Before we start our enzyme journey I want to say that alcohol production is simply the conversion of sugar into alcohol by yeast. That’s it in a nutshell. This can be done as simply as adding yeast to sugar water. Nothing else is needed, but if you want to tinker with the flavor, body, and smoothness of your final product then sugar water won’t do.
Different grains give different flavor profiles and body. This is the art of distillation. Just like the architect can build a simple structure that serves a simple purpose they can also utilize different materials and textures to create a work of beauty.
If you want to tinker with flavor and drinkability then you have to learn the ins and outs of enzymes.
What are enzymes?
Enzymes are the catalysts that speed up the chemical process of mashing your grains and preparing them for fermentation. Enzymes are prevalent in nature and their job is to break down chemical chains and compounds to be used for other purposes. In the case of distillation, the job of the enzyme is to break down starches into fermentable sugars to be converted into alcohol by yeast.
There are many types of enzymes in nature. We will be discussing a-amylase and b-amylase enzymes.
Why are enzymes important?
Enzymes are important because they convert starches from grains into fermentable sugars. Starches are made up of long chains of glucose molecules and have to be broken down into smaller molecules in order for the yeast to be able to turn them into alcohol. If these starches are not broken down by enzymes, then the yeast is not able to perform its job. The most common enzymes used in brewing/distilling come from malted barley. Malted barley is the most commonly used malted grain in distilling as it has high diastatic power. Diastatic power is the ability to break down starches into even simpler fermentable sugars during the mashing process. The term “diastatic” refers to “diastase” enzymes. There are two “diastase” enzymes, the first is alpha-amylase and the second is beta-amylase.
How Are Enzymes Created?
In nature a seed is produced by a plant in late summer it then dries on the lant and goes dormant. In the spring when the temperature rises and the rains come the seed swells and sprouts. This process activates the enzymes in the seed and the conversion of all that starch in the seed is what feeds the growth of the tiny sprout. To make enzymes this natural process is reproduced, but when the seed sprouts it is then dried out to stop the sprout from growing and the enzymes can then be extracted and used in fermentation. This process is called malting. During the malting process, barley is dried to a moisture content under 14% and then stored to overcome seed dormancy. The grain is then soaked in water to allow it to absorb moisture. This causes the barley to sprout. When the grains have a moisture content of above 45%, they are dried.
Barley develops enzymes during malting that are needed to convert starches into sugar during the mash process. Hot water (hot liquor) is added with the grain which allows the enzymes in the malt to break down the starch in the grain into sugars. During the mash process, these enzymes convert starches into sugar. Without enzymes, the starch would not be converted into sugar and the yeast would not have any sugar to ferment into alcohol. It is critically important to use CRUSHED malted barley and not regular or flaked barley.
If we add hot water to our milled grain, then that water should be able to penetrate the starch granules, opening them up to expose the starch chains. However, heat and water do not break down starch into simpler sugars — not on their own. In order to do that we need enzymes.
What is Amlase?
There are actually quite a few enzymes at play during the whiskey mashing process. The ones that get talked about the most are the amylases, both alpha (α) and beta (β). Make no mistake: These are important components of our mashing system. Amylases are responsible for breaking apart much of our starch molecules into the simpler sugars we’re after.
Alpha-amylase works better at higher temperatures (optimum activity occurs between 66–71°C [150–160°F]) than β-amylase. It is also what we call a “liquefaction” enzyme because it quickly gelatinizes our starches. This liquefaction is a quick process that actually happens before your very eyes. Try mashing unmalted wheat or rye by itself and you’ll notice that the overall mixture is incredibly gummy and viscous. Add in 10% by total weight of malted barley and you’ll see the viscosity of your mash magically get thinner and easier to handle.
Alpha-amylase is an “endo-amylase,” meaning it tends to clip starch chains at points in the middle of the chain. This is a fairly random process for a-amylase, but it goes a long way toward reducing the mash viscosity brought on by pasty starch granules. This also means that a-amylase is not really our champion when it comes to producing fermentable sugar from starch. Small amounts of sugars are produced at so random a pace that it just isn’t realistic to rely on a-amylase to give us every sugar we’re looking for.
For that we need b-amylase. Beta-amylase works at lower temperatures than its hot-headed brother, generally 54–66°C (129–150°F), with the highest activity seen around 64°C (147°F). Beta-amylase is an “exo-amylase,” which means it attacks starch chains from their ends and works its way along the chain in a methodical and linear fashion. It breaks off one molecule of maltose (a two-glucose molecule) at a time.
Amylose is easily handled by both amylases working in concert with each other. After all, amylose is essentially a straight chain of glucose molecules, so a-amylase and b-amylase have no issues with converting it to simpler sugars.
There are some other secondary enzymes at play in this process but if you get the steps right for the amylase enzymes then the others will fall into place without any other thought.
When to add the amylase enzymes.
Before we get into when you ad the enzymes I want to say that there are a lot of differing views about how this part of the process should be done. Most of them all work just fine. As a beginner, don’t try to find the “right” way. This is where the art comes into play with distilling. Find the way that works for you. I’m going to give you the basics here and if you follow this process it will work for you every time.
It should be said that different manufactures of enzymes recommend slightly different optimum temperature ranges for their product so always follow those temperature ranges. Also, different grains react differently to different temperatures optimally. Do your own research for specific grains. I will be giving the optimum process for a straight corn whiskey and it will work fine for most grains, but may not be optimal.
In this process, you are going to use powdered enzymes instead of malted grains. This is a simpler process and a good way for the beginner to start learning about the use of enzymes. As you hone your art you will want to begin to experiment with the use of malted grains to get your enzymes.
Use 2.5lb corn per gallon of water when starting your mash. Bring the temperature of the mash to 160°F, the mash will become considerably more viscous and thicken greatly. Add cold water to bring the temp down to 150° and add 1 teaspoon of amylase for every 5 gallons of mash by total volume just to thin the mash. Bring the temperature of the mash back up to 180-190°F, this will gelatinize the remaining starches. Now, cool the mash back down to 148-150°f and add amylase as prescribed on the package.
At this point turn off the heat and allow the mash to cool naturally. When the mash reaches 90 degrees take a small portion of the mash and add water 50/50. Add yeast to create a starter. When the rest of the mash reaches 80 degrees pitch in the starter and allow the fermentation process to begin.