The answer is: if you are any good at cooking, then you’ll not have much trouble with brewing beer the “correct” way. Unlike wine making, beer making does not require as much patience, and you can soon drink the fruits of your labours, secure in the knowledge that you’ve done the job correctly and produced a drink every bit as good as- or better- than you’d get at your pub. And for a small fraction of the cost.
Brewing beer is essentially a 1 week or slightly over process, with perhaps one day of relatively hard work actually brewing the stuff, followed by a period of letting it ferment and, finally, barreling or bottling. It is not particularly time consuming. It is, however, extremely rewarding. Here is a typical “brewing session”:
1. Wash and thoroughly sterilise everything that may come into contact with the beer.
2. Heat approx 3.5 gallons of water to just over 65 degrees C
3. measure out all the grains (malted barley and other grains, if used).
4. When the water is ready, empty the grains into the water and raise the temperature back up to the recipe’s stipulated temperature (usually around 65 degrees C). The grain- known as “The Goods”, being colder than the water, will have had a cooling effect.
5. Stir the Goods constantly to remove any dry lumps and keep the temperature as close to that required by the recipe as possible for the first 15 minutes.
6. A lid can be put loosely over the water and grains, (the vessel full of these is called a mash tun). Leave for a total of 1.5 hours (including the first 15 minutes we spent stirring it). Check the temperature now and again.
7. Whilst the beer is mashing (as above), heat about 1.5 gallons of water to around 70 degrees C. (The temperature and amount can vary according to recipes).
8. When the mashing has finished, it is time to strain the liquid (known as “Wort”) from the grains- this is quite a delicate operation. Many home brewers use a sparging bag, which is a strong bag with fine holes in the bottom. See my post on “Home Brewing Equipment”. Using a sparging bag, fit this to another large container and pour the grain mixture into the bag. Let this settle for around 15 minutes and take care not to disturb it: the grains will act as a filter bed to leave behind substances that could cloud the beer.
9. Open the tap on the container with the wort in and let it run back into the boiler or whatever you intend to boil the beer in.
10. Now, very carefully rinse the grains with the sparging water we heated whilst mashing took place. There is a temptation to squeeze the sparging bag to extract all the sugary wort, but resist this: it also contains particles we don’t want. Discard the grain, or find someone who keeps pigs or animals that will eat it: old piggy will be very grateful!
11. So, what we have now is a lot of dark(ish) wort which is sweet. Now we must add hops to counteract the sweetness. Hops also add preservative qualities and help to clear up the beer. Bring the wort to the BOIL, and add hops according to the recipe. Hops, contrary to popular opinion, are only used in small quantities- check out my “Recipes” section.
12. The boil must be a full, “rolling” boil and for 2 hours. “Aroma” hops (high quality hops added to restore aroma lost in boiling) can be added for the last 15 minutes, as can, indeed should, “Irish Moss”, which is neither moss nor particularly Irish: it is, in fact, Caragheen seaweed! It is what brewers call “copper finings” and is used to clarify the beer. Any sugars called for in the recipe should be added now, too. I find it best to mix them with a little boiling water, this way there’s less chance of them burning on the boiler element.
13. At the end of boiling time, it is time to strain the wort again. You can use the sparging bag (after it has been cleaned, of course), but be careful- hot, sweet beer will burn you terribly. Rinse the hops left behind in the sparging bag with a couple of kettleloads of boiling water. Discard the spent hops. I don’t think old piggy would appreciate eating hops, though.
14. Now, it is important to cool the wort as much as possible and as quickly as possible. This presents the biggest problem for the home brewer: wort is a hot, sweet liquid which makes a perfect home for many wild yeasts and bugs. It is safe enough once the brewers yeast gets going, but until them, it is vulnerable. You can buy, or even make, a copper spiral which connects to the tap and the other end outputs into a sink- this will cool 5 gallons of wort in around 20 minutes. You could also simply fit a lid and place the entire vessel in a cold bath. This can easily take 4-5 hours, though, or you can leave it overnight.
15. Once the Wort has cooled to 25 degrees C, (do NOT put yeast in at any temperature any higher than that), the yeast can be pitched. Endeavour to find a source of real, live, brewers yeast of the top fermenting variety. Some breweries will let you have some. The packet stuff cannot measure up to the real yeasts: the latter get to work quickly and are much livelier.
16. Fermentation (primary fermentation) will take between 3 and 7 days. Do not make the error of thinking that “warmest is best”: it is not. Top fermenting yeast performs best at 18 degrees C. Any warmer, and the beer will develop off flavours and will not keep. See my post on “Fermentation“.
17. At the end of fermentation, (use a hydrometer to ensure this has ended), the beer should already be “falling bright”. It can then be barreled.
18. When barreling, everything must be spotlessly clean and completely sterilised. Carefully siphon the beer out of the fermentation vessel into a barrel, ensuring to leave behind the yeast head and as much sediment as possible. Ensure, also, that the beer comes into as little contact with air as possible. The presence of air might make fermentation kick off again, causing problems.
19. Many home brewers like to “prime” their barrels with a small amount of sugar, in order to get the beer to produce CO2 and “condition” quickly. Use priming sugar according to the recipe.
20. Finally, leave it alone once it’s barreled. Beer can be drunk after a couple of weeks, but tastes far better after a few. The rule of thumb is: the stronger the beer, the longer it should be kept before drinking. Test small amounts periodically, and DON’T be put off by harsh flavours or initial cloudiness. It takes beer time to mature, and during maturation, harsh chemicals are toned down, and the characteristic hop and malt flavours mellow and yeast settles down.
So, you can see, it’s really one day’s hard work and then a little patience. Read my other posts for more detail on equipment, recipes, ingredients and methods.