Brew the Blues Away: The art of homebrewing

by Amy Scheuerman

In previous articles I have written about the history of beer in Boston as well as local breweries where you can take tours and expand your beer IQ.  Now, let’s discuss the final frontier: brewing beer in your very own home.

Home brewing can sound intimidating, but as Adam at Modern Brewer, a home brew store in Cambridge, assured me, “It’s just as easy as making soup.”  It’s also a great hobby to take up because not only is it simpler than it sounds, but you also end up with a deliciously drinkable result.  Just try to get that much satisfaction from assembling a model aircraft.

To start your career as a home brewer you’ll need a few tools.

  • Malt extract, a sugary syrup that both adds flavor to the beer and feeds the yeast (once you get really good you can start extracting your own malts from raw grains).
  • Hops, the aromatic flower of the hop plant.  You know their smell if you have ever sipped an IPA.
  • Yeast, a fungal microorganism that consumes sugar and excretes carbon dioxide and alcohol.
  • Water.
  • A fermenter, alternatively known as a big-ol’ food grade, plastic bucket.
  • A carboy, which is a large glass container.
  • Plastic tubing.
  • Bottles.
  • Caps.

Beers develop different flavor, color, and aroma (known as bouquet if you want to sound fancy) depending on the combination of the malt, hops, and yeast you choose to use.  For a beginner the endless combinations can seem overwhelming.  There are literally dozens of yeasts, hundreds of grains species, roasts from which to extract malts, and endless varieties of hops.  How can you possibly decide?

To make things simpler you may want to purchase a home brewing kit, which will include all the tools you need and in many cases will include the malts, hops, and yeasts you need for a specific variety of beer that you would like to brew.  Another option is to visit one of the many brew shops in the greater Boston area and ask for a suggestion.

Of course, experimentation is frequently what makes home brewing so appealing.  Mary Higgins, 2nd year AFE student, started home brewing after someone in the microbiology lab she works at showed her the ropes and shared some of the final product with her.  She’s been brewing at home for several years now and loves the variety of beers you can craft.

“I think one of the things about home brewing that’s really awesome is that you really begin to appreciate the endless combinations that are possible,” she says.   “You really have control over flavors…rather than depending on a company’s choices.  It’s a rewarding thing because you go through the work and then if the batch turns out well then you have this sense of accomplishment.”

Once you’ve chosen the type of beer you wish to brew and picked out the ingredients and equipment you need it’s time to get down to business.  There are lots of books and websites that can help you learn about the process, but here is an overview of how it works.

As Lindsay Fox of Modern Brewer explained to me: the first step to creating a beer is making a “wort.”  Wort is beer before the alcohol.  To make one you mix together the water and malt extracts to get about 5 gallons of wort and then boil it for an hour on the stove.  The hops are added at different stages during the boiling of the wort depending on what characteristic you want to tease out of them.  Hops added early in the boil create a bitter flavor and are known as flavoring hops.  Hops added late in the boil create a flowery bouquet and are known as aroma hops.

Once the wort has been boiled for an hour it needs to be cooled very quickly.  Fox emphasizes the importance of using an ice water bath or a wort cooler to speed this step.  The cooling of the wort helps to clarify the product by removing proteins that may be in the wort solution.  Once the wort has cooled to 70 degrees Fahrenheit it is ready to be transferred to the fermenter.

At this point in the brewing process sterilization becomes very important.  The wort is already sterile because it has been boiled.  The fermenter and any tools such as plastic tubing must be sterilized before the wort is transferred.  Higgins has tried several methods of sterilization and thinks that a no-rinse iodine based sanitizer is the simplest to use.  Previously she used a Clorox solution and then rinsed everything several times in clean water, but re-contamination was always a concern.

The wort is transferred into the fermenter and the yeast is added to it.  The fermenter, as mentioned before, is a large, food-grade plastic bucket or a large glass carboy with a rubber seal through which carbon dioxide can vent.  The fermenter is used for primary fermentation.  During the fermentation temperatures should be kept as even as possible.  Different yeasts like different temperatures, so the optimum temperature for fermentation depends on what beer you are brewing; for ale this temperature is usually 65-75°F / 18-24°C, for lager it is usually much colder, around 50°F / 10°C.

Higgins has lost several batches of beer to high heats and cautions others to be careful during the fermentation period.  “We did three or four batches over the summer of 2008 and they came out badly because it was too warm.  They tasted off,” she explains referring to the nasty flavors that can occur when fermentation goes wrong.

“We sort of knew that it was going to happen and brewed them anyways, but it was still very disappointing.  Winter can be a good time to brew beer because it’s cooler.”  However, it’s good to have a consistent temperature and a yeast that is bred to withstand that particular temperature.”

Primary fermentation lasts about two weeks and leaves you with something called “green beer.”  Then there is an optional secondary fermentation.

Secondary fermentation does two things: it adds carbonation to beers that are meant to go into bottles rather than kegs, and it gives the beer time to mellow and develop more complex flavors.  “A secondary fermentation can last anywhere from two weeks to several years,” explains Fox.  The general rule of thumb is that the higher the alcohol content the longer the secondary fermentation.  This extra aging period allows the harsh flavors in the alcohol to mellow.

Higgins likes to do a secondary fermentation for another reason: it gives her yet another chance to experiment.  In order to stimulate the yeast you must add more sugar to the green beer.  Sometimes she uses brown sugar or maple syrup for a different flavor in the final product.  “I like brewing because it’s kind of like a science experiment.  You get a lot of control over the combinations and flavors.”

The final step in the brewing process is bottling the beer.  Most home brewers choose to use amber bottles for their beer.  David Letviz, an employee at Harpoon Brewery and an avid home brewer himself, explains that the dark color of the bottles blocks out light and keeps the beer from developing off flavors, also known as “skunking.”  For home brewers who have the space, another option is putting the beer directly into a keg.

Bottling is one of the most difficult steps in brewing beer, but at the same time it’s the final step and so very satisfying.  Once again, sterilization is important.  The beer has to be siphoned from the carboy into bottles and both the plastic tubing and each individual bottle must be sterile to avoid contamination and ruined beer.  The no-rinse iodine based sanitizer helps to speed up the process, as does experience.  When Higgins first started brewing, bottling would take her half a day.  Now she can get through 52 bottles in just two or three hours.

Once you’ve bottled your beer just wait a couple of weeks and then enjoy.  You’ll find that you’ve created something much more satisfying than Bud in a can.  “I think its really exciting that since the 90s there’s been a big explosion of interest in microbrews and all different kinds of beer.  I think it adds a lot of cultural depth to our food culture in this country,” says Higgins.  “If you think about it, wine is like that.  There are so many different kinds of wine from all these different types of grapes and climates, but that didn’t really exist for beer.  But now it’s becoming more like that, which I think opens opportunity for all kinds of people not only to makes different kinds of beer but also to consume all kinds of good tasting beer.”

And as if you didn’t already have enough reasons to try home brewing we’ve got one more for you.  Slow Food Tufts will be having a home brew competition at the end of the Spring semester.  Any student is welcome to enter his or her home crafted beverage and all are invited to donate $5 for a chance to taste their classmates’ creations and judge them.  Awards will be given for taste, color, and body.  For more information contact Ronit Ridberg or Jesse Appelman.

Resources:

Online ~

Books ~

  • The Complete Joy of Home Brewing by Charlie Papazian
  • How to Brew: Everything You Need To Know To Brew Beer Right The First Time by John Palmer

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