is then added, as fermentation provides only about half of the carbon dioxide in the final bottle of beer a customer drinks. All told, the process takes 21 days from the kettle to a bottle.
Lagers Versus Ales
Molson M is, of course, a lager. But how does the process differ for ales. “It’s mostly about what strain of yeast you use,” explains Lowes. Whereas yeast used in fermenting lagers settles on the bottom, ale yeast settles at the top of the cask. Other than that, the process is very similar.
Becoming a brew master isn’t like getting a job at the local bottling plant. It takes years of specialized education. “I got my degree in microbiology, but I didn’t want to work in a lab,” notes Lowes. So he then attended Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, Scotland, to obtain his Master Brewer degree. Most folks seeking an advanced degree in beer brewing there had similar backgrounds, with biochemistry and microbiology being standard. After that he worked at a number of local Molson breweries before moving on to the home office. Lesson? Study science, focus more on your schoolwork than your 12-ounce curls and one day you just might become a master brewer yourself. Having lovely ladies serve it to thirsty customers is just a bonus, really.