Brewing and distilling have a lot of commonality. Tinkerers that get involved with one very quickly become interested in the other. And for good reason, the skills you learn tend to translate between the two very well. Let’s take a look at how the two crafts compare.
Malting: Prepping Your Grain
Malting is the process of soaking and drying grain in water. This prepares the grain for use in alcohol production. Soaking the water causes the grain to begin germination. The water is then dried off and the grain is ready to mill.
For distilling, this process depends on the type of spirit you’re producing. Whiskey, for example, uses a mash that is dependent on this process. All beer brewers depend on this process as well. However, very few people do this process themselves and instead outsource to malt houses.
Milling: Crushing Your Malt
Milling is the process of crushing your malted grain. This is in preparation for the fermentation process. Crushing the grain increases the surface area for enzymes to work their magic. This, in turn, turns long-chain carbohydrates into the short-chain sugars that yeast can feed on.
Like malting, milling is only necessary for certain types of spirits. It is also very often outsourced. At home, brewers mill their own malted grain more often than distillers. An at-home mill can be purchased for this process. However, milled grain is easy to find on the internet or at home brew stores.
Mashing: Preparing for Fermentation
Mashing is the process of adding water to your milled grain and heating the slurry to activate enzymes within it. The short-chain sugars derived from this process is known as wort.
Again, this process only applies to grain-based spirits like whiskey. Once this process is complete with a spirit, it is ready to go to fermenting. However, there are some interim steps before fermenting for brewers.
Lautering and Boiling: Dialing in the Flavor
This process is unique to brewing and not done during distilling. The brewer rinses their mash to separate the wort liquid from the solid material it is mixed with. During this process, alcohol content is also reduced to something more palatable. That alcohol content is typically reduced to somewhere around 5% but can vary significantly depending on your recipe. This mixture is then often boiled to enhance flavor.
Fermenting: Producing the Alcohol
This is where the magic happens! Fermenting is the process of adding yeast to your mixture to begin feeding on the sugars. The byproduct of this process is the production of various alcohols. For most distilled spirits, this is actually where the process starts. The grain preparation and mixture is only necessary for grain-based spirits like whiskey.
Bottling: You’re Not Done Yet
Bottling is the final step for brewers. The separation of solids has already occurred, and your product is almost complete. At this step a brewer will add a bit of sugar to allow the yeast to continue fermentation. In a sealed bottle, this process also adds carbonation. After a few weeks, voila. Delicious home-brewed beer that is ready to be chilled and served.
Distillation: The Art of Separation
Distillation is part art, part science. During this stage, the fermented mixture is heated. The first things to boil off are extremely volatile alcohols (like methanol) that you should never drink. These are called the foreshots. Next are the heads, these also contain hangover-inducing alcohols like acetone. After that we reach the hearts, this is the sweet spot. The hearts are mostly ethanol and start to smell and taste sweet. Finally are the tails, which contain water, enzymes, and carbohydrates. The tails can be re-distilled at a later time to improve their quality.
Aging: From Good to Great
For committed distillers, aging is a mission-critical endeavor. There are countless ways to go about aging your product. This is a great place to get creative. Oak barrels are the most common containers to age a spirit in. Some people add fruit, flavorings, wood chips, or other types of flavor additives. It’s a great thing to experiment with and find your own unique style.
As you can see, brewing and distilling have a lot of common ground. A skilled brewer will likely pick distilling up fairly quickly. So if you’re feeling adventurous, don’t be shy! Jump in and start to hone your skills.