AND AWAY WE GO

Now it’s time to get started on your first extract kit. This post will cover how to get started and brew, and my next two posts will cover fermentation and bottling.  One of my personal favorite “starter” kits is Northern Brewers’ Breakfast Stout kit — it’s relatively inexpensive, and you get a great beer that’s relatively tough to screw up.  According to Northern Brewer:

“Beer for breakfast? This smooth, low alcohol stout is good for lunch and dinner too. If we had to pin it down, it’s a cross between an oatmeal stout (a high proportion of flaked oats creates a silky texture) and a sweet stout (lactose gives sweetness and a full body) with the coffee-like flavor of roasted barley. A buttery note from the yeast completes the impression of a complete meal in a glass..”

Stouts are some of my favorite beers, and “complete meal in a glass” is a tough recommendation to pass up.  It is well liked by Northern Brewer’s customers, getting 4/5 stars from the online reviews. It’s a little light for a stout, but I assure you: you won’t be disappointed.  This beer will be appealing to a large crowd and is a great beer to share with friends.  As with all good breakfast beers, it makes fantastic Beerios™.

When the kit arrives, you’ll see that it comes with the following ingredients:

  1. Yeast: you have the option to upgrade to the Wyeast liquid yeast, and I recommend it.  The liquid yeast are much more active and give you a shorter lag time, ensuring that your fermentation will begin rapidly and your brew won’t get contaminated.  For this particular beer, Wyeast Irish Ale Yeast is recommended.
  2. Specialty Grains: These grains give a lot of the color and flavor to the beer despite being a minor component.  You steep the grains in the wort in a muslin bag.
  3. Other Fermentables: 3.15 lbs. of dark malt syrup (liquid malt extract) and 1 lb. lactose (sugar).
  4. Hops: Willamette (Pronounced “will-am-it”) hops, 1 oz.  This is a popular type of hops grown in Oregon used in many kinds of beer.

Now you’re ready to begin!  Don’t be afraid to smell and taste your ingredients, as this is where you can really learn where the flavors in your beer come from.  Remember that this process is nearly identical to what goes on in microbreweries and in the big brew houses all over the world!  If you went with a liquid yeast, it should come in a “smack pack” — a foil packet that has yeast and nutrients.  The night before you brew, put the yeast packet in the palm of your hand and hit it with your fist.  This will break open the nutrient package and begin the first step of fermentation.  The next day, the package will be swollen up like a balloon and you’ll have an active culture.  This is basically a quick and easy starter culture, and a great way to prepare your yeast.  If you didn’t upgrade, you can also just pitch the dry yeast at the appropriate time.

The day of brewing, you’ll need a decent amount of high quality water.  The quality of water is critical and has a huge impact on the flavor of your beer — many homebrewers go as far as to call their local water authority to get a chemical analysis.  This isn’t *really* necessary, I’ve found.  You can use a Brita filter or something like that and get  great quality water really easily from the tap.

Heat up about two and a half gallons of water in your large brewkettle, or as much as you can fit while still leaving at least 6 inches of room in the top of the kettle.  You’ll need head space as the wort will foam up quite a bit.  As you begin to heat up the water, place the specialty grains in the mesh bag that comes with your ingredient kit.  Use a heavy glass to crush the grains slightly.  This will increase the surface area and improve the extraction of the flavors and enzymes.  Steep the specialty grains in the water until it reaches around 170 degrees, after which you can discard the bag and grains.  You should have a rich, brown liquid in your kettle.  At this point, heat the liquid to a boil and add the malt extract and lactose.  You now have wort (unfermented beer).  Once returned to a boil, add in the hops and continue boiling for an hour.  It’s critical to be there for the entire time and have constant stirring.  If you don’t your wort will boil and foam over, ruining your beer (and your kitchen!).  Also, if the wort isn’t constantly stirred, it can scorch and leave you with a burnt taste that isn’t very pleasant.  So make sure you have that 6 pack with you while boiling to keep you occupied!

A number of things begin to happen during the boil.  Essential oils, bitter acids, and aromatic compounds are extracted from the hop flowers into the wort.  Starches (long chains of sugar molecules) are broken down by enzymes into simple sugars that can be eaten by the yeast. Undesirable proteins will coagulate and precipitate, clarifying the wort. And finally, the boil sanitizes the wort to ensure that only yeast will grow in it (and not bacteria).

Once you’ve finished the boil, go ahead and cool down the wort.  You can do this by immersing a wort chiller in your wort, or by putting the kettle in the sink with cold water and ice (the cheaper and more time consuming option.  handy if you have beer left to drink).  At this point, sanitation becomes critical.  As soon as you remove the kettle from the heat, you risk inoculation with bacteria and ruining your brew.  Interestingly, there are no pathogenic bacteria that can grow in wort/beer.  What this means is that even if you do get a bacterial infection, you aren’t at a risk for harming yourself.  The beer, however can get ruined and will taste rancid — it’s very apparent when you’ve lost a batch.  With this in mind, you need to be extremely careful about sanitizing anything that might touch the beer (the primary fermenter, lid, airlock, etc.).  Fortunately there are some great products out there: OneStep is a non-rinse cleaner, meaning you dissolve it in some hot water, and once you’ve made up the solution you can dip your spoon in it and consider it sanitized.  Most no-rinse cleaners are peroxycarbonate based, meaning they’re basically OxiClean without the fragrance (and without Billy Mays).  While the wort is cooling, clean and sanitize your primary fermenter and fill it with about 2 gallons of pure water.  When the wort is cooled to about 100 degrees, you’re ready to do my favorite part of brewing – the “splash”.  At this point, go ahead and pour the wort into the water, making sure that as much mixing as possible takes place.  This is a bit of a challenge if you’re using a funnel, but if you’re using a bucket you can pour from several feet in the air.  The mixing is important because it oxygenates the wort and makes the conditions ideal for fermentation to begin.  Once you’ve splashed the wort, fill up to 5 gallons with fresh water if you need to.  The wort should be slightly warmer than room temperature.

Now, you’re ready to pitch the yeast — and since this post is already a bit rambling you’ll have to wait until next time to read about that!

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7 comments

  1. So…stupid question. Does the volume of water matter during the initial boil? Papazian’s basic recipes call for just 1.5 gallons while you’re promoting 2.5. I know in the end you’ll end up with 5 gallons regardless, but I wasn’t sure if it made a difference how much you use during the boiling process…

    I’m starting with a couple basic recipes and then on to one of yours. I love breakfast stouts, so I’m clearly purchasing this kit.

  2. Short answer: no. I’d tend to defer to the recipes, and this particular one calls for 2.5. However, I don’t think you’ll really lose any quality using a smaller volume, assuming you have enough liquid to dissolve your malt extract — this won’t be a problem using 1.5 gallons. The other thing to make sure is that you have enough room in your brew kettle. In other words, if you’ve got a smaller kettle, go with the 1.5 gallons so that you have room at the top to handle foaming during the boil. The foam can also be tempered somewhat by vigorous stirring during the boil (this is how I do it when I brew) but it can occasionally foam quite a bit.

  3. Take the professor’s advise and do whatever you can to avoid a boilover. They happen quickly and cleanup is a bitch, especially on a glass cooktop that’s smoking hot from the giant kettle of boiling goo that’s been sitting on it. A fellow homebrewer gave me a great tip of throwing two (very well sanitized) pennies into the boil since the copper helps to keep down the foam. Is there even copper in pennies anymore? I have no idea. I’ll defer to the real doctor here to see if there’s any merit to this method, but I haven’t had a boilover since and I still get the appropriate breaks like I always did.

    My first recipes years ago called for 3 gallons of water in my 5 gallon kettle but my apartment stove could barely boil 2 gallons so I always scaled back. I generally do 2.5 gallons for the boil, add 2 gallons to my empty carboy, and then top off with just about a gallon after pouring to round out to 5. I mark graduations on my 6.5 gallon carboy so I know where to stop, but that’s just me.

  4. The copper does two things. First, it acts as a boiling chip, allowing the liquid to boil in a controlled fashion (small, consistent bubbles are formed). You don’t have to use pennies for this, you can use any small solid object (in chemistry, we use teflon chips to do the same things in our experiments). If you can get your hands on some, that would be better — coins tend to be really dirty. However, copper has the added benefit of being toxic to bacteria. This means that if you get a little copper in your wort it could actually help prevent contamination. This might be a stretch, but who knows.

    Rip – I think modern pennies are something like 2% copper and the rest is zinc for what it’s worth…

  5. Come back, zinc!

  6. […] This is the second in a series of posts about how to get started with brewing your own beer. Last time, I talked about how to select a kit of equipment and ingredients, and how to make wort from malt […]

  7. […] This is the third in a series of posts about how to get started with brewing your own beer. [PART 1] [PART2] At this point in your homebrewing adventure, you’ve already gone through a series of […]

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