Thursday, November 12, 2009

Homebrew Beer for Beginners (like me)

Brewing my own beer is something that I have wanted to do for a very long time. I grew up appreciating good beer – I was never one to binge drink Coors Light just because it was cheap and available. Beer is something to be appreciated.

I like to cook and bake because I enjoy the process, but also because I like to eat. It therefore stands to reason that I would be interested in brewing beer – a fun project, with (hopefully) delicious results. I was also interested in the process because my grandfather used to brew his own brews. In fact, I inherited some supplies from him that I faithfully moved (and stored) from one home to another before finally disposing of them just months before getting into brewing myself.

Not to be deterred, I checked in with a friend of mine whom I know to have done some serious brewing in the past. Turns out it had been a while for him and he was looking to get started again, so I had the pleasure of joining him for a few of his all-grain brew sessions. Once I finally got started on my own, I started with a kit, as most beginners do. However, having had the experience helping with an all-grain brew, I am quickly moving in that direction. It’s just a much more enjoyable process and you ultimately have much more control over the ingredients, process, and final product.

Having asked countless questions, read up on various online forums, etc., I finally purchased a kit from Williams Brewing and got started on my own. The first kit I brewed was an American IPA (actually I brewed one before that on my friends equipment, but due to some freezing conditions in my new fridge, the product was a bust). The IPA was hoppy and delicious, but also suffered from the same fridge freezing conditions. After going through about a dozen freeze-thaw cycles, the last bit of the brew just felt anemic and flat. Overall however, a relative success, and when the temp was well controlled, the beer was awesome.

The beer in these pictures is an Amarillo Ale, named after the Amarillo hops used in it (floral and citrusy), again a kit from Williams Brewing. This was the first time I brewed outside on my new propane burner, which I love it. Speeds the process up, the house doesn’t smell, no fear of boilovers becoming a sticky kitchen mess, and it just feels right to be outside while brewing.

The beer making process is not that difficult, and does not need to be as fussy as some make it seem. You can certainly get very high-tech and precise in measurements and temperatures, or you can just make some beer, man.

It goes without saying that keeping things clean is very important. I wash everything well and sanitize with a common homebrew sanitizer.

Let's brew!

1. Boil water – My largest pot (for now) holds about three gallons so I brew a concentrated brew and then add water when it’s time to cool before pitching yeast.

2. Add malt extract – The Williams Brewing kits use liquid malt extract, some use Dry Malt Extract (DME). The key is to dunk the bag of thick, sticky syrup into the boiling water for a bit to loosen it all up before cutting open and pouring into the pot, or probably more sanitary is to squeeze out the syrup and then ladle some hot water into the bag, slosh around and pour out, but we're about to boil for almost an hour so I'm not too worried. Also, it’s best to turn the heat off while adding the malt and stir as constantly as possible so none of the sugary syrup burns on the bottom of the pot.

3. Boil away – After bring the pot back to a boil keep an eye on the heat level, this is when things can easily bowl over. If it starts to, just lower the heat quickly and stir is up. The hot malted liquid is called wort. The boil usually lasts about 60 minutes, during which time you will add some flavor and bitterness via the hops.

Malty goodness

Mid brew reading

4. Add hops – Depending on the beer, there will be different types and amounts of hops used. This particular beer used Amarillo hopes. The first round goes in after a few minutes of cooking the malt – these are the flavor hops. More hops are added close to the end of the boil, the aroma hops, that don’t really affect the bitterness of the beer, but add nice floral hoppy aroma to the finished product. I never knew it about myself until brewing some Pale Ale with my friend, but I’m quite the hop fan. This beer is nicely balanced, but I think the next brew will head back towards the heavy hop additions.

Hops go in

Boiling away

5. Cool the wort – You want to cool the hot wort as quickly as possible. Our next step will be to add the yeast, but anything too hot will kill the yeast off immediately. The goal is to get the wort down to below 80 degrees, and to do it fast. There are a ton of wort chilling devises out there, and likely one day I will have one, but at this point I just put it in a giant ice bath and added more ice as it melted. It took about 30-35 minutes to get the temp down. You want to chill quickly to avoid any possible bacterial infections at this vulnerable stage.

Ice Bath

6. Add yeast – Once the temp is down, transfer the cooled wort to your fermenting container – I just use a five gallon bucket, a larger one would be ideal, but these are cheap. You can now pitch (add) your yeast to the brew and seal it up. The Williams kit comes with Wyeast activator pack yeast. A day or so before brewing, you pop an interior pouch inside the bigger bag of yeast that feeds the yeast and gets them all excited for the upcoming feast. Each packet contains over 1 billion yeast. Go get ‘em guys!

7. Seal, lock, ferment – Time to seal the fermenter, and add an airlock. The airlock allows CO2 produced from yeast eating the sugar to escape the container without anything else getting back it. Plus it’s cool to hear the airlock bubble away, knowing those billions of yeasties are converting all that sugary malt into alcohol.

8. Wait – one of the hardest parts of the process. If you were hardcore, you would be taking hydrometer readings of the chilled wort, and then later on to determine the specific gravity and alcohol content of the beer. But at the end of the day, does it really matter what the alcohol content by volume of your homebrew is? If you do everything basically right, it should be right around the level it was supposed to be (profound, I know). You’ll know if it’s high or low when you drink it after all. For me, I just wait. About 12 days to two weeks is good. Sure, without taking the readings, I don’t know 100% that fermentation is 100% complete, but I’m fairly confident it is. I also didn’t bother transferring to a secondary fermenter which would help the final product be a bit more clear. But again, who cares if your homebrew is perfectly clear?

9. Crash – After you’ve waited out fermentation, you want to chill the beer down to serving temp, or around 40 degrees. This will help any remaining suspended particles settle before the final transfer.

10. Keg – at this point you can bottle or keg your beer. I had planned to bottle originally, and had many nice friends saving their beer bottles for me. But thanks to another friend (turns out I’m lucky to have rad friends with cool hobbies to help me out) I was able to borrow a keg setup and bypassed the whole messy bottling step. After the beer is fully fermented and crashed, transfer via siphon to the clean and sanitized keg.

11. Carbonate – There are a couple of ways to do this. We could have mixed a sugar solution into the fermented beer before transferring it to the keg and let it naturally carbonate, which can take a few weeks, or you can force carbonate using CO2. Again, when force carbonating there are a few options – crank the gas up, shake the keg, let it settle, shake again, repeat etc. until well carbonated - or set the gas to the right serving level and leave it alone for a week or so. I do something in between these – shake a little gas in, let it sit, shake once or twice more, set the gas to around 10-12 psi and leave it alone for a few days. As it conditions in the keg, it will just get better and better.

12. Drink and Enjoy! – This part is pretty self explanatory, easy, and quite rewarding. You'll need to adjust the pressure on the gas for serving. For this brew, with my gas in the fridge with the keg, I've found a low pressure (around 7 psi) produces a nice beer with good head retention without excess foaming.

I left out some nitty-gritty details here and there, but overall, while the process takes time, it’s really not that difficult. I’m sure you could work harder at it, and in some ways I probably will as I take on new recipes etc. but overall, just jump in there, enjoy the process and relish in your good works.

Ideally, serve in Grandpa's old gold-rim glasses


Katia said...

Was that the brew from Thanksgiving? If it is, it was grand. You're unbelievable Ethan.

Ethan said...

Yes, the Amarillo Ale was the official beer of Fake Thanksgiving 2009.

callie said...

roel and i have talked about home brewing for a while.

someday when you come visit us here, you'll be treated to the wonderful stench of our neighborhood brewery. smells awful, but the finished product, de koninck, is a delight!

Danielle said...

Yeah, Fake Thanksgiving 2009! I'm so glad I got to taste the brew. It was, indeed, grand. Friendly, too. And Slaughterhouse Five is a really good book.

Erica said...

Loved the brew at Fake Turkey Day '09. I was actually surprised at how great it was. I should know better by now!

Mary Katie said...

Darren says he wants some (of your beer)