March 06, 2013

In Simple Terms

“What is home brewing?” Is the most commonly asked question I get in my inbox everyday. I figure now’s the best time to answer the question, in the larval stage. Everything will make more sense down the road, so without further ado:

What goes into beer making? I’m assuming most people have heard of the Reinheitsgebot, German law passed in 1516, allowed only 3 ingredients: barley, hops, and water. You know the one. It was a price regulation, making grains like rye and wheat in beer illegal, so bakers could buy them for cheaper. That bakers’ lobby can be a real bitch. grain, hops, water, and yeast.

Almost all the grain brewers use is malted, meaning it was sprouted and then aborted. This kept the seed using up enzymes the brewer needs to make sweet, delicious wort. Homebrewers know this malted grain by it's street name, "malt". It smells like bready, malty glory, and is bought from a homebrew supply shop (big ups to Bob) or ordered online.

The malt is crushed in order to make the starch accessible to the enzymes, and then it’s soaked in hot water This is called mashing, the whole soupy, cerealy mixture is the mash, and it all take spalce in a vessel called the mashtun. The temperature of the mash has to be held constant for an hour or more. To achieve this, thrify brewers such as myself use coolers for mashtuns since they’re insulated.

Mmmmm wort.

The heat activates enzymes which will turn the grain starch into sugar for the yeast. In the range of 147 – 156F, different enzymes are active at different temperatures creating different sugars and other stuff. This has a huge effect on the finished product. Dry beers are mashed at lower temperatures, fuller beers at higher, Manipulating life, and to make alcohol no less, must fulfill some kind instinctual drive because it's fucking fun.

When all the starch has been converted to sugar, or when you have to move on ‘cause you're pressed for time, the mash is complete. The resulting liquid is called wort, meaning sugar water. It needs to be filtered free of the grain and transferred from the mashtun to a boiling vessel like a pot, kettle, or keggle. I use a keggle, a keg with the top cut off and a drain spigot added at the bottom. The wort is boiled for an hour or two usually, which will reduce the wort, pasteurize it, bring out flavor, and caramelize some of the sugars. During the boil hops can be added, along with spices, fruit, other sugars (honey, turbinado, etc.), extracts, flowers, and more.

When the boil is done, the wort is chilled in the 60 – 70F range, and transferred into a fermenter. Usually homebrewers use a big ass jug known as a carboy or a bucket. No one ever expects bucket ownership to be so rewarding and enjoyable. Finally, the yeast is pitched, meaning it’s dumped into the wort. And now begins the waiting game. Closed fermentations are the norm, where the gas created during the process can escape but no outside air can get in. This helps control flavor and limit contamination, but some beer styles call for open fermentation where the wort is left exposed to whatever critters want to make a home there. But that’s another post for another day.

Soon it will begin fermentation! This was a protein rich batch, I think that’s what that is floating around.

Fermentation takes about 3 weeks in my experience. Some brewers manage it faster, I like to let the yeast take their time, letting it go up to 8 weeks. Once that’s done, the wort is now beer sans carbonation. It can be carbonated in the bottle or the keg, and then the patience and work pay off.

Time required, with 60+ minutes for the mash, 60+ minutes boiling, the time needed to heat the water, cool the wort, and transfer it all around, we’re looking at 6 – 8 hours. Then fermentation for 3 weeks or more, bottling/kegging… it’s going to be about a month or longer. The only way to successfully deal with this situation, is to never stop brewing. Buckets, more buckets!

Next week, I’ll use one of my brewdays to go more in-depth into the trials and tribulations of brewday.