Homebrewing – Part 1

May 3rd, 2010 by Michael

Gemma and I are makers.  We are driven to use our hands to create — from woodworking to crafts, from gardening to baking.  We also love nothing more than to share our creations with others, their delight bringing us as much joy as the process of making itself.  This is the spark from which Curious Confections was born, and the flame we are trying to fan into a bonfire.  We want to do what we love, make people happy, and earn a living doing it.

Being a maker most often means sacrificing convenience (and frequently cost) for quality.  Taking the long road on a journey doesn’t get you there faster, but it means you get to choose your own path and enjoy the scenery along the way.  Nowhere is this more true than when you brew your own libations at home — aka: homebrewing.  It’s so much easier to stop at the corner store and pick up a six-pack of beer for a few bucks than it is to spend many hours of your time preparing, much more of your money equipping, and weeks of waiting for your own to be ready.  But done right — even close to right — and you end up with something so much more rewarding.  Homebrewing is a hobby and a passion, and like any good hobby it means that you’re going to invest more time and money into it than you will save on either in the long run.  You do it because it’s interesting, fun, and it allows you to make something you can take pride in.

I’ve taken up brewing beer and mead at home, with more variations to follow (wine, cider, perry, etc).  With May 7th being National Homebrew Day,  and The American Homebrewers Association sponsoring the Big Brew in its honor on May 1st, we thought it would be a nice treat to post a series throughout the month of May about the process of brewing beer.  I’ll break this up into five parts — first providing some basic information on beer and brewing here today, then four future posts representing the four basic “days” involved: brew day, secondary day, bottling day, and enjoyment day.  Look for the rest on the subsequent Mondays.  Also, be warned, I tend toward being very… exuberant, so these may run a little lengthy, but I guarantee they’ll be informative at the very least.

This will by no means be a complete guide to brewing your own beer.  I intend to lay out the basic steps involved and give you my own take on the whole ordeal.  There is no single comprehensive method for brewing beer — everyone eventually develops their own means — but there are some core principles, chemistry, and processes that should be known.  By no means am I an expert, nor am I all knowing… and quite frankly I may be off-target about a few things.  *grins* Homebrewing entails a constant search for knowledge, whether it be tweaking your own process, or finding new and interesting variations on a recipe.  You can stay small, or go as big as you like.

We get started after the jump below…

Basic Beer Brewing Background

Beer is, loosely defined, as a lightly alcoholic beverage made from grains (principally barley, but also corn and wheat, etc).  Take this one step further with distillation, and you have whiskey.

The grains are “malted”, which means they are soaked and allowed to partially germinate, thus releasing enzymes and starches that will later be converted to sugar.  Once the critical stage of germination has been reached, the grains are dried to halt the process.  Further, some grains are toasted or roasted to varying degrees to achieve specific flavors, and other grains are used specifically for flavor/color/aroma, contributing little to no fermentable sugars.  This is all purely for your own education as the vast majority of homebrewers are purchasing their grains already malted… but there are a few zealots out there.  *grins*

These grains are combined in varying quantities and “mashed”.  Simply put, they are steeped in hot water to release the enzymes and starches that the malting process created, the enzymes then act on the starches converting them into sugars — this is what the grains would do in nature to provide a self-sustaining seed that would grow into a new plant, those sugars providing the fuel to grow.  The mash is then diluted to become “wort”, which is the liquid the yeast is added to (or “pitched”) to become beer.  The yeasts consume the sugars and produce alcohol and CO2 as a byproduct (they poop booze, and fart carbonation… a lovely image, no?).  Once fermentation is complete, the liquid is consumed.

This is, very basically, how beer is made.

These days, beer can be made using a variety of core methods: from extract, using only grains (aka “all-grain”), or a combination of the two (aka “mini-mash”).  Malt extract is essentially a bulk produced wort that has been either dehydrated completely into a dry form (DME – dry malt extract), or had a considerable amount of its liquid reduced out, leaving a thick syrupy substance behind (LME – liquid malt extract).  Either way, it is rehydrated at some point during the process.  Like beer, there are many varieties of extracts ranging from extra-pale to dark, each providing a distinct flavor and color.

The process of brewing beer very rudimentarily breaks down into the following: brewing, primary fermentation, secondary fermentation, then bottling (or kegging).

  • Brewing is, well, brewing — it’s where the wort is made and yeast is pitched.
  • Primary fermentation is when the yeast reproduce, consume the bulk of the fermentable sugars and other components in the wort and produce ethanol, CO2, and a number of other compounds (cetaldehyde, esters, amino acids, ketones, diacetyl, pentanedione, dimethyl sulfide, and a array of fusel alcohols).  This process takes approximately 1 week.
  • Secondary fermentation is a bit of a misnomer, and is more accurately a “conditioning” process.  The yeasts, having consumed all the low-hanging-fruit in the form of the wort sugars, will go back and begin to consume the other compounds that they produced, thus cleaning up the overall flavor of the beer.  This process takes approximately 2 weeks.
  • Bottling/Kegging is just that, putting the beer into individual bottles or kegs.  At this point the beer will benefit from several weeks of rest to finish the conditioning process, allowing the flavors to meld and mellow, making for a nicer tasting beer.  In the case of bottling a little extra sugar is added just before, so that the last few yeasties in the beer can naturally carbonate the brew in the bottle.  This process takes approximately 3 weeks.

Start to finish, a batch of beer will take six weeks on average to go from shopping to popping.  Some will take more, some less.  This follows the 1-2-3 guideline as outlined above: 1 week in primary, 2 in secondary, 3 in bottles.  Patience is your friend… so is making several batches back-to-back.  *grins*

I will be demonstrating this process using the mini-mash method.  This combines the ease of using extract adding the fresh and vibrant taste of freshly mashed grains.  It can be easily accomplished using the same basic equipment as extract alone, and by further doing a “partial-boil” (only using a portion of the overall water required for the full recipe to mash and create your wort, and topping up the rest later), it can be done on the stove-top in the relative comfort of your home — otherwise, you’d need a much larger pot and a propane or natural-gas powered burner.

Tune in next week, as we’ll roll up our sleeves and jump into making some beer!

Here are some links you might find useful, educational, or entertaining.

Cheers!

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  1. Curious Confections » Homebrewing – Part 2 said:

    […] 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* […]