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Friday, February 10, 2012

So you want to make your own beer?

Zach here. I'm going to start contributing to the blog, mostly from the brewing side. This will include tips on brewing, descriptions of homebrews that I have made, and also recaps of trips Amy and I have taken to breweries around the U.S. We might review special/unique beers we have in our cellar from time to time as well.
Today I'll be giving a short primer on how to homebrew. Making beer at home is a pretty easy exercise, and is akin to baking in that for the most part you follow a recipe. However, like cooking there is a good amount of improvisation that can go into your final brew. For instance, you can add fruit, spices, oak, other alcohols (whiskey, tequila, brandy, wine), etc to your heart’s content. The major impediment to making beer at home is having the right equipment to get the job done. Once you have a setup, you can make beer for as little as 25 cents a bottle.
Basic beer kits are available at local homebrew supply stores or through a number of Internet retailers, and generally range from $35-60. I like using Northern Brewer  for the majority of my kits and certain supplies, but for quick supplies and other items I typically visit my local homebrew store (The Flying Barrel). A basic equipment kit for brewing ranges from $80-150 (or less if you can snag someone's used equipment on craigslist) and includes:

A 7.5 gallon bucket with lid and hole for an airlock
A large kettle (5-10 gallons, with larger being preferable)
A hydrometer (instrument for measuring sugar content and eventual alcohol content)
Good water (I buy 2.5 gallon jugs of spring water)
Thermometers (stick-on and standard alcohol-based)
A cool, dry, dark room
A 6 gallon glass or plastic carboy (plastic is much easier to move around)
Tubing for transferring beer
A siphon
A bottling wand
A bottling bucket with spigot
Basic brewing setup (L to R): Bottling bucket, grommeted lid, tubing, autosiphon, hydrometer, brush, bottling wand, brewing bucket. Not shown are a large kettle and a wort chiller, which don't come with kits.
Cleaning chemicals
2 cases of clean, empty bottles
A bottle capper (not shown above)
Labels (if desired)- here's what Amy made for me

The majority of these items come in a basic brewing kit. Bottles can be purchased, or alternatively it’s more fun to do some “market research” and sample a variety of craft brews. Coors/Miller/Bud twist-off bottles do not work for homebrew, as you cannot recap the bottles. Larger format bottles (22 oz or 750 ml) work well for gift giving.
Prior to brewing, the first and most important consideration is sanitation. Remember that basically your entire house, body, etc is teeming with bacteria. Yeast do a great job of turning sugar into alcohol, but all of those bacteria would love nothing more than to set up shop in the nice warm, sugary wort (unfermented beer) you have just made and ruin your beer before the yeasts do their job. A number of commercial sanitizers are available, and these are nice in that they do a good job without the need for rinsing. Bleach works too, but it can be tricky to wash enough to remove any bleach residue/flavor. Just be sure to keep things as clean as possible in your brewing.
The key to making beer is sugar, in this case sugar extracted from malted grain (usually barley, but it can be wheat, rye, corn, etc). The easiest and quickest way to make beer is extract brewing. In extract brewing you buy a liquid extract from companies that have already extracted and concentrated the sugars from malted grain. Advanced brewers will extract their own sugars from whole grain, but this requires more material (both raw materials and equipment), time and effort. Extract comes in either spray dried (dried malt extract or DME, a powdery, sticky formulation) or liquid (liquid malt extract or LME that is thick, viscous and similar to molasses) forms, and range from light malts up to very dark roasted malt. Kits will typically also include some flavoring and coloring grains that one steeps in hot water prior to the addition of the extracts.
Belgian Dubbel Kit Ingredients (Clockwise from top left): DME, steeping grains, LME (two jugs), steeping bag, hop pellets (two packages), Belgian candi sugar
The other essential ingredient in beer making is the hops. Hops are the flowers of a plant that helps to preserve and flavor the beer. Beers range from very lightly hopped (like a hefeweizen or kolsch) to substantially hopped (like an IPA or Imperial Stout). Hops come in either whole-leaf form or more typically as compressed pellets that resemble rabbit food. Hops are added both for bittering (early in the boil) and as flavoring agents (later in the boil). Depending on the beer the total amount of hops added to a beer can range from 1 ounce up to 5 or more ounces for a 5-gallon brew. Hop flavors typically will recede after longer aging periods as the individual flavoring chemicals are broken down. Hops are also what gives rise to skunky beer when the hop-related oils are exposed to light and/or temperature fluctuations, giving rise to sulfur-containing compounds that make the beer skunky.
Of course, with hops, additives and sugar you still don't have beer. Here's where yeast (Saccharomyces cereviseae) comes into the picture. Yeasts convert the sugar into ethanol and also produce various chemical byproducts as a result of their normal metabolism. Some of these byproducts are very desirable while others are considered flaws. Yeasts have a huge impact on final flavor, such as a Bavarian hefeweizen where the clove and banana flavors are due solely to the yeasts. Belgian beers are great examples of yeasts providing a huge contribution to the final flavor of the beer, for instance in a Saison. Typical kits will suggest or provide the appropriate yeasts, but it can be fun to play around with non-traditional yeasts during brewing. Just remember that you can't take your baker's yeast and throw it into a batch of beer. While baking and brewing yeasts are similar, you cannot use one in place of the other.
Once you get the hang of extract brewing, you can proceed on to all-grain brewing with the addition of extra equipment. Even with extract, it’s possible to create a wide variety of beer styles and modifications using your imagination. I have taken porter kits and added fresh vanilla beans, modified a Russian Imperial Stout with the addition of 4 lbs of frozen cherries, and added smoked malt to a Oktoberfest beer. With experimentation and patience, anything is possible. It's very satisfying to hear the fizz of the beer when it's ready and to enjoy the malty goodness of what you have created in as little as 6 weeks.
In the future, I'll start to describe the beers I have in my stocks, with the brewing instructions and discussions of how they turned out. Hope you enjoy! 

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