That’s an order! I’m not going to sit here and talk about the merits and wonders of beer – I don’t think it needs any help from me. But homemade beer…that’s something else. I’m not going to say it’s necessarily going to win a taste test against a store-bought beer, because there are so many great, interesting beers out there. This is the 3rd batch I’ve made and none of them have been quite as good as my “commercial” favorites – but they have been fantastic, and they were mine. The real goal here is to prove how easy it is and maybe convince a few folks to get friendly with some yeast.
So why make it at home when there’s so much good beer out there? There’s a great feeling that (oh no, he’s about to get philosophical on the subject of BEER) comes from this kind of transformation. It’s like being a little kid with a chemistry set, getting to play mad scientist with different combinations of ingredients, bubbling pots, tubes, strange instruments, and the eventual alchemy that results. You’re also taking part in a serious bit of history. Brewing has been going on for thousands of years, and there’s no end in sight. It’s even been credited with helping jump start civilization as we know it.*
The best part might be that every homebrew is different – there’s no homogenization whatsoever, so standardization. My oatmeal stout is only going to taste like my oatmeal stout and even if I made the recipe again, I doubt it would taste the same. I don’t think enjoyment would follow consistency for me – the sheer delight in cracking open the first bottle and not having any clue what it’s going to taste like makes the whole thing worth while.
Time to get specific. First, this seems to be everyone’s favorite little nugget of beer of trivia, but there’s a reason – it’s a seriously cool.
The Reinheitsgebot – the German Beer Purity Law – some 500 years ago, a law was put on the books stating that the only ingredients that could go into the production of beer were barley, hops and water (they didn’t know what yeast was.) Include the yeast and that’s really all you need.
I understand enough of the science to sum it up in a high level in a few sentences: Barley is starch. It’s soaked in hot water (“mashing”) to turn the starch into sugar. The liquid drained off the barley (“wort”), which tastes unsurprisingly like liquid bread desperately in need of some salt, is boiled and hops are added at different stages for that floral and piney flavor/aroma. After boiling and cooling, the hops are removed, the yeast is added, and the baby beer spends some time growing up.
The big choice to make when doing this all at home is how far to take the first step:
1) Using malt extract – the sugars are already extracted from the barley. You just add to boiling water and go.
2) Using extract and some grains – do a small amount of mashing and supplement it with extract to get enough fermentable sugars – more flavor and body than option 1.
3) Go all out and do a full mash. Start with the grains.
I’ve done both one and two, and it sure seems like it makes a difference. I’ve made a basic brown ale with #1 and this time it was an oatmeal stout with #2.
One more note, and then a slew of photos.
The biggest biggest biggest thing to remember, the most important thing to do is keep everything clean. Anything that is going to touch the beer after it stops boiling needs to be sanitized. This iodine sanitizer gets diluted in water and everything gets soaked for a couple minutes minimum. It’s that easy and that important.
Here’s a mixed bag of grain in it’s raw form…
Here it is providing a nice background for the thermometer that’s there to remind you that temperature is very important when malting grains.
The grains get soaked for a time, and then water is slowly drained through them, basically using the grains as a filter.
Taking advantage of gravity and a canning pot…
The collected wort is brought to a boil (it seemed like a nice premonition at the time that it was starting to look like a nice heady beer already).
Going into the wort is the rest of the fermentable sugar in the form of malt extract oozing out of a foil bag. It tastes like bread syrup.
HOPS! Hops give the beer something to balance out the rich sweetness of the malt. It’s that florally, piney aroma and bitterness. If you’ve had an India Pale Ale, you know what hops taste like. These are the flowers, dried and compressed into pellets.
I have dreams of hop vines climbing our garage walls.
They go into the wort in a sack so they can be removed easier. You don’t want soggy hop pellets in your beer. Please ignore my slab of a hand.
While all that is happening, the fermenting bucket is in the sink, full of water and sanitizer.
Once the wort boils for about an hour, it’s cooled to a safe temperature for yeast, dumped into the now-sanitized bucket and the yeast is added. Here’s a packet that has 100 billion yeast cells in it. Crazy.
This lovely photo shows the beer as it’s fermenting. The blue wrap is a heating belt to keep the beer toasty warm while the rest of us freeze. The electrical device underneath it is a broken VCR with a Barney tape jammed in it – its job is to keep the spigot off the ground.
If you’ve made it this far, I applaud you and offer this reward: A video clip of the airlock getting down to business. I warn you, it’s hypnotic and seems a little inappropriate.
The first day is probably the worst, as you’re waiting to see the airlock bubbling – the only sign you’ll get that all those yeast cells are hard at work on the meal you’ve laid out for them.
After 2 impatient weeks in the first bucket, a second bucket gets sanitized, and the beer gets drained into it, along with some sugar to give the yeast another boost of food for the bottles. Now it’s looking, smelling and tasting like flat beer.
The bottles are filled from the spigot or a fancy bottle filler, if you’re into that. **
35 pints of beer ready to go!
Almost. They need at least 2 more weeks to get some carbonation and for the flavors to come together. From what I understand, darker beers like this can benefit even more from some aging. I can tell you that the first beer I made definitely got better after about a month in the cellar.
I write this about 3 weeks after the beer was bottled, and I will admit – it’s fantastic! A nice, rich stout – sweetness from all the grains, very smooth. I think I’d like a little more bitterness/dryness to it, but this is one easy drinking, delicious beer.
If you made it through all this, congratulations. I’d like to have you over for a beer.
* A Scientific American article about beer and civilization – mostly fluff, but does feature the “Anheuser-Busch Endowed Professor of Brewing Science at the University of California, Davis.” What?!
** Thanks to my mom for rescuing 2 milk crates full of these bottles with stoppers attached from their town’s recycling center. Some crazy (albeit earth-conscious) bastard was going to throw them out.