Just mentioning the word will cause some to perk up their ears, trying to catch the inside scoop on who might be providing some. A few are interested primarily in the alcohol it contains, while others have an interest in its different styles and flavors. While the first group may think of making your own in terms of a cheap buzz, it’s the second that will get full return on the art of homebrewing. Read on to find out why.
I should start with a disclaimer – I am not a homebrew expert. At best, I’d consider myself an intermediate, enough to understand and use the basics, but not ready for the more advanced techniques. This discussion is aimed at potential new brewers and the curious, and should be considered an introduction.
There are several ways to go about homebrewing, with the main ones being extract, all-grain, and partial mash. I will describe aspects of all three.
Part One – Beer Ingredients
Most beer is made from four ingredients: malt, hops, yeast, and water. Sounds simple, right? How much trouble can you get into with just four ingredients?
Specifically, barley malt. Barley grains go through a malting process that make their starches available for conversion to fermentable sugars. Additional roasting processes can create more flavors of malt, including special grains. Malting is an involved process but you don’t need to understand it to make beer, it’s enough to know that malt comes in different forms.
Grains have two subcategories: base malt and special grains. Both provide flavors, colors, and aromas.
- Base malts are lightly processed grains that still need an extra step to extract the sugars needed for fermentation. This is a more advanced technique; most beginners use a pre-processed extract instead. All-grain brewers use this extra step to gain greater control over their brew.
- Special grains have had additional roasting or kilning to create different flavors and colors. Both beginning and advanced brewers use these.
- Both types have many variations, and a typical recipe will include more than one.
Rather than worrying about the process of extracting fermentable sugar out of base malt, you can let someone else do it. Extract also comes in two forms: liquid and dry.
In either case, the manufacturer starts the same way an all-grain homebrewer would; mill (crack open) the base malt grains, soak them at a specific temperature causing enzymes to extract the sugars from starch, and separate out the soaking liquid “wort” from the husks. This process is called “mashing.” The manufacturer will then take an additional step – evaporation. Depending on how much evaporation is done, either a thick syrupy liquid malt extract (LME) is created, or a powdered dry malt extract (DME) is created.
An extract brewer will use the extract plus special grains to flavor his or her beer.
All-Grain Versus Extract Brewing – Which to Use?
You can make a fine beer using either method. Or you can combine the two and do a “partial mash”. Things to consider:
- Advocates of all-grain brewing like it because it gives them a finer level of control; more certainty of what kind of base malt is being used, how fresh it is, what temperature range it is mashed at, etc. Advanced brewers are almost all all-grain brewers and even those doing an extract batch will know how to do all-grain.
- Extract brewing is easier because you don’t have to worry about the mashing step. It also can be done with less of a space and equipment commitment. Most beginners start here.
- Most homebrew batches and the recipes for them make 5 gallons of beer. This has implications for the equipment you use.
- Extract brewing can be done on your kitchen stove top, using a 20-quart kettle. You’ll only be doing a partial boil of about 3.5 gallons of wort, with the remaining water to be added later. Most stove tops aren’t hot enough to boil more, and manhandling 5 gallons of boiling water is dangerous.
- If you have a garage or an outside area you can do a full boil, but you’ll need a propane burner and a minimum 7.5-gallon boil kettle with a spigot. This is useful for extract brewers, and a necessity for all-grain brewers. (Although it’s conceivable to do a smaller all-grain batch on a stove top).
- For all-grain you’ll also need a vessel for the mashing process called a mash tun. Different things are used for this, including picnic coolers plumbed with false bottoms and a drain plug. It needs to be big enough to contain all the base malt grain and a proper amount of water for the mash – somewhat of an oatmeal consistency. It should also should be insulated to maintain a target mash temp for 60-90 minutes.
- Fermenting and bottling gear are the same for both all-grain and extract brewing.
- To sum up: all-grain is more complex and takes more time and gear, but you can create a more refined beer. Extract is a less complex process, but the beer isn’t as sophisticated and not quite as reproducible.
- Partial mash is a compromise between extract and all-grain brewing. Instead of using all extract or all base malts for the core fermentables, some of each is used. This enables the brewer to get some of the advantages of all-grain without the full gear commitment of all-grain – you can still brew on your stove top. You will need a second 20-quart kettle or a cooler to play the part of a mash tun. It also offers the extract brewer an intermediate path to going all-grain. You still need to learn all-grain concepts, but you can ease into it. I mentioned early on I’m an intermediate homebrewer; I now brew partial mash.
In the next posting in this series, I’ll describe a brew day using partial mash techniques, with references to what might differ from extract and all-grain brewing.
Hops are like a spice – they add bitterness to balance the sweetness of the malt sugars, flavor, and aroma. Historically they were used as a preservative as well – the popular IPA (India Pale Ale) style used more hops than conventional recipes to act as a preservative while shipping beer from England to India, ergo IPA’s are more bitter.
Hop bitterness comes from alpha acids. Different hops will have different amounts of alpha acids, and different flavors and aromas contributed by hop oils. Beers often have more than one kind of hops in the recipe, and how much and when they’re added to the boil affects the flavor profile.
They typically come packaged in dried hop cone or pellet form.
I’ll discuss hops more in the next post.
Water is water, right? Not always. If you’ve traveled, you know that water can taste different in different locations, and can be downright vile. Since water makes up the bulk of beer that can be important. If your tap water tastes vile you may want to buy bottled water to make your beer. If it has a lot of chlorine it can be treated with Campdon tablets. Cloudy water may respond to filtering.
Advanced brewers also consider the water’s pH for mashing concerns, and if they’re trying to replicate a particular style of beer they may also attempt to replicate the pH and mineral content of that styles home region. For us lesser mortals on the extract side, if it tastes good, use it.
There’s an old saying, “brewers make wort, yeast makes beer.” It’s that all-important ingredient that drives fermentation and turns sugar into alcohol. It also contributes to flavor, aroma, mouth feel, and clarity.
Yeast comes in many styles, mostly originating in specific regions. It also comes in both liquid and dry forms. There are more variations of liquid yeasts than dry so you can target more characteristics with liquid yeast, but it’s also more expensive and has a shorter shelf life.
Ok, let’s have a show of hands. How many of you think light beer = lager and dark beer = ale? Most of you? Bzzzzzt, wrong!
The difference between lager and ale is not color, it’s yeast. Lager yeast likes colder temperatures (45-55 F) for fermentation and conditioning, ale yeasts are happy closer to typical room temperatures (60-75 F). That’s one reason homebrewers make more ales – they can just set it aside in a spare room during fermentation and conditioning. Lagers need a refrigerator or freezer for this stage, and the whole process takes longer – months rather than weeks. Neither type likes big temperature fluctuations. Both styles can use cold conditioning just above freezing (lagering) to good effect for clarity and to clean up some off flavors, but it’s more of a requirement for lager style beers.
So the next time you sneer at a megabrand lager beer like Budweiser or Coors Lite (guilty), remember it’s actually harder to make than your typical homebrew ale.
Malt, hops, water, yeast; those are the basic four ingredients. Of course, other things can be added: wheat, oatmeal, honey, berries, minerals, clarifying agents, etc. But let’s walk first before we dance.
For those of you who thought I could teach you how to make beer in a 5 minute read, sorry. At least you have a better idea now of what might go into it, and where you might take it. It’s a big topic.
In part two, I’ll walk you through my latest brew day. That will introduce you to the steps in making beer. Hope to see you then.