It’s not often I can say with confidence I know the secret of success and am willing to share it with you. For free, even.
That elusive secret. The panacea everyone is looking for, hopefully so simple even a bumbling oaf can pull it off. Is it possible I can share such a boon, and have it result in beer?
Alas, no. Sir Bumble will still mess things up. The core secret of good beer, given a good recipe, is taking care to do things right.
In Part One, we discussed ingredients. Here’s another secret for good beer: fresh ingredients. If your malt or hops are stale, or your yeast is old and half dead, or the water gives off a fragrance that would excite a skunk, excellence in the rest of the process will not help. Gourmet chefs don’t dumpster dive for ingredients.
The process is still important. The good news is, it’s straightforward. We’ll walk through a recent brew day to see how it’s done.
But first, some preliminaries.
Pick a beer style, pick a recipe. We talked about ales and lagers in part one, but within those types there are many styles. If you’re interested, here is an older set of style guidelines. For our demo, I’m making a beer based on an American Brown Ale style (under American Ale in the guidelines), a clone of a Montana microbrew called Moose Drool. The recipe was developed by Jamil Zainasheff and Mike McDole for a “Can You Brew It” internet radio challenge.
Moose Drool Clone Recipe (Partial Mash)
- 5 pounds 2-row base malt
- 3 pounds Dry Malt Extract (Light or Pilsen)
- 1.25 pounds Carmel/Crystal Malt 75L
- 5.5 ounces Dark Chocolate Malt 400L
- 0.5 ounce Black Patent Malt
- 1.5 ounces East Kent Golding Hops (60 minutes)
- 0.66 ounces Willamette Hops (10 minutes)
- 0.33 ounces Liberty Hops (10 minutes)
- 0.33 ounces Liberty Hops (flame out)
- Wyeast 1968 – London ESB Ale yeast
- Extract only – no base malt, use 5.8 lbs of DME
- All-Grain – use 10.25 lbs of 2-row base malt, no DME
Any malt not noted as base malt or extract is a “special grain.”
Acquire the ingredients. I’m fortunate to live within a 15-minute drive of two home brew supply stores, so I can get what I need as easily as a trip to the grocery store. For those less fortunate, you can use the internet to find pre-made recipe kits, or have them made to order.
For me, the day before brew day, I do some prep work.
- Since my boil kettle isn’t big enough for a full sized batch, I need 2-3 gallons of top off water to add to the batch to reach the 5-gallon goal. To ensure I don’t introduce any unplanned nasties into the brew, I boil that water and set it aside.
- I mix up a batch of sanitizing solution using a product called Star San. This is a contact sanitizer – dip the item, wait a minute, and you’re good to go. Rule of thumb; if a piece of equipment or a tool touches the wort anytime it’s not boiling, dip it in the sanitizer first.
- Freeze up a bunch of ice cubes. (No, not for chilling tall cool ones on brew day)
- While it’s possible to use a single container of yeast for a batch of beer, many sources suggest enhancing the yeast using a yeast starter. This increases the yeast count. As these little beasties are the real brewers in this story we need to keep them happy. Happiness includes a spotless incubating environment – I use an empty beer growler, submerge it in boiling water to sanitize it, and the mix the starter solution in that. Periodically agitate the starter for the next 18 hours and the world’s population will increase another 100 billion or so – all new yeast cells.
Are you sensing a pattern here? Do I sound obsessive about sanitation?
Secret of success number three – keep everything clean and sanitized. Strange flavors come from dirt, wild bacteria, and other strange compounds that only a biologist or chemist could appreciate. I’ve been careful about sanitation from my first batch, and I haven’t had one go bad yet. I admit I’ve heard disaster stories about mistakes folks have made while brewing and still gotten good beer, but why take chances?
Unless you struggle to successfully boil water, there’s nothing to fear here. But you will need some equipment. This varies widely by home brewer, depending on whether they’re doing all-extract, partial mash, or all-grain, and how hardcore they’ve become.
- A boil kettle.
- At a minimum, you’ll need a 20 quart kettle. You’ll only be boiling up a portion of the wort, and you’ll have to top your batch off with more water after the boil. The advantage to this size is you can do it on your stovetop.
- If you want to do full sized boils, you’ll need at least a 7.5 gallon kettle (the hardcore would say go for 10 gallons). A spigot would be a good idea here too, you don’t want to be picking up a kettle filled with 50 pounds of boiling hot water.
- A mash tun. This is the vessel used to soak base malts (mashing) to extract the sugars. Why “tun”? I don’t know. Maybe if you tried picking one up, full of water and grain, you’d say it weighs a tun.
- If you’re doing extract only, you will not need one of these.
- If you’re doing a partial mash, you can get by with another good sized kettle, probably at least 15 quarts.
- Basic all-grain brewers often use 5 gallon picnic coolers, plumbed with a false bottom and a drain. The hardcore get more elaborate.
- A fermenting bucket or carboy
- A thermometer
- A hydrometer and jar to hold it
- A container of sanitizer
In part one, I introduced the idea of Extract, Partial Mash, and All-Grain brewing. You might wonder why I include all these confusing variations instead of sticking to dirt simple. I do so because when I started learning, all-grain sounded like something terrifying that only experts would try, extract was the only thing beginners should even consider, and partial mash wasn’t even mentioned. While I’d agree beginners should start with extract, I think it’s useful to know the next step home brewers typically take, and to take some of the mystery away from all-grain.
Ok, let’s go!
Extract Brewing Variation – Beginner Level
- Place your special grains into a muslin bag. Do the same for your various hops
- Heat 3.5 gallons of water in your 20 quart pot to 165 degrees F. (Or 6.25 gallons in a 7.5 gallon pot). Some of this water will boil off during the process, and some will be sponged up by the special grains.
- Once you hit 165, turn off the flame, and add in the special grain bag for flavoring and color.
- Let it steep, just like a tea bag, for 30 minutes. Give it the occasional dunk.
- Remove the bag, drain it well, dispose of grains.
- Add your malt extract.
- Extract is syrupy and can burn onto the bottom of the kettle if it’s not dissolved, so you’ll want the flame off until it’s stirred in.
- As I use a 20-quart kettle and am only boiling part of the full recipe, I only add half the extract. Recipes are factored on a full sized boil, so the flavor of hop additions is reduced if you put in all the malt with only part of the water – less room left for hops. If you’re using a 7.5 gallon (or larger) kettle, use all the extract.
- Continue on with common steps (noted later)
Partial Mash Variation – Intermediate Level
- Our first step here is similar to extract; we heat up some water and soak some grains. But this is where all-grain ideas rear up and show their differences:
- We’ll be soaking both our special grains and our base malt, and we’ll do it at a specific grain/water ratio (I’m using 1.5 quarts water to 1 lb grain).
- Because we have base malt, we need to extract the sugars. The soak is now considered a “mash”.
- We need to be more precise in our temperatures. Sugars extract from base malts between 140-160 degrees F, and advanced brewers will target a specific point in that range to fit the style of beer they’re making.
- We need to make allowances for how much the water will cool down when we add the grain to it in order to hit our target temp. The good news is there are calculators on-line that help us figure that out.
- Because we’re dealing with more grain, it’s going to soak up more water. We need to factor that in too (calculators again).
- We’ll be soaking for 60 minutes instead of 30.
- Because we want as much sugar extracted from the grain as possible, there’s a rinsing step.
- For my Moose Drool, I had 6.63 pounds of grain. At 1.5 quarts/pound I needed 2.5 gallons of water. Assuming the grain temp was 65F and a target soak temp of 155F, I needed the “strike” water to be at 167 degrees when I added the grain. I expected about 1.75 gallons of wort to be extracted, with the remaining water sponged up by the grain. (I sure am glad someone wrote an app to figure all this.) I did this in my “mash tun” analog – a second kettle – and contained the grain in a 5-gallon paint strainer bag. To help maintain the temperature I covered it and wrapped the kettle in a blanket.
- While the mash was going on, I heated another 1.75 gallons of water in my primary kettle to 170F. Note that this 1.75 gallons plus the 1.75 I expected from the mash kettle equals the 3.5 gallon boil size I planned.
- Gave the mash a stir halfway through
- Once the 60 minutes was up, I drained the grain bag into the “tun” using a colander.
- I then transferred the bag to the primary kettle for rinsing. I teabag dunked it several times, let it sit for 10 minutes, dunked again, and drained it.
- Removed the bag and disposed of the grains
- Combined the wort from the first kettle with the wort in the second kettle.
- If you’re using a 7.5 gallon (or larger) kettle, add your malt extract now
- Continued on with the common steps
All-Grain Variation – Advanced Level
Ok, I admit it, I haven’t done this yet. But I’ve studied it. This section is very similar to what I described for partial mash. What’s different?
- More grain, in particular more base malt. The mash tun has to be bigger as all the grain needs to mash at the same time.
- More strike water
- New terminology: Lauter, Vorlauf, Sparge, 1st runnings, 2nd runnings.
- Lauter – a fancy term for drain. The overall process of separating the wort liquid from the grain husks.
- Vorlauf – a fancy term for recirculate. When we start draining the wort from the mash tun it may have residual grain husks, etc. The wort is poured back into the tun and recirculated until the grain catches the residuals and the wort runs clean.
- Sparge – a fancy term for rinse. Once all the initial mash liquid is drained (1st runnings), a second dose of water is added to rinse off any remaining sugars and provide the remaining wort for the boil. This process is done slowly, and may include Vorlauf as well. The results (2nd runnings) are combined with the 1st runnings in the boil kettle.
- You should be able to see the parallels with partial mash.
- Because of the volumes involved, it’s not practical to do an all-grain mash for a 5-gallon batch and expect to do a partial boil (3.5 gallons) on the stove top. Just the first runnings would fill the pot and we wouldn’t get any 2nd runnings sugars. Because of this, 5 gallon all grain batches are almost always done in a 7.5 gallon (or bigger) kettle, and a higher power propane burner in a garage or outdoor location is needed to cook it up.
- If you’re only doing a smaller batch you may be able to use the kitchen stove.
- Continue with the common steps.
Ok. At this point we’ve got our wort extracted. If we’re doing a 3.5 gallon boil we still have more malt extract to add later. Apart from that the steps from here are the same for all the variations. But before we jump back in, a short discussion about hops.
As noted in part one, hops add bitterness, hop flavor, and aroma. Bitterness comes from alpha acids and needs boiling time to fully develop. Hop flavor and aroma come from hop oils and are more delicate. If you boil hops too long, those oils lose their character. That’s why recipes will often have one hop variety added at the beginning of the boil – it provides bitterness – and others late in the boil or even after the boil to add hop flavor and aroma.
Back to our brewing steps…
- Heat the wort to a rolling boil
- Add the first hops
- Start a 60 minute timer
- Clean up mashing gear if you did partial or all-grain
- Around 30 minutes, if you’re using a 20 quart pot add the rest of the malt extract
- With 15 minutes left, if you’re using an immersion chiller (I’ll talk about that in a bit), put it in the kettle with the boiling wort to sanitize it.
- Depending on the recipe, additional hops may be added at different times, typically towards the end of the boil. For the Moose Drool, I added two kinds of hops with 10 minutes left, and one at the end of the boil (flame out).
- After 60 minutes, turn off the fire and get ready to chill the wort.
Before we can add the yeast, we need to cool the wort down to a level that makes it happy – I shoot for around 70F. There are different ways to do this, but I use a kitchen sink, and an immersion chiller combined with an ice-water bath.
I move the boil kettle to the sink, hook up the chiller input to a garden hose, and start a flow of water through the chiller. The water picks up the heat from the wort, and exits through the output hose into the sink. I’ll periodically stir the wort so the chiller isn’t just working on the wort next to the coils.
Once the wort temp drops to about 100 degrees F, I’ll stopper the sink to start a water bath outside the kettle. I’ll add ice to the bath to increase the cooling. Here too, I’ll circulate the bath water around outside of the kettle.
When I started brewing I didn’t have the chiller. I find it knocks 15-20 minutes off the chilling time, depending on how cold the garden hose water is.
Once the wort is cooled, it’s time to move it to the fermenting bucket.
Since I’ve only done a partial, 3.5 gallon boil, and some of that has evaporated during the boil, I top it off to the 5 gallon level using water I boiled the night before.
After I mix that to an even consistency, I use a hydrometer to read the density of the wort, resulting in an “Original Gravity” (OG) reading. This number helps me see how close I’ve come to matching the recipe, helps see how efficient the mashing process was, and will come in useful later to see how the fermentation is progressing.
Speaking of fermentation, that isn’t going anywhere without the yeast. But since this post is already three times the length of a normal one I’ll save that topic for the next post.
We’ll talk about something that helps turn our tiny yeast friends into sex crazed maniacs that’ll reproduce like crazy, followed by embarking on a feast of rampant gluttony that (surprise) involves alcohol. We’ll discuss fermentation phases, when and how to bottle, and at long last, when you can start tasting the fruits of your labor.
When we started I promised you the secret of success, and I hope, after all this, that you can see making beer successfully is no great secret. Our part in the process is mostly done, now it’s up to the yeast.