Ok, ladies and gents. If you have read my previous two thrilling articles about home brewing, you should be ready to learn about brewing techniques. The main techniques are Extract Brewing, Partial Mashing, and All Grain. In order to better understand each type of brewing, we should start at the easiest method: Extract Brewing.
What’s counter-intuitive is that the easiest brewing technique is more complicated than brewing wine. At least I feel that way. It involves several steps. Sanitation, steeping, boiling, adding hops at the right time (usually several times during the boil), cooling, transferring to the fermentor, aerating, yeast preparation, and pitching the yeast. And, that is before it ferments, ages, clears, and gets put into bottles or kegs.
In extract brewing, we are using liquid malt extract (hence the name) and a small amount of barley for color and flavor. This malt extract that has already been extracted from barley and concentrated for you. That takes the major work out of the process (just wait until my article on doing it your own damn self). The downside is the malt is heated twice and can take on a different flavor (the same way reheated food can). It usually is a very mild change however. It also makes it harder to have a truly light colored beer. The other downside is less customization. You are stuck with what extract you buy. It is usually light, amber, or dark and that’s it.
First step is sanitation. Before you ferment the beer, you have a sugary water. That is a recipe for infection. Yep, you heard me, infection. Since we aren’t using any preservatives, we need to prevent the bacteria from setting up shop. Every thing that touches the beer after the boil needs to be sanitized. There are many things that can sanitize. Bleach, Iodine, Star-San (phosphorus-based liquid) are some common ones. This is kinda a PITA to keep them sanitized. They can’t touch anything non-sterile. Side note, Star-San requires 60 seconds to do it’s thing. So, start singin’ “Stayin’ Alive” by the Bee-Gees. Its beat is 120, so every other beat is 1 second. It is ironic since you are trying to do the opposite to bacteria (not Staying Alive).
So, if you remember back in the last article we talked about the different grains. Most of the grains used are ones the yeast ferment to make alcohol. But, there are many other grains the yeast can’t ferment, and are used for color and flavor. In extract brewing, we use a small amount of these grains as well. They are “steeped” like a tea bag. Now, to extract the desired malts, they need to be steeped at around 150 F. This releases enzymes that split the complex malt compounds into smaller, desired malts.
- So, you take your water (the actual amount varies on your batch size and amount of malt you use) and start heating it up. If you are using a stove, like I started out, and making the typical 5 gallon batches, you will grow old and die before your stove gets it the boiling step. So, I started with 3 gallons of water (and added the rest needed at the end). This reduces the end result of your beer (especially the hoppiness), but it is a good compromise. But, if you get a good propane burner, then you are golden.
- Once the water gets to the 150ish degrees (152 is a good number to hit, but not critical), then you steep the barley in a nylon bag for about 15 minutes. Then, you bring the water to a boil. Why boil? 2 reasons. First is for the hops. Hops are used to bitter the beer (so it isn’t too sweet) and add some flavor (think IPAs). Boiling is needed to extract the acids. An oversimplification is this. The longer the boil the more bitter, the shorter the boil, the more hop flavor. Hop flavor? Smell an IPA and what you smell is overpowering hop “flavor”. Taste an Imperial Stout and the bitter you taste is from the hops.
- Normally, the boil is 60 minutes to get the proper bittering. Now, most beers have some hop flavor as well, so those are added later in the boil (so they aren’t boiled as long and more flavor remains). At this point, your mixture is called “Wort” (pronounced wert). It doesn’t become beer until yeast are added. Also, at this point, the wort is sterile and nothing unsanitized can touch it. Once the boil is done, you are ready to move on to the next step, and that one is a pain in the ass. It is the cooling.
- Yeast are living organisms and tend to die if put in water that is too hot. Obviously, boiling water fits this criteria. You need to get the wort cooled to below 80 F. Ideally, 68 F, but below 80 is fine. Ever tried cooling 3-5 gallons of boiling water? It doesn’t happen fast (think many many hours slow). The quicker you cool it, the sooner you are done, and the less contamination. You can put it in a sink of ice (add a lot of salt to cool the ice if you want). It’ll still take hours. There are equipment you can buy that will cool it in minutes, but we’ll talk about that later.
- Once the wort is cooled to below 80, you’ve got to get the wort into your fermenter. For many people, this is a 6 gallon plastic bucket with a small hole at the top to vent. The easiest way to do this is to use a sanitized siphon to transfer from your pot to the bucket.
- It is time, now, to add some extra oxygen to the wort. Yeast go through 2 phases. The first is where they reproduce (not the fun way, unfortunately). The yeast just split in two to make new ones. Oxygen is needed to give these yeasties the energy to make little yeast babies. The yeast consume the oxygen, and multiply in number. Once the oxygen is gone, the yeast need to start fermenting to stay alive. This is where the magic happens. They crap out alcohol, and fart carbon dioxide.
- As noted before, there are many types of yeast. But, as already mentioned, we are following the KISS principle (“keep it simple, stupid”). Dry yeast, of the proper type is what we’ll use for this batch. Dry yeast should be rehydrated before adding it to the wort. This is simply done by adding some room temperature water to the yeast (you can do this before you start, if you want), and letting them drink and become merry.
- We’ll add the yeast (called “pitching”) to the wort, which is now, properly called beer (since the yeast were added). Then you cover the bucket to keep dust out of the beer. The bucket has a vent vent hole. In this vent hole, you place a small tube filled with sterile water (or sanitizing solution). This tube is called an airlock. It is designed so gas can escape, and nothing else can get in. It is difficult to describe, so a picture available to the right . The airlock is filled with the water/sanitizing solution up to the fill line. There is an upside down chamber that rests on the tube leading out. When gas gets pushed up the tube, that chamber gets lifted and the gas leaks out the hole, into the water, and makes a bubble. The chamber snaps back down onto the hole, thereby not letting anything back in.
A cool thing about this is the bubbles that form – it is a way to see the fermentation is active. If it bubbles, then fermentation is likely taking place (not always, you could have an infection). If it doesn’t bubble, it doesn’t mean that there is no fermentation, there may simply be a leak in the gromets in the bucket.
I’ll stop there. Next article, we’ll cover partial mashing and all grain brewing. Then, we’ll get more into fermentation.
Photo via Flickr courtesy of Baka-San