Homebrewers are passionate about their hobby. Get in to a conversation with one of them and you will likely get an earful of terms like attenuation, specific gravity and Saccharomyces. Within the community of homebrewers it is not at all unlikely to hear that they spend entire weekends sweating over boiling pots of wort and adding hops to their latest attempt at cloning Pliney the Younger (a mythical and extremely rare beer that every serious beer lover aches to taste).
Until 1979 it was illegal to brew beer at home. President Jimmy Carter, whose infamous brother Billy lent his name to a short-lived beer brand, put an end to the Prohibition-era ban on homebrewing when he signed a bill in February of that year. The new law set limits on how much beer could be brewed at home (100 gallons per year) and how old one had to be to brew it (21-years-old). In the last 30 or so years, homebrewers have come a long way to advance the methods used to create tasty beers. Some have been so successful that they have gone on to found their own breweries and brew pubs. To those enterprising souls, the art of homebrewing was a labor of love that led to a new career in the ever-expanding craft beer industry.
Homebrewing is about two things: ingredients and process. Knowledge of both is critical to creating a drinkable and enjoyable brew.
Water – Tap water is fine, but if you live in an area that has distinctly hard water, you may want to opt to purchase bottled spring water. Since beer is more than 95-percent water, whatever your source, it will affect the finished product.
Malt – The most common malt used to brew beer is barley malt. Malt is any grain that has been allowed to germinate, but not sprout. Malting changes the chemical composition of the grain to convert its sugars and make them more palatable to yeast. This in turn facilitates brewing. Malts provide sweetness to beer that offsets the bitter flavors provided by hops.
Hops – These cones are the flowers of the hops vine. Hops are used to impart bitter flavors to beer and offset the rich sweetness provided by malt. Depending on the type of beer being brewed varying amounts of hops are used. IPAs are generously hopped for a bitter wallop of flavor while Belgian styles generally use a less substantial application.
Yeast – Before the mid-1800s, no one really knew how the alcohol in beer occurred. But, after Louis Pasteur studied the little beasties, it was understood that the single-celled organisms digest the sugars provided by malts and excrete alcohol and carbon-dioxide. In brewing there are two main types of yeast; lager yeast that ferments at cooler temperatures and ale yeast that ferments at warmer temperatures.
Types of Home Brewing
In homebrewing, there are three primary methods to create a batch of tasty suds: extract, partial mash and all-grain. The best place to start is with extract and then, as your skill grows move on to partial mash and all-grain.
Extract Brewing – This method, as the name implies, uses canned malt extract rather than the actual grains. Because the extract is simply added to boiling water and hops are added, this is generally considered the easiest way to homebrew.
Partial Mash Brewing – This method incorporates using malt extracts with some actual grain. Because of the addition of loose malt, this method requires more skill and is an excellent intermediary step to mastering the art of homebrewing.
All-Grain Brewing – This is the method that craft breweries use and requires the most skill to master. Grains are steeped in water at a specific temperature range and for a designated amount of time to achieve the desired results.
The Brewing Process
The brewing process itself consists of several distinct steps each building on the one before to reach the ultimate goal of a refreshing adult beverage.
Step 1: Sanitation – Beer is extremely susceptible to contamination therefore, to reduce the chance of rogue bacteria from imparting off flavors, all equipment must be sparkling clean. The best way to achieve this is with a commercial sanitizing agent, but a partial bleach solution will work, too.
Step 2: Mashing –During this process malt extract or actual malted grains are added to hot water to convert complex sugars to simple sugars. To achieve the best results, the water often must be held at a specific temperature range. The liquid that results from this stage is called wort.
Step 3: Boiling – In the boil, hops are added to impart bitterness and balance the maltiness of the wort. Depending on the style of beer you are making, you may need just one hop addition or, for hoppier styles, you may have a hops schedule that has hope additions occurring over a period of time.
Step 4: Cooling – One of the biggest mistakes made by new brewers is adding the yeast too soon. Yeast is very delicate and requires a certain environment to survive, if the wort is too warm the yeast will perish. Many brewers will put their wort in an ice bath to cool it rapidly. Ideally ale yeast should never be added to wort that is warmer than 75-degrees. Once cooled, the wort is transferred to a primary fermentation vessel.
Step 5: Pitching – When yeast is added to the cooled wort it is referred to as pitching the yeast. Yeast may come in either dry or liquid forms. Dry yeast should be rehydrated with warm water before pitching while liquid yeast can be added as is.
Step 6: Fermentation – Once the yeast and wort are combined, the process of fermentation begins. Most brewers use a device called an airlock to monitor fermentation; as long as bubbles continue to rise through the airlock, the beer is fermenting. After a week or two the bubbles begin to slow and secondary fermentation can begin if desrired. During this second process, additional sugars and flavorings may be added to create unique characteristics in the finished beer.
Step 7: Bottling – Finally, after all fermentation is complete, beer is transferred from fermentation vessels to bottles or kegs. Often a small amount of sugar is added at this stage so that when the bottles are capped fermentation will start again and carbonate the beer.
Step 8: Enjoy – After several weeks of bottle conditioning, your beer will be ready to drink. Put a few in your fridge, invite some friends over and reap the rewards of your labors!