Brewing is fun, educational, and easier than you think
by Brad Hughes, President of Cabarrus Homebrewers Society
The allure of home brewing, which attracts me and many of the brewers I know, is the freedom to craft a beer to taste and look exactly the way you imagined it would. It is easier than you think to make good beer and the satisfaction of sharing your beer and seeing your friends eyes light up when they taste something you created is what drives our passion for home brewing.
Water, Grain, Hops and Yeast
During each step of the brewing process, the brewer can make choices which affect the look, smell and taste of the finished beer. It may be a subtle flavor of cloves or fruit, an earthy smell or an intense hop aroma; this flavor experience was specially crafted by the brewer. Drinking a well-made beer is an experience for the senses.
Beer has been brewed for thousands of years with the same basic ingredients: water, grain, hops and yeast. The oldest known beer-making equipment from prehistory is still recognizable to modern brewers. In the past, beer was produced at home and all members of the family drank beer as an alternative to drinking water, which was known to be unsafe.
Water, grain, hops, and yeast; these four items can be combined in a nearly infinite number of combinations to produce beer. Additionally, the brewer has the option of adding other ingredients, such as spices, fruit, vegetables, sugar, or herbs, often locally sourced for freshness.
Home brewers can choose to make batches of beer from one gallon on their countertop, using everyday kitchen items, to as much as twenty gallons at a time with equipment for that purpose. Brewing can be as simple or as complex of a process as the brewer chooses.
Most brewers use water right from their tap, optionally the brewer could filter water or alter the composition of the water by adding minerals to make the water taste a specific way. One example is to add Gypsum to the water to harden it or change the pH. Some brewers choose to add minerals to water so they can reproduce the taste of water from a specific brewery or from somewhere in the world. Many brewers rarely worry about water composition.
Choosing Your Grain
The brewing process starts with the brewer deciding which kinds of grain and in what proportions they want to use. The combination of the different grains are what make all of the many styles of beer possible. Each kind of grain provides a slightly different flavor or sensation and by combining these the brewer can create a unique flavor profile or reproduce an existing beer. The profile can be either complex or simple depending on what the brewer wants to emphasize in the finished beer.
Making a Tea
The next step to make a tea with the grain. This is accomplished by crushing the grain, which exposes the starch in the kernels of grain and then adding the grain to water at a temperature of around 152 degrees Fahrenheit. Once well mixed and left to sit for an hour the starches in the grain are converted to sugar. This is called mashing the grain and the amount and type of grain used will in part determine the alcoholic content and look of the finished beer.
A few degrees of temperature difference in the water while mashing will vastly change the character of a beer once it is finished. A beer made from grain steeped at 150 Fahrenheit will taste different from grain steeped at 155 Fahrenheit. The difference will be noticeable on the tongue in the form of sweetness or thickness. Choosing the mash temperature and thickness is a choice the brewer makes to control how the finished beer tastes.
Once converted the water, which is now called wort, is drained from the grain into another pot or kettle. Extra water is used to make sure the sugar is washed from the grain into the kettle.
Once the wort is in the kettle it is brought to a boil for about an hour. The goals of boiling the beer are to 1) sterilize the wort, 2) decrease the amount of water in the wort to raise the sugar level, 3) to remove unwanted proteins from the beer.
During the boil, the brewer has the option to add hops or other ingredients to the boiling wort. Choosing when to add and what to add can vastly change the taste of the finished beer. Hops added early will impart a bitter note, while late additions will add an aromatic smell.
Hop plants are an antibacterial vine grown all over the world and have flowers that contain a resin called lupulin, which is what adds bitterness to beer to offset the sweetness of the sugar from the grain. Some hops provide a bitter taste and some provide a citrus, floral or piney taste. Combinations of hops are often used to create interesting flavors and aromas and are probably one of the most recognizable aspects of beer.
Historically other bitter plants and flowers were used to provide balance but hops are predominant in contemporary times.
Adding More Flavors
When the wort nears the end of the boil the brewer has the chance to add additional ingredients to the wort to flavor the beer.
Once the heat is removed the next step is to cool the wort as quickly as possible. This can be accomplished by several methods ranging from high tech plate or immersion chillers to an ice bath or nearby snow bank. Chillers all do the same thing: using cool water to remove the heat from hot wort. Some chillers are placed into the wort, some chillers have the wort pumped around cool water.
During the chilling process, cleanliness is of highest importance so as not to contaminate the beer. The goal is to cool the wort to around 70 degrees Fahrenheit. It generally takes about 30 minutes to cool the wort to the proper temperature. Actual time varies based on the equipment and temperature of the cool water.
When the wort has been chilled it is transferred into a sanitized vessel for fermentation. Once transferred the vessel or carboy is placed into a cool, dark area where it can be allowed to ferment without unexpected temperature changes.
Fermentation can not happen without the most important ingredient, yeast. Yeast is a single cell microbe which turns the wort into beer by consuming the sugar and converting it into alcohol. It is a similar process by which bread and cheese are made.
Fermentation can take anywhere from a few days to a couple weeks and is what many consider to be the hardest part of brewing: the waiting. All of the brewer’s efforts and dreams have gone into a carboy which sits quietly bubbling in a closet, dependent upon a microorganism to perform a simple chemical reaction and no amount of effort will significantly change the course of it’s future. The brewer can only wait and watch in expectation of beer to come.
Brewing yeast today is manufactured by a few companies who provide hundreds of yeast strains for all different styles of beer. A brewer can choose yeast cultured from a specific brewery in Belgium or a strain designed to provide a specific flavor to the beer. Yeast is capable of leading the flavor in beer or lying quietly in the background as a supporting flavor. In addition to the yeast strain, the temperature at which the brewer chooses to store the wort while fermenting will also change the flavors produced by the yeast.
A yeast sample properly introduced into wort will multiply in about 12 hours and form a layer of foam called krausen, which indicates healthy yeast growth. Over succeeding days the krausen will grow and retreat as the yeast consumes the sugar and expels carbon dioxide. Visually the beer will begin to clear as the yeast and proteins from the brewing process settle to the bottom of the carboy and the bubbling will come to a stop.
When the yeast is done fermenting, the wort can now be properly called beer. It is an alcoholic beverage almost ready for consumption. What needs to be done is to transfer to the beer from the carboy to bottles or kegs and to introduce carbon dioxide or nitrogen into beer which gives beer its classic foamy head.
Most commonly, beer is either force carbonated or bottle conditioned. Force carbonation is when beer is placed into a sealed metal or plastic container and carbon dioxide is forced into it by pressure. Bottle conditioning is when beer is added to a glass or plastic bottle, a precise amount of sugar is added and when capped the remaining yeast consumes the sugar and produces carbon dioxide which then gets absorbed into the beer. Force carbonation can be accomplished in a couple days and bottle conditioning can take a couple weeks. During which the brewer is once again at the mercy of chemistry while the beer finishes.
Whichever method of carbonation is used, the beer is next chilled and ready to be enjoyed with friends. Drinking beer at different temperatures will enhance and highlight various flavors in the beer. Ice cold beer has a muted flavor, but by allowing beer to warm to 40 and 50 degrees Fahrenheit, new flavors can emerge creating a new experience.
Home brewing is an experience of the senses. The look, taste and sounds during the process inform an experienced brewer as much as any measurement taken with instruments. Documenting how you made beer is an important part of brewing so you can recreate successes later.
Reading about how to make beer is like learning to swim on dry land. The best way to learn to make beer is to go watch someone and join in by lending a hand with the process. I welcome you to come to a meeting with Cabarrus Homebrewers Society (CABREW) or attend a brew session with us and learn what home brewing is all about. It is fun, educational, and easier than you think it is. We are all passionate about brewing and love talking about all aspects of making beer and it makes us happy to share beer with new and old friends.
CABREW meets the 2nd Thursday of every month at Red Hill Brewing Company in downtown Concord at 7:00 pm.
Let’s make some beer together.