Homebrewing – Part 2

May 10th, 2010 by Michael

Last week I kicked off a month-long series on homebrewing in honor of National Homebrew Day which was May 7th, providing you some background information and the mile-high view of the process.  Over the next four weeks I’ll go into more information on the four “days” of brewing.  This week is the big mamma-jamma, the day of the most work: Brew Day.  As a result this is a long post, so make yourself comfortable.  *grins*

We get started after the jump below…

Day 1 – Brew Day
First, gather your ingredients.  There are quite a number of local and internet-based vendors, and here in Austin we have Austin Homebrew Supply.  They are a wealth of supplies and information, and one of the largest suppliers in the US.  They have recipe kits that reflect a wide variety of beer styles, as well as clones of popular commercial beers.  It’s as easy as walking in (or clicking online) and selecting the kit you want, and the staff will assemble everything you need.  The kits come complete with all the ingredients necessary: grains/extract, yeast, hops, priming sugar for bottling, etc, as well as detailed instructions.  While their instructions are thorough and serviceable I tend to deviate and follow a method that I’ve pieced together from my own research.  As stated before, everyone eventually develops a style and process of their own.

On average, the contents of a bottle of homebrew will cost less than the contents of a bottle of a similarly styled beer.  This is for the ingredients alone, and does not include the cost of equipment and other supplies.  You may pay $42 for a recipe kit, but you’ll get 48 – 54 bottles of beer from that and compared to the price of most of the craft beers on the market now, $0.78 a beer is mightily inexpensive.  But again, you will have to make a small investment in equipment, and this is a hobby after all… you don’t take up a hobby to save money.  *grins*

Next, gather your equipment.  For a partial-boil mini-mash I use a 24 QT pot as a primary, and a 12 QT pot as a secondary.  You’ll also need other equipment: grain bag, large spoon, colander, thermometer, etc… which we’ll discuss as we go.  Everything should be clean, and anything that will be used after the wort has been boiled should be sanitized to avoid bacterial growth.  There are as many long and bloody fights over proper sanitizing methods as there have been wars on this earth.  Personally, I use StarSan, a no-rinse sanitizer that uses a high  acidity to kill off any surface nasties.

I would like to take a moment to define a few oft mixed-up terms, and I’ll let John Palmer do it best, from his book How To Brew (I will quote from him every so often, as he has done a masterful job of defining many important concepts):

The definition and objective of sanitization is to reduce bacteria and contaminants to insignificant or manageable levels. The terms clean, sanitize and sterilize are often used interchangeably, but should not be. Items may be clean but not sanitized or vice versa. Here are the definitions:

  • Clean – To be free from dirt, stain, or foreign matter.
  • Sanitize – To kill/reduce spoiling microorganisms to negligible levels.
  • Sterilize – To eliminate all forms of life, especially microorganisms, either by chemical or physical means.

Cleaning is the process of removing all the dirt and grime from a surface, thereby removing all the sites that can harbor bacteria. Cleaning is usually done with a detergent and elbow grease. None of the sanitizing agents used by homebrewers are capable of eliminating all bacterial spores and viruses. The majority of chemical agents homebrewers use will clean and sanitize but not sterilize. However, sterilization is not necessary. Instead of worrying about sterilization, homebrewers can be satisfied if they consistently reduce these contaminants to negligible levels.

All sanitizers are meant to be used on clean surfaces. A sanitizer’s ability to kill microorganisms is reduced by the presence of dirt, grime or organic material. Organic deposits can harbor bacteria and shield the surface from being reached by the sanitizer. So it is up to you to make sure the surface of the item to be sanitized is as clean as possible.

Now to start!  Bring a volume of water in the 12 QT pot up to the appropriate temperature to mash your grains… the volume and temperature do vary, and is a topic for another time (sketching out the process here… remember?).  Kill the heat and place your grain bag into the pot and overlap the pot rim to keep the bag open (use clips to hold it if so desired).  Slowly pour in your grain, stir thoroughly, insert your thermometer and put the lid back on.  The goal is to maintain a consistent temperature during the mash process, which can range from 30 to 90 minutes, depending on the recipe.  This will facilitate a better conversion of the enzymes/starches to sugar.  I wrap a large towel around the pot to help insulate it, and that works just fine.  Stir once or twice during mashing.

Near the end of the mash, bring another volume of water in the 24 QT pot up to the appropriate temperature to “sparge” your grains… again, the volume and temperature vary.  Sparging is the process of rinsing free as much of the thick mash sugars that will be clinging to the grains as possible.  There are a lot of ways to do it, and to varying degrees of efficiency.  We’ll be doing a “bulk sparge”, which means we will simply dunk and swirl the grains into the full volume of water at once.

Once mashing is complete, lift the grains in the bag from the 12 QT mash pot, place a colander beneath it and let it drain.  Do not squeeze the grains as that will extract tannins, imparting an astringent, puckering flavor to your beer.  Once the grains have drained, transfer them (in the bag) to the sparge pot and dunk and swirl them around.  Open the bag and give the grains a few gentle stirs to allow the fresh water in.  Continue doing this, occasionally, for 10 minutes.  Lift the grains in the bag and place the colander beneath them again and allow them to drain once more.  Once drained, the grains can be discarded — preferably in a compost heap, a garden, or even better you can make high fiber bread or dog treats from them (that’s what we do).  Clean your grain bag, we’ll be using that again in a bit.

Combine the mash and sparge liquids in the 24 QT pot.  Fill the now empty 12 QT pot up with 2½ GAL of clean water and bring to a full boil for 5 – 10 minutes.  We’ll use this to top off with later, and since this water will be added after the wort has finished boiling, we want it to be sanitary.

Bring the mash/sparge liquid up to 4 GAL with clean (unboiled) water and bring to a boil.  Once boiling, kill the heat and add your extract.  If you’re using liquid, you can set it in a sink of hot water to loosen it up, then use a spatula to scrape the container clean.  Stir thoroughly for several minutes to dissolve completely avoiding any buildup on the bottom of the pot — this will scorch and contribute nasty flavors to your beer.  Once mixed, turn the heat back on and resume the boil for several minutes.  Congratulations, you’ve made wort.

It is at this point that we want to add hops to our brew.  Hops add bitterness, flavor, and aroma to beer, as well as being a natural preservative and stabilizer.  Fun fact: IPA (India Pale Ale) beers, which are tremendously hoppy beers, came about around 1840 as a means to transport beer from England to India.  The enormous amount of hops preserved the beer for the long journey, as well as lending it a desirable bitter tang.  The bitterness of hops dissipates over time, so the longer a brew is aged (or “cellared”), the milder the flavor.

Hops are added at various points during the boiling of the wort.  The longer they are boiled, the more subtle flavors and aromas are lost as the alpha acids are isomerized into a bitter compound.  The less time they are boiled, the more aroma is retained and less bitterness and flavor is extracted.  Typically, recipes call for a 60 minute counting down boil, adding hops at the 60, 15, and 5 minute marks.  Quite often, different hop strains are used, depending on what they are best suited for.  Having re-used the grain bag to contain the hops, removal of the hops is as easy as removing the bag and allowing it to drain before disposing of the hops themselves.

Once the boil is complete, the wort should be cooled as rapidly as possible.  This will accomplish a number of things: first it promotes a good “cold break”, the coagulation of proteins that cause chill haze and cloudy beer.  Next, it speeds the wort through the contamination zone between 140°F and 80°F as rapidly as possible, reducing oxidation and the generation of dimethyl sulfide which will produce off flavors.  Chilling can be accomplished in a number of ways, the two most common being the use of either an ice batch, or a wort chiller.

The ice bath is simply a volume of water and ice that the wort, pot and all, is placed in.  The water is changed a few times, more ice is added, until the wort is in the target temperature zone — this can take anywhere from 30 to 60 minutes.  A wort chiller is a device, typically a coil of copper tubing, that is immersed into the wort.  Cold water is then circulated through the tubing as the wort is gently stirred, bringing the temperature down — this can take anywhere from 7 to 15 minutes.  A lot of chillers hook directly to a sink or hose faucet, and rely on the temperature of the tap water to chill the wort, the water then being allowed to drain away into the sink, lawn or gutter.  I constructed a chiller that uses a garden pump to recirculate ice water to do the trick, wasting less water and being more efficient in the process.  When using an immersion-style chiller, you can simply place it in the boiling wort for the final 10 – 15 minutes to sanitize it.

At this point it is critical to ensure that anything that the wort touches — hands, tools, etc — is clean and sanitized.  Bacteria can lurk on a clean and shiny surface, and bacterial will ruin a batch of beer wasting all your time, effort and money.  Thorough sanitizing is the most important step you can ever take while homebrewing.

Once the wort is cooled to your target temperature — preferably very close to the temperature you’re going to ferment at (65°F to 70°F) — you must transfer it to a fermenting vessel of some sort.  Some folks use clean food-grade plastic buckets (that haven’t previously been used to store something that will permanently stain the plastic with a persistent aroma or flavor… pickle buckets, for example, will always smell like pickles, and will impart that flavor to your brew), some use carboys — which are a 3 – 7 GAL glass or plastic bottle (made of PET), similar in design to the type used for water-coolers (but not those actual bottles… they are gas permeable and as a result aren’t suitable for fermenting) — the design isn’t important as long as it can be sealed and have some sort of airlock installed in it.  I choose to use glass carboys as they do not scratch easily and do not absorb odors or flavors.  It is also noteworthy that since we are brewing a 5 GAL batch of beer, we would use a 6+ GAL fermenter.  As the beer ferments, it forms a foamy layer on top (called a kräusen) that needs room to expand.

Using a funnel and a strainer to catch any grain that may have escaped the bag, I pour the wort into the fermenter.  Some folks siphon from pot to carboy, I simply use a sanitized pitcher to do the transfer.  Once all the wort is in, I add the previously boiled (then cooled to the same temperature as the wort) top-off water to bring the level of liquid in the fermenter to 5¼ GAL  — that extra ¼ GAL allows us to take samples, and lose some liquid during transfer, and still end up with 5 GAL of beer in the end.  At this point you should take a gravity reading using a hydrometer.

In short, a hydrometer measures the specific gravity (or relative density) of a liquid in relation to the density of water, by how high it floats when immersed — in this case it measures the ratio of sugars in the wort.  You should take a sample of the beer from your fermenter using a sanitized tool of your choice (in the case of a carboy, a wine thief is the handiest tool around).  This first reading is your original gravity (aka “OG”), and will be measured at the end of fermentation against your final gravity (aka “FG”, also know a “terminal gravity”) to determine how much alcohol is in your beer, and to determine when fermentation is actually complete.  Do not return the sample to the fermenter, as you increase the risk of infection if you do.  Instead, take a sip and see what you’ve produced.  It should be sweet, with a tongue pinging bitterness on the back end.  These flavors will change and mellow dramatically as the beer ferments, then is allowed to age/condition.

The next step is to aerate the wort by any of a number of effective methods: shaking, stirring vigorously, bubbling oxygen through it, etc.  As you can see, I got a little overenthusiastic with a drill-operated stirring tool on this batch, and created a large foamy head… and while not a bad thing, it did make it difficult to pitch my yeast.  You can simply put a stopper in and shake/rock the fermenter vigorously for 5 minutes to achieve sufficient aeration.

Yeast go through multiple stages during fermentation, the first being a reproductive one.  Again, quoting John Palmer from How To Brew:

Yeast use oxygen in the biosynthesis of the compounds that make up their cell membranes that allow them to process sugars for food and grow.  Being able to process food and grow more efficiently allows them to reproduce more effectively also.  Without oxygen, yeast cannot reproduce as fast.  Therefore, to ensure a good fermentation, we need to provide the yeast with sufficient oxygen to allow them to grow quickly and reproduce when they are first pitched to the fermenter.  Once they have reproduced to sufficient numbers, we can let them get on with turning our wort into beer.

Once the wort is sufficiently aerated, you can pitch your yeast.  Some yeasts come in powder form, some in liquid form, and most times which you choose comes down to personal preference.  Powdered yeast should be rehydrated to check for viability before use.  Liquid yeast, in most cases, can be pitched directly into the wort but will benefit from being made into a “starter” a few days before brewing to allow the yeast to reproduce and multiply their numbers greatly, ensuring a fast start to fermentation, and a through fermentation process.  I choose to go the starter route… I’ve never been one to walk the simple path.  *grins*

Once the yeast is in the wort, shake/rock the fermenter to disperse.  Transport your fermenter to its home for the next 3 weeks — this should be a place that is dark (light, especially sunlight, will cause a photochemical reaction with the hop compounds and “skunk” your beer) and has a stable temperature between 65°F to 75°F.  I go one step further and place my carboy into an ice-chest, and fill with water to half way up the carboy.  This allows for more stable temperatures,  a slower thermal shift in the fermenting beer, and allows me to moderate the temperature with ice bottles or hot water as necessary.

Once the fermenter is in position, insert your airlock.  In the case of a carboy a rubber stopper is used to seal the neck and hold the airlock, in the case of most commercial brewing pails, a hole is drilled in the lid, and a rubber grommet is put in place to hold the airlock.  The airlocks themselves are available in several designs, but accomplish the same thing — they allow CO2 to exit the carboy while keeping oxygen and other undesirables out (wild yeasts, bacteria, critters).  The two most popular are the double-bubble (or “S” type), and the 3-piece.  I user the 3-piece, but again, that’s just my preference.  Once fitted, the airlock is filled with a sanitary liquid to create the one-way passage.  You can use sanitizer, distilled water, or even a very cheap alcohol such as vodka.  Since there is a remote chance the liquid may get drawn back into the fermenter, I’d say stick with sanitizer or vodka.

In addition to the airlock, there is another option — a blow-off tube.  There are times when the fermentation is so vigorous that the foamy kräusen will surpass even the empty headspace in the fermenter, and blow out of the airlock — sometimes with enough force to paint your ceiling a lovely shade of foamy beer tan.  In these cases you’ll want to use a tube inserted into your stopper or lid that leads to a smaller vessel — such as a small bucket, bottle or milk jug — which has a small amount of sanitary liquid in it.  The end of the tube in the bucket or jug should be submerged below the level of sanitizer, effectively becoming an airlock.  Any foam that exits the fermenter will simply go into the jug.  Some brewers will use a blow-off tube for the first 24 – 72 hours of fermentation when the likelihood is greatest, then switch to a conventional airlock to finish.

Lacking closet space, and desiring to check on my fermenting beer frequently, I opted to make little “huts” out of discarded Dell boxes to place over my fermenters.  I can store them anywhere I have space, and they fit conveniently over the ice-chest I use for primary fermentation.

As the beer ferments, the foamy kräusen will appear and rise — perhaps very little, perhaps to explosive proportions.  The airlock (or blow-off vesssel) will bubble rapidly as CO2 escapes the fermenter.  Your beer is alive, and the yeasts are hungry and gorging themselves on all that lovely sugar — think of microscopic piranha-like sea monkeys.  *grins*

Primary fermentation will take approximately 7 – 10 days to complete.  At this point the kräusen will have risen, then collapsed and dissolved back into the beer, the CO2 output should be drastically reduced (as is evident by the reduced bubbling in the airlock).  The only reliable way to determine if fermentation is complete is to use your trusty hydrometer to check.  If the gravity is stable over the course of 2 – 3 days, primary fermentation is complete.  As before, do not return your samples to the fermenter, but taste them to gauge how things are going.

Once primary fermentation is complete, your beer is still nowhere near done.  We’ll move on to the following phase next week: secondary day.


  1. Curious Confections » Homebrewing – Part 4 said:

    […] series on homebrewing in honor of National Homebrew Day which was May 7th.  In previous posts we performed the actual brewing, and then after allowing the beer to complete its primary fermentation we transferred to to a […]

  2. Curious Confections » Homebrewing – Part 3 said:

    […] Last week we did all the hard work of brewing the actual beer, and we waited patiently while it fermented.  Patience is a virtue, and you’ll need plenty of it if you’re homebrewing. […]