Obligatory “How to Brew” Article
A Tale of how C-4 Sucks
I was having a conversation with several of the awesome brewers. It was awesome. We had decided that we either needed to find a link to another how to brew site or we needed to write a how to brew article ourselves. Well, I don’t know if you know this, but searching the internet is hard. So here I am, writing an article about one of the greatest things in the world. Remember, the first thing all new civilizations do is make weapons and alcohol. (That might not be true, don’t believe everything you read on the internet... Except what you read on AwesomeBrewers.com)
Good beer is a balanced alcoholic beverage made from mostly malted barley and hops. I say mostly because there are adjuncts that can be, but aren’t always, added. To make alcohol, brewers use yeast to break down sugars. Yeast is a fungus that breaks down simple sugars into CO2 and alcohol, which I think is totally cool. Barley and other grains contain starch, a complex carbohydrate that yeast can’t break down. Brewers have to break these carbohydrates into sugars, so that the yeast can further break them into alcohol.
The basic steps for making beer are milling, mashing, boiling, cooling, fermenting and bottling. It’s really not complicated or hard. People have been doing this for literally thousands of years. With some time and effort, you can really make something you’re proud of that tastes great. Charlie Papazian wrote a book called The Joy of Homebrewing where his theme throughout is “Don’t worry, Relax, Have a homebrew.” So, just relax and have a beer.
To start brewing you need a recipe. You can formulate your own or you can try the internet or a magazine or the homebrew store. Some of the greatest advice I’ve ever gotten about brewing has come from my local home brew shop, Homebrew Headquarters in Richardson, TX. (homebrewhq.com for a shameless plug.) The people at the homebrew shop can also tell you how full of shit this article is.
To get sugars from barley, the barley is first malted. Malted barley is barley that is allowed to germinate. Germinating barley activates enzymes that break the complex carbohydrates into simple sugars. Brewers mix malted barley with water and raise it to a temperature at which these enzymes are active. This is of course omitting the extract brewers, which I’ll make fun of later.
So, to start brewing, brewer cracks the grain just enough to break the shell and expose the starches inside. Think of a pistachio. We break it open so that the nut meat is exposed. (Think about it.) You’re local homebrew store usually has a grain mill that you can use. After we break the barley husk, we make fun of C-4. He’s an easy target, it’s not hard.
Once the barley is milled, the brewer mixes the cracked grain with hot water at about 1 qt/lb. The water/grain mixture is called the mash. At different temperatures, different enzymes are active, breaking down different carbohydrate chains into simpler sugars. Most modern malt only needs to be heated to one temperature, somewhere between 148°F and 161°F. The exact temperature is up to the brewer and what he wants. (note, I use the masculine when referring to the brewer because brewing is a masculine activity.) Lower temperatures create more fermentable sugars and higher temperatures create less fermentable sugars. Thus the lower the temperature, the dryer and more alcoholic the beer and the higher the temperature, the sweeter and fuller bodied the beer.
There are several different types of mashes. Typically, I use a Single Infusion Mash, where I infuse the mash with hot water once, raising it to one temperature and holding it there for about an hour. A Step Infusion Mash is similar, where the grain is infused with hot water, but it is done several times, changing the mash temperature. This way, the brewer takes advantage of all the different enzymes and takes more control over how the beer will turn out. Another type is the Decoction Mash. It is similar to the Infusion Step Mash, where the temperature is raised in steps, but instead of adding hot water to raise the temperature, wort is removed from the main mash, heated to boiling, then added back to the main mash. Wort is basically what beer is before the yeast is added. This technique is typical of dark German beers. I like to use this technique when I brew Dopplebocks and Dunkels. It gives a bit of a roasted character to my beer. Once we’re finished mashing, it’s time to start lautering and sparging. But first, we make fun of C-4.
This is my Black IPA Mash. Note the several different types of grains. It's beautiful.
Sparging is rinsing the mash with clean hot water, removing the sugars created by the mash and stopping enzyme activity. Lautering is separating the liquid sugar/water combination, wort, from the spent grains. There are a lot of German words in brewing. Don’t be scarred. Both sparging and lautering require equipment that aren’t in most people’s kitchen or garage. Mostly a lauter tun. I’d like to go into a little sidebar here about mash tuns and lauter tuns. This was very confusing to me when I first started all grain brewing. All a tun is, is a container. A mash tun is a container that holds the mash. Some mash tuns are directly heated. This is not a good idea for homebrewing. A lauter tun is a tun that has something in it to strain out the grain, usually a false bottom. In every homebrewing setup I’ve seen, the mash tun and later tun are the same thing. The mash tun has a false bottom or screen to make it a mash/lauter tun. There are tons of plans to make a lauter tun on the internet. I made mine from an old keg.
To sparge, you must first make fun of C-4, then add hot water to the top of the grains in the mash. Ideally, you want to increase the temperature of the mash to about 170°F. There are a few different methods for this. One is a batch sparge, where you add hot water all in one or two batches. Another is a fly sparge, which is where you continually add hot water. I fly sparge with the assistance of a sparge arm, which is an upside down sprinkler. The sparge arm requires tubing, which cools down the water, so when I sparge, I try to make sure my water temperature is at least 180°F.
To lauter, you must first make fun of C-4, then open the valve at the bottom of your lauter tun and drain it into your boil kettle. It’s pretty simple really.
C-4 Sparging our Parti-Gyle Beer. His Mash Tun is the orange rubbermaid. It's not as big as my keg, but it's better insulated.
Now, the entire mashing process can be avoided by not using grains. Maltsters, people who make malt, do this entire process, concentrate it and sell it. It’s sold in liquid or powdered form. You can use this instead of making your own through mashing. This gives the brewer much less control and is more expensive, but it is much easier and faster than mashing your own. You can also do a mini mash which is kind of a hybrid between using just extract and all grain. One way is to use a large sack with grains in it and steep it in water. Instead of trying to break down the starches into sugars, the brew steeps the grains to flavor the beer. The sugars are all in the extract.
The wort is then boiled and hops are added. The boil time is completely recipe dependent. The longer the boil, the more the sugars are caramelized. This can give a roasted flavor. It can also give a burnt flavor, so be careful. The longer the hops are boiled the more the acids contribute to bitterness to the beer, but the more the flavor and aroma are carried out with the steam. If you can smell it, it’s not in your beer. Obviously, during boiling, boil overs can be a problem. Boil overs are minimized by having a large enough pot to contain the boil. Also, the hotter the boil, the more foam is produced and this increases the likelihood of a boil over. I’ve heard that you can spray the foam with water from a spray bottle and it will stop it from boiling over. I’ve never tried it, but I’m sure some web forum will tell you it’ll do something negative with hot break solids. I honestly don’t think it’ll hurt anything.
After you’ve boiled your wort, you need to cool it down as quickly as possible. There are lots of reasons for this, but mainly to prevent infection. If you think about it, you’re making a liquid that encourages yeast growth. This liquid won’t just encourage yeast, but any microbe, including leprechauns. Wort is most susceptible to infection when it’s warm, about 100°, but anything below pasteurization can be infected. This is the time to really worry about sanitization. Make sure everything is very clean and sanitized. To cool the work down, I use a counterflow wort chiller, which is a copper pipe inside of a water hose. I pump the hot wort through the copper pipe and run tap water through the water hose. The heat from the wort is quickly transferred into the tap water and waters my lawn. Another type of chiller is an immersion chiller. It consists of piping, usually copper, that is immersed in the wort. Some people like this better because it’s easier make sure it’s clean. I used to put my boil kettle directly into my sink with cold water and ice. That takes quite a bit of time. After the wort is cool would be a good time to take a specific gravity reading. This will tell you how much sugar is in the wort that can be fermented into alcohol.
Once the wort is cooled, the brewer makes fun of C-4, then pitches the yeast. I’ll typically make a yeast starter the night before, but it’s not always necessary. A yeast starter is a mini beer. I’ll boil a pound of malt extract with some yeast nutrient. A yeast starter will quickly increase the amount of active yeast cells and help produce a healthy fermentation. After the yeast is pitched, oxygen needs to be added for the yeast to produce and ferment. There’s several different ways to do this. You can use pure oxygen and pump it in for a few seconds, you can use an aquarium pump and pump in air for a minute or so, or you can just shake the fermenter for 5 minutes. When I collect the wort from the wort chiller, I make sure it splashes into it. I do this by holding the tube near the top, so when as it falls it is agitated, forcing oxygen to dissolve.