About Wort – Beer Brewing and Wort Explained

The brewing process is complex, and you need to do several things before you get to taste your beer. Wort is one of the elements that each homebrewer must understand because it’s the foundation of brewing. 

Wort is a mixture of water and malted barley that is mashed to extract sugars, which will later be fermented into alcohol (maltose). Depending on the beer type you want to make, you’ll need different quantities of malt, hops, or other adjuncts like spices or fruits.

In this guide, I’ll explain everything you need to know about wort – from its brewing process and terminology to common mistakes to avoid. Let’s get started! 

What Is Wort?

Pronounced ‘wert,’ wort is the beer starter. Wort is the liquid extracted from grain through the grain mashing process, and is essentially unfermented beer. Wort consists of water and malt extract. 

Wort is loosely called grain water since most wort fermented into beer is usually 70-90% water by weight. The beer you sip from a bottle was once wort before fermentation.

How to Prepare Wort

Brewing beer from malted grains doesn’t have to be complicated. Once you understand the basic principles involved in wort preparation, brewing your homemade beer will be as easy as putting one and one together. 

Let’s consider what’s involved in wort preparation and how you can make your own at home:

1. Steep Your Grains

The first step in wort preparation is getting malt from grain. Most cereal grains can give you malt, and barley is commonly used to produce malt for beer brewing. 

However, you can also use the following to produce malt:

  • Rye
  • Wheat
  • Corn
  • Sorghum
  • Rice

To make malt, you must allow the cereal grain to germinate partially. 

The grain soaking process that kick-starts germination is called steeping. Grains are soaked and then dried. Cereal grains should be soaked in water for at least 2 days before they are cast out to dry. 

While you can dry cereal grain naturally, controlled conditions where temperature and humidity are adjusted for optimum germination are best. Most medium and large breweries have special germination vessels. 

2. Let the Grains Sprout

The essence of germinating cereal before mashing is modifying its natural food substances. As the grain germinates, the cell wall and endosperm are broken down, releasing starch and important malt enzymes. 

These malt enzymes are vital during mashing because they help convert long-chain sugars into shorter-chain ones. The common enzymes generated by the germination process to aid in malting are:

  • Beta-glucanase
  • Alpha-amylase
  • Protease
  • Beta-amylase

During the malting process, these malt enzymes break the starch into simpler sugars: 

  • Maltose 
  • Fructose
  • Glucose

Important oils and lipids add to the flavor and gravity of the resultant beer.

3. Mash the Grains

Steeping and sprouting cereal grains make them active, and the germinating grains are then crushed or milled into a finer substance. 

The grinding or milling cracks the grains, exposing the enzymes inside. The finer substance from grinding or milling is known as the grain bill or grist

To mash your grain bill, follow these simple steps:

  1. Mix it with hot water (usually between 148 and 158°F or 64 and 70°C).
  2. Stir to ensure that most of the water-soluble sugars and enzymes dissolve in the water. The stirring prevents clumping of the grist, which can affect the quality of the wort. 

Adding the grain bill or grist into the heated water is known as mashing in, a process that occurs in a mash tun. This is an insulated container that serves this mixing purpose as well as wort run-off. 

Wort run-off, also known as lautering, separates the sweet wort from the spent grist. 

Using hot water during the mash-in process optimizes enzyme activity and, as the grain begins to germinate, the malt enzymes will form.  

During the mashing step, the high temperatures in the mash tun activate these enzymes to work on the starch, breaking its intermolecular bonds and allowing it to dissolve effectively in the water.

This process of enzyme activity on starch is commonly known as starch gelatinization. During gelatinization, water acts as a plasticizer. 

A plasticizer is any substance that makes it more flexible and softer when added to another material, and it decreases the viscosity of the material to which it is added.

After stirring well, you should let your mash settle in the mash tun for at least an hour. Some brewers heat the mash at intervals as it settles to ensure that all sugars dissolve.

If you’re wondering how much water is added to what amount of grist in the mash tun for a perfect wort, I recommend mixing 2 portions of heated water with one portion of grist for a perfect wort quality.

4. Mash Out

To mash out, you must raise your mash temperature to about 75 °C – 77 °C (167 °F – 170 °F) to completely deactivate the enzymes. These higher temperatures also make the mash less viscous for easier flow during the run-off in the lautering step.

However, before lautering, you should sprinkle the heated mash with hot water to further lower its viscosity and enable it to flow freely. The sprinkling of mash with hot water is commonly known as sparging. The sparging water is usually heated to about 94 °C (202°F). 

5. Lauter Your Malt

Larger breweries have separate lauter tuns where the sparged mash is pumped. However, homemade brewers use the mash tun for lautering. 

Modern lauter tuns have blades that stir the mash at the bottom to ease the sludge. It would be difficult to manually stir several hundred gallons of mash to ease the run-off.

Lauter tuns have a tap at the bottom that, when opened, releases the sweet wort and leaves the grain residue behind. For homemade breweries, the mash tun is fitted with a tap to release the wort after it’s sparged. 

To ensure that all wort is extracted, you might need to sparge the remaining sludge at the bottom of the lauter with more heated water to release any remaining wort.

The collected wort should be added back to the lauter in a process known as recirculation. During recirculation, the mash bed at the bottom of the lauter acts as a sieve trapping any grain particles in the wort. 

Repetitive sparging of the lauter and recirculation of collected wort lowers its gravity (solid content or density). This solid content is usually measured with a saccharometer, hydrometer, or refractometer and recorded as the original gravity (OG) or original extract. 

Original extract is your wort’s density at standard pressure and temperature. OG is compared to the gravity of your beer after fermentation and expressed as a density above that of distilled water. 

Distilled water is assumed to have a gravity of 1.000 at Standard Temperature and Pressure. If your wort has a wort density reading of 1.045, it has 45% more gravity than distilled water, and the OG of this wort will be recorded as 45.

6. Chill Your Wort

After lautering, the wort must be cooled and aerated before yeast pitch. The cooling and aeration create a favorable environment for the yeast to survive and effectively ferment the wort.

The wort must be cooled rapidly to avoid contamination and slow dimethyl sulfide (DMS) production. Many people pay little attention to this step, although it’s a major determinant of the quality of your beer after fermentation.  

7. Ferment Your Wort

After lautering your mash, you get to see the sweet wort that has been fermented to beet. This is achieved by adding yeast and conditioning. To find out more, you may consider this brewing guide for tips on fermenting wort for a perfect beer.

Important Facts About Wort Preparation

Wort preparation has its ups and downs, but there are more good than bad outcomes. Here’s what to consider when preparing wort: 

Grain Variety Determines Wort Quality and Flavor 

Wort differs greatly in variety depending on its intended use, and different grains will add different characteristics to the wort. 

Rye, commonly used in the brewing of Rye IPA, will produce a crisp and spicier wort flavor. In contrast, oatmeal, commonly used on oat stouts, will have a smoother, creamier wort taste. 

You can combine more than one cereal grain in your mash or add other non-grain sources of starch into your mash. Starch matters and plenty of foods can deliver starch for your wort.

It’s Best to Use Non-Grain Starch Sources

You can use non-grain starch sources for your wort. For instance, ale brewers routinely add other starch sources that gelatinize at the same temperature as malt for additional flavors and colors. Some brewers like adding fruit or vegetable pulp in controlled amounts, and these additional starch sources also alter the gravity by making it denser.

However, these additions require some skill and experience. Too much additional starch can inhibit lautering by creating a very thick residue. This thick residue can be impossible to mash out and sparge in small home breweries that do not have independent advanced lautering tuns. It’s, therefore, best to stick to non-grain starch sources.

Work with high-quality fresh ingredients, including starch sources, for the best beer quality. Also, use your crushed grains, malt, and wort while fresh for better-quality beer.

Cooking Is an Alternative to Germinating

Cooking cereal is sometimes a good alternative to the tedious process of steeping and germinating cereal. You don’t have to wait 3 days for your cereal grain to start sprouting after steeping, and you can cook it and go straight into malting. 

You can add fine starch sources such as corn flakes and wheat flour directly into the mash without germinating. However, un-steeped rice and corn grits that have not started germinating must first be boiled to gelatinize, and then you can add them to the mash. This process requires a cereal cooker.

Modern commercial mashing systems can boil cereal grain and add artificial enzymes to ensure all the starch gelatinizes. For example, these systems can mash ale and lager wort together but at different temperatures.

Sanitation Is Vital in Brewing

You should pay great attention to sanitation throughout your brewing process. All wort-making equipment should be washed and sanitized before starting malting. Maintaining exceptional sanitation during your wort-making process will significantly lower the chances of contamination. 

Start With Dark Beers

This is hack number 1 for beginners. As you prepare your wort, consider the ingredients that will work well for darker beers. 

Rye, for example, will give you darker wort more appropriate for stouts, and darker beers allow you to cover some of the brewing mistakes

Keep Good Records

As you prepare your wort, ensure that you keep proper records. Whether it’s a simple or complex beer recipe, adequate records are vital. 

Record all the ingredients in the amounts used, the steps followed, and the outcome carefully. These records are the starting point for modifying recipes to achieve perfection.

Research Extensively

The sky is the limit when it comes to brewing. Since it’s both an art and a science, research is the key to tweaking recipes for more refined craft beers. To perfect the scientific element of brewing, continuous research is necessary. Consider the following:

  • Read top brewing books and extensively research online. 
  • Websites, online discussion forums, brewing blogs, and tutorials will enable you to grow your wort-making knowledge. 

Experiment with Your Wort-Making Skills

You will not perfect your brewing and wort-making skills overnight or if you’re afraid of trying again and again. Your first wort might not look, taste, or smell great, and you will have to repeat the wort-making process several times to perfect it. Don’t be afraid of trying and making mistakes.

Final Thoughts

Wort is the foundation of brewing, and you just need to ferment your wort to get beer. Wort making is pretty standard, but wort quality differs depending on the grain and additives used. 

You can also customize the malting process to alter wort flavor and gravity. Wort preparation isn’t a process you’ll perfect initially. Keep experimenting and researching to improve your skills. 
After preparing your wort, the subsequent steps are tricky and require even more care. I, however, have a guide for each of those steps to enable you to brew high-quality beer with little stress.

About HomeBrewAdvice

Hello, my name is Simon. Together with a group of writers I write about brewing beer and making wine. We all share a passion for the great things in life, such as making stuff from scratch.

The business of HomeBrewAdvice is to bring you great information, stories and product reviews from brewing at home, and making wine

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