There’s been a lot of talk about homebrewing; around the office (if your office is filled with cool Millennials doing projects about Millennials, like mine is), the water cooler (if you have one to go with your pager), among your friends (if they’re cool enough, like mine), in the gchat (that we’re all on all day long anyway, except for Hannah), the text messages (Maybe), all up on your tweeter with the twatterings (ok, just mine), but I bet you’re thinking to yourself, ‘WTF is homebrewing? I can haz confuzzon.’ Here is Liz’s brief yet watered-down introduction like the ‘triple-hops brew’ we know and love (ahem, Miller, get with it, you can’t add one hop leaf three times during the boil and claim it’s triple-hopped), just the basics. We can get into nuance later. I’m here to enhance your life, not confuse it. So here we go.
It’s important to note, that this is meant not necessarily as a guide to start homebrewing for the first time, because if you were, I would direct you to a very different set of reputable resources (which I will do anyway, in future posts/pages) that aren’t speckled with my loving anecdotes and sparkling rhetoric, as much as I know you value them. This post is meant to give you an overview of what homebrewing is and how it can help you understand what breweries do when they brew their beers (although they do it on a much larger scale, duh, while homebrewing is generally done in 5 gallon batches, resulting in approx. 50, 16 oz. beers). A big thanks to Dajana from work for taking these photos during our work homebrewing session this summer that I have included to help you undersand what I’m talking about if you didn’t already know.
1. The recipe, the equipment, the time.
Find a recipe, either on the internet (there are a billion websites), in a book (there are a billion books), from a friend (maybe you don’t have a billion homebrewing friends, but you can make them), from a kit (a pre-made box full of everything you need, all measured out and ready for your use) or from your mind (bold move). Find the equipment you have lying around your house/basement/garage/trunk and clean the shit out of them (if you’re like me and have stuff that you never really cleaned that well from the last time you last-minute brewed). Find the time to brew. Depending on how you go about it, brewing can take 3-6 hours and is best done with a beer in hand. I like to take the easy way out and do the 3-hour path, but it’s totally up to you, and you’d probably be cooler if you took the more challenging route (think ‘The Road Less Traveled’). I will be discussing the 3-hour path here (also known as ‘extract brewing’ but you could also do it with the ‘partial mash brewing’ method).
2. The big-ass brew kettle.
I don’t want to get too detailed, but the Miller version: you boil water in your big-ass brew kettle (3 gallon), and add various things at various points. Like I mentioned in my previous post about the different beer styles and beer basics, the ingredients (water, malted barley/grains (the sugars), hops, yeast) are generally added in that order. The most important part of the process in which you add things is called ‘the boil,’ when the wort (as unfermented beer is called—pronounced like wert rather than wart, if you know what I mean) is at a rolling boil and hops are added. In general, the boil is about an hour, with ‘hop additions’ mostfrequently occurring at the beginning and towards the end (for that respective impact on the flavor of the beer; in the beginning it affects the overall body/flavor of the beer, while at the end, it affects the ‘finish’ of the beer). There are also a wide variety of hops that add different elements to the beer, so it’s not like all beers have hop additions of the same hop at different times, in fact, it’s pretty rare, but again, up to the discretion of the brewer—the hop chef. You’d be interested to know that hops are the only other relative of the marijuana plant species (they’re both cones), which is why sometimes when you’re drinking a really hoppy beer (or smelling straight-up hops as one often does) it reeks of that weed-like skunkiness.
3. The chill, the pitch
When the boil is done, it’s your sole goal to chill that wort as quickly, efficiently, and with as little contamination as possible so that, when mixed with water, the wort is at a temperature in which the particular yeast cells can thrive to make that wort into beer (yeast + sugar = alcoholz + CO2 and other byproducts). Like hops, there are many different kinds of yeasts, all that have a different impact on the beer and are meant for certain styles of beer or more practically, fermentation temperatures*. So you chill (literally) for a while. Sometimes in the snow. When the wert is at a satisfactory temperature, you pour it into the fermenter (preferably a glass carboy, if you’re using plastic, you haven’t lived. You owe it to yourself to get a glass carboy and be an adult about this). You add some water and then you ‘pitch’ the yeast. Pitching the yeast is a fancy way of saying ‘put the yeast in the wort,’ but it sounds cooler to say ‘pitch,’ and then you sound like you’re a) doing something special and b) know what you’re talking about.
4. The wait.
You chill some more (this time in the cool, not cold, way) for several weeks, months, or if you want to go there, years. You let the beer do its fermentation thing. You check it daily to make sure it’s looking good, to watch the movement, and feel the warmth (I kid you not, during fermentation it emits heat which you can feel). Eventually the fast bubbles and movement will stop and that means the primary fermentation is complete. Then you do some stuff (‘move’ the beer between carboys if you want to, add some things, or don’t, check some things out, etc.) and wait a little more.
5. The bottling.
There’s a scientific point at which the beer is supposed to be ready to be bottled (or kegged, if you’re fancy), but I rarely test that (it’s called gravity and you do it with a hydrometer), and I’m ok with that. I just go by time and my gut (i.e. beer belly). Beer’s good like that – so forgiving, and will probably taste great anyway. You do a two-hour long process called bottling that requires the help of at least one other person (if you’re like me, incredibly weak, and can easily coerce friends into helping you, especially since they know they’ll be drinking it later). You add a little bit more sugar to the bottles of beer and cap them. Some of the remaining yeasts eats that sugar to create CO2 bubbles INSIDE the beer. Sometimes beers explode. It’s an inexact science. You wait at least two more weeks, sometimes three, and then you’re ready.
6. The drinking.
Pretty straight forward. Because it’s homebrew (I repeat, ‘inexact science’) there will be a little bit of sediment at the bottom of the beer, which although isn’t harmful, isn’t ideal to fully taste and enjoy your beer. So when you pour your homebrew into a glass (which you should always do; even if you don’t have pint glasses, dear God, pour it into a glass), don’t swish it around in the bottom of the bottle as you pour because that just encourages the sediment to get mixed up in the good stuff and leave at least a half an inch of liquid at the bottom of the bottle to further prevent this from happening. You want to be able to see the unadulterated unpasteurized beer in the clear glass, see the bubbles dancing up the sides, smell the amorous aroma of the beer, and revel in your glory as it tingles your taste buds.
* Ok, here’s the truth: I wrote this post before the previous one titled ‘Ales and Lagers: Best Friends and Lovers, the Yin and the Yang, the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’ but decided I was getting ahead of myself and need to first introduce you to the basic concept of what makes different beers different from each other.