Saturday, May 27, 2006

The Basics of Beer Making

Written for a brewery demo board and local newsletter article.

Malt is not a simple sugar. It is made of chains of sugars that must be broken down to be made accessible for the yeast’s consumption. The grains themselves must be malted. This is a process that involves allowing the grain to germinate, which starts the conversion process. Then the sprouted grain is malted by slow roasting, and the different ways of roasting can affect the flavor profiles. Most malt is then treated by more processes to turn into dry malt extract (DME) or liquid malt extract (LME), and these are what are most commonly purchased for the purposes of making beer at home. In the interest of not writing a book, I’m going to stick with simple methods and explanation. If you are interested in an in-depth read about the process, I suggest Dave Miller’s “The Complete Handbook of Home Brewing.” The best simple explanation in a book that I have seen is “Homebrewing for Dummies” which I highly recommend.

Beer has three other ingredients. Yeast, water, and hops. Yeast comes a wide variety of types that are designed to add characteristics of the style of beer for which they have been bred. Ale yeast are top fermenters. Lager yeast ferment on the bottom. Choose whichever will help make the style of beer you want. Water is important because strong tasting water won’t taste good in beer, and if it’s too high on the chlorine, you’ll poison the yeast.

Hops are the other major flavor component. Hops are used to add bitterness and aroma, so it smells like beer and not just bubbly bread. The other important thing about hops is it acts as a preservative. The yeast cannot eat all of the sugar in malt, so if the beer isn’t drunk immediately or steps aren’t taken, other things will try to grow in your beer. In medieval times, other items such as wormwood, dandelions, oak bark, and more to try to counter the sweetness of the malt. Beer was often more nutritious and safer than drinking much of the water of the time. Hops added early in the boil are the bittering hops- they add the bitterness and preservative. Hops added near the end of the boil are called finishing hops, and they add the aroma. Hops come in leaf (which is actually petal because hops are flowers), pellet, or plug. Hops also vary widely in flavor profiles.

To make beer, you will need a recipe that goes for a rough idea of the style you may want. You should try always to make something you want to drink. You will need a large pot, ideally a 5-gallon pot, or as close to that as you can get, for a 5-gallon batch of mead. I make-do with a 4-gallon pot and do what is called a partial boil- I only boil part of the water with all of the malt in it. What follows is how I make a standard, generic-type ale. I use 6 pounds of DME and 2 ounces of hops, and one of the ale liquid ale yeasts.

Bring to a boil 2 gallons of water. Carefully add the DME, set a timer for an hour, and keep stirring. Doing this with a friend is more fun, so you can take turns stirring. Your house will fill with a pervasive aroma of cooking malt. Be careful, because you want to keep this as near a boil as possible without letting it boil over and spill all over your stove. Many folks will get a turkey roaster kind of gas cooker and do this in the yard or deck or driveway, just to avoid the mess of a boil over (and it can do a 5-gallon pot more efficiently than your stove). It will have to boil for an hour. You will have to stir it enough to keep from sticking on the bottom.

At about the half hour mark, you will add the ounce of bittering hops. It can go in a small bag or just toss it in loose. If it’s loose, you will get more flavor as a property of more surface area.

At 5 minutes before the end of the boil, add the ounce of finishing hops. At this point, your house will positively smell like a brewery. I love the smell. Some folks do not.

Turn off the heat. Now you get to see how quickly you can cool the contents of the pot. What happens in the cooling process is another break in the starch chains to make the sugar accessible to the yeast. The faster the cooling, the more sugar gets accessible, and the happier your yeast will be. There are devices that can be used, but the simplest is dumping ice cubes in the pot (if there is room), and giving the pan and contents an ice bath in your sink, with constantly changing the water in the sink to more cold water. I use a double sink and fill one sink, shift the pot, empty and fill the other, shift the pot, repeat. Or if I do this in the winter, I head outside and put the pan in a snow bank. Be careful not to spill. Boiling wort is very HOT, obviously. When it is comfortable on your wrist or near room temperature, you are done with chilling.

You can now syphon or pour carefully into your 6.5-gallon carboy or primary bucket fermenter. I use a large funnel with a screen in it to filter out the hops. Then add enough water to reach the 5-gallon mark. Now you can add your yeast.

Cover the primary so that germs can’t get in but CO2 can get out. Leave it alone for a week to 10 days. I know, the waiting is the hardest part.

If you want a secondary, which helps the beer clear, you will want to syphon it from the primary to the secondary now. Then let it sit for two more weeks.

Now it’s time to bottle. Most people like their beer to have that satisfying pfsshh when they open the bottle and some sort of bubbling action when they pour it into a glass. To get this carbonation, you will need to give your yeast a little more sugar before you put it in the bottles. Too much sugar added at this point will cause the bottles to explode. Too little and the beer won’t carbonate. Corn sugar is what is most commonly recommended. You need ¾ cup of sugar for a 5-gallon batch of beer. You can boil 2 cups of water and then add the sugar, dissolve the sugar, and then let it cool. Pour this gently into your beer, and then syphon the beer into all of your cleaned and sterilized bottles. Cap with a capper, and label your beer. And again, you have to wait another 2 weeks or so before you can drink.

Again, all of these ingredients vary to make a wide variety of styles, so do seek out recipes and types of beer that suit your taste.

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