OK, so you bought the deluxe starter kit and you’re ready to begin homebrewing. You’ve convinced your wife that it’s a good idea to make a mess in the kitchen. Where do you go from here? What type of ingredient kit should you get? How do you go from water, grains, hops, and yeast to that nectar of the gods that gives us white men the bravery to dance, and leads to all sorts of revelry and “I love you, man”‘s? In this post, I’ll talk about some of the basics of what you do in the process of brewing beer.
To understand what’s going on in beer making, check out our “Beer 101” section on our website for a short intro on beer ingredients and a few terms. The translation of this into practice is a different story. There are basically three different ways to go about homebrewing, with varying levels of complexity and control over the outcome. They are, from simplest to most complex: extract brewing, extract plus specialty grains, and whole grain (or all grain) brewing. For the beginning homebrewer, I’d recommend going with extract plus specialty grains. This will give you the flexibility to try out a large variety of beers without the cumbersome and occasionally expensive equipment needed to do all grain brewing. Once you’re hooked, it’s trivial to move over to all grain and you can turn up your nose at those hacks who waste their time with extracts. Losers.
Beer, just like coffee and tea, is a beverage that is fundamentally made by the extraction of plant substances. What this means is that you soak the malted grains and hops in hot water, after which proteins, sugars, acids, and flavor molecules become dissolved in the water. Upon prolonged heating, enzymes break down the starches (long chains of sugars) into simple sugars that can be metabolized by yeast into carbon dioxide and ethanol. Wort (pronounced “wert”) is the extracted liquid that you add yeast to to begin fermentation.
When you buy an extract kit, someone has already extracted the grains for you and evaporated most of the water, resulting in either a substance with the consistency of honey/syrup (liquid malt extract) or a gummy powder (Dried Malt Extract, DME). When you reconstitute the malt extract by dissolving it in water, you get a liquid that has all the sugar and protein content you need to make your beer. The type or quality of malted grain you extract will also provide a lot of the flavor and color to your beer. You can tell where some of the flavors in your beer will come from by tasting your extract before brewing. You know how you make orange juice from concentrate it never tastes “quite as good” as the fresh stuff? The same is true for beer — something is lost in the process of making malt extract, and the reconstituted solution is never quite as fresh or flavorful as when you extract it yourself. A lot of people use this as the basis for moving away from extract brewing, but don’t get me wrong — you can get some fantastic beers from extract brewing. You’ll be surprised! All grain homebrewers buy the malted grain from a supplier (or sometimes malt the grain themselves!) and do the extraction themselves. The “intermediate” way to brew beer is to do extract plus specialty grains. In this technique, you use reconstituted malt extract to begin making the wort, and then supplement it by steeping a small bag of specialty grains in the brew kettle. This is a fantastic way to get started homebrewing.
The other plant ingredient you use in brewing is hops. The extraction of hops results in the typically bitter and aromatic flavors in beer. Hops are in the family Cannabaceae, along with hemp and other flowering plants that are very popular for *ahem* recreational usage. Not that I have any experience with that sort of thing. Any of you who do, however, will probably recognize some of the characteristic sour, musky odors of the fresh hops that you’ll use as ingredients. Take a deep whiff when you’re brewing — it’ll help you understand where those complex flavors come from.
Once you’ve made your wort (the extracted grains and hops), the next step is to add (or “pitch”) the yeast. Homebrewers typically get yeast in three forms: dry yeast packets (these look like the bakers yeast you can get in the grocery store and are stored at room temperature), liquid yeast cultures (these often come in a vial and need to be refrigerated), or “smack packs” — larger foil packets that contain yeast and nutrients and are activated by smacking them in the palm of your hand to break open the ingredient package, thus beginning a starter culture. With the first two types, you have the option to make a starter culture yourself by taking some of your wort and putting the yeast in it for a few minutes/hours before brewing. This typically gives a more vigorous and rapid fermentation.
Finally, after you’ve pitched the yeast into your wort, let the fermentation begin. There are two basic types of beer: ales and lagers. Ales typically ferment on the timescale of about a week, ideally at 60-65 degrees, and the yeast float at the top of the wort. Lagers, on the other hand, ferment on the timescale of a month, ideally around 45 degrees, and the yeast typically are at the bottom of the fermenter. During fermentation, the yeast multiply, eat the sugars, and produce carbon dioxide (the carbonation) and ethanol. Because most homebrewers don’t necessarily have a way to control the temperature of fermentation that well, it’s best to start off with an ale — they ferment at close to room temperature in most houses. After fermentation, you’re ready to bottle and drink up.
Next time, I’ll give some specifics on homebrewing equipment and how you can turn the more abstract concepts i’ve talked about here into making a brew of your own.