Friday, December 4, 2009

Starting to home brew beer.

To help someone to decide whether to start home brewing or not, here's the answer to 3 basic questions:
  1. How does it taste? Can I brew something as good as the commercial brands? Answers is yes, you can brew beer that is actually better than commercial brands.
  2. How long does it take to brew beer? Answer is depends, some beer may take as quick as 3 weeks from start to drink it, some my take several weeks. The brewing by itself takes about 3h for malt extract brewing and 5 to 6h for all grain brewing. These two options will be explored in detail on later posts.
  3. How much does it cost in equipment to start? Basic equipment runs around $200. Cost of ingredients to brew 5gals of beer cost about $40, which translate to about $1 per 12oz bottle.
I guess that a basic understanding of the process is in order, so you can first have an idea of what you are getting into and make a decision if this is something you will enjoy doing.
The reason behind brewing is the need to produce an alcoholic beverage, which some say was the main reason why it all started thousands of years ago, when mind altering methods were extremely valuable. At that time and mostly by mistake, one left a sweet liquid unattended that fermented naturally and later found it would give a buzz to those that consumed it. The first brew was born and today, not much has changed.
We are still looking for the buzz and the basic process is to let a sweet liquid (wort) to ferment in a more controlled environment. The sugars used for beer come from barley malt and fermentation from selected yeast strains. The yeast will transform the sugars into CO2 and alcohol and that is it, you have beer.

Barley malt is a grain that is soaked in warm water and let to germinate. Once the germination process reach a desired phase, the temperature is increased to stop the process. The grain now has enzymes that will later be activated to convert the starches into sugars.

The conversion is obtained by soaking the crushed barley malt in hot water at precised temperatures so the enzymes can be activated. 150 to 160F is the most common range used for this process called "mashing". Once the grains are left to rest for usually 1 hour, the sweet liquid is drained and called "wort", to be used for fermentation.

The process to obtain the sugars from the malt by mashing the grains is called by home brewers "All grain", and is the more advanced of the the two options that home brewers have. It gives lots of flexibility as the brewer can choose the malts (grain bill), temperature of mashing and other variables.

Many producers of barley malt do the mashing part of the process themselves, then reducing the sweet liquid (wort) to a concentrated syrup (malt extract), that is sold and used by home brewers to simplify the process.
So to start brewing beer at home, the easiest way is to use malt extract. That requires less equipment, takes less time and still produces good beer. Some brewers actually never move away from extract brewing, given the good results achieved once you master the process. But "All grain" process is the ultimate way that most home brewers end up doing since it gives then much more flexibility when doing the mashing themselves.
Here's a quick description of the whole brewing process using malt extract.
  1. Dissolve the malt extract in water and boils for 1h, adding spices and other additives.

  2. Cool the wort to room temp (70-80F) and pitch the yeast.

  3. Let it ferment for couple of days until fermentation is completed

  4. Bottle the beer

  5. Let it sit for few weeks to clear and mellow the flavors.

  6. Enjoy your homemade beer.

There is a lot more to each of these steps, but not rocket science at all. On my next post, I'll add a list of basic equipment to start home brewing and further, a recipe and step by step process for a first batch of homemade beer.

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