Do-it-yourself craft beer

Do-it-yourself craft beer

The science and art behind homebrewing

By Kevin J. Gray

The finished product is all worth it in the end.

It’s 9 a.m. on Saturday morning. Miami Valley BrewTensils in Belmont doesn’t officially open for another hour, but the lights are on, the front door is unlocked and there is activity at the back of the store. Darren Link, the manager, emerges, welcoming me in.

This morning is the first BrewOut of 2011, where home brewers from around the Miami Valley set up their equipment in the parking lot behind BrewTensils. Today there are about seven brewers set up for the first session, with more to come later. Over the course of the day, brewers will mill about, sharing techniques, confessing brewing horror stories and, most importantly, swapping samples with, and getting feedback from other brewers.

Homebrewing is naturally a social event. I asked Link how he got started and his response echoed that of most home brewers: “A friend of mine; the number one way people get started in this – a friend convinces them, ‘Let’s make some beer.’ After a couple of batches underneath my belt, I took off and started going with it.’”

Link continues to brew socially, noting that homebrewing is “definitely a group kinda thing. You set up with your buddies on a Saturday, fire up a batch, drink some beers, and have a good time.” When I survey the brewers in the parking lot, they note that most home brewers rarely work alone. Brew day is an opportunity to introduce a newbie to the hobby or to invite some seasoned buddies over to help share the load and sample some interesting beers.

Brewing up your own first batch
Making your own craft beer sounds complicated but, in reality, homebrewing can be remarkably simple. With an understanding of the basic ingredients and a minimal investment in the right equipment, you can amaze yourself and your friends by creating great beer. Here is an overview of the brewing process and equipment, followed by a recipe with step-by-step instructions to get you started.

Beer’s basic ingredients
Although there are millions of possible combinations, beer is just four basic ingredients: malted grains, hops, yeast and water. Each ingredient works together to contribute to the flavor, aroma and appearance of a beer.

Good beers start with good water. Start by heating a large pot of water to near boiling. Water’s contribution to the finished product seems the most obvious, but the chemical composition of the water can greatly impact a beer’s flavor. Countless books by folks far beer-geekier than me have been written that dissect the water composition of the great brewing towns. But for starting brewers, there are a few basic principles. Avoid straight tap water – the chlorine produces nasty flavors. Instead, either filter your water first or stick to bottled spring water. Also, steer clear of distilled water. The distillation process strips the water of some of the minerals a beer needs.

Next, add grains and hops to the water and boil for about an hour. This mixture is called wort. Home brewers have two options when it comes to malted grains: either extract the sugars yourself or use a malt extract, the brewing equivalent of orange juice concentrate – all of the flavor with less work. Extracts are most common for new brewers and are part of the recipe below. In either case, brewing grains undergo a malting process that allows the grains to be converted to sugar. It’s that sugar the yeast eats to create alcohol and carbonation in the beer. Brewers use a variety of malted grains to create beers ranging from light and delicate pilsners to dark, bombastic barley wines, porters and stouts. In most beer styles, brewers use only malted barley, although some recipes, like the one provided, blend barley with other grains like wheat or rye to create complex and interesting flavors.

A balanced beer needs both sweet and bitter elements. The malts make a beer sweet while the bitterness comes from the hops. Standard homebrewing tradition is to add hops at three points in the boil – one for bittering, one for flavor, and one for aroma. During the boil, the resins from the hop flowers, or cones, dissolve in the beer giving it bitterness and aroma. In beer geek speak, the bitterness potential of a given hop is measured in alpha acid percentages (AA%). Hops with high alpha acids (9-12%) make a beer bitterer than those with lower acids (4-5%). Like malts, hops are diverse, contributing spicy, floral, earthy, citrus or piney flavors depending on the variety.

Once the boil ends, cool the wort to room temperature and add yeast to convert the flat, sugary wort into carbonated, alcoholic beer. There are a multitude of yeasts, each contributing different flavor profiles. Brewers use two main yeast strains: ale yeasts and lager yeasts. Ale yeasts produce beer with complex flavors and aromas, while lager yeasts create a clean, crisp brew. Ale yeasts like warmer temperatures (generally between 58-75 degrees F) and take about two weeks to ferment completely. Lager yeasts, on the other hand, need long durations at cool temperatures. Most home brewers stick to ales, since they require less time and specialized equipment.

When the yeast is done fermenting, transfer the beer to bottles. You will add some priming sugar, which recharges the yeast, enabling it to produce carbonation in a process called bottle conditioning. After about two weeks, your beer will be ready to drink.Equipment for the job
To make great beer, get the right equipment. You will need a large pot, some specialized tools for fermenting and bottling the beer and some bottles and caps to store it.

Start with a pot large enough to boil three to four gallons of water; bigger is better. Although slightly more expensive, invest in the stainless steel or enamelware pots (most brewers avoid aluminum for a variety of reasons). Most homebrew supply stores sell pots of this size or you can try a restaurant supply store.

In addition, you will need a variety of fermentation vessels, thermometers and other specialty equipment. Homebrew stores like BrewTensils or Main Squeeze in Yellow Springs sell the Brewer’s Best kit, which includes fermentation and bottling buckets, airlock, hydrometer/thermometer, bottle capper and all the hoses you will need. They also sell the supplies piecemeal, but it is far cheaper and easier to buy the kit for your first few brews.

Next, you will also need some bottles and bottle caps. If you are an avid craft beer drinker, you may be able to recycle enough bottles to avoid having to purchase them. Steer clear of the screw-top bottles, and be sure to wash all beer residues out of the bottles before setting them aside. You will still need to pick up bottle caps, and you can always pick up new bottles at the same time. A five-gallon batch usually makes just over two cases, or 52 bottles.

Finally, a word about sanitation. After brewing, you and your friends will be eager to try your new beer. So will thousands of nasty microbes that, if you are not careful, will beat you to it and ruin your beer. With proper sanitation techniques, you can avoid the heartache of beer gone bad. As a general rule of thumb, anything that comes into contact with the cooled wort MUST be both clean and sanitized. Products like Iodophor or One-Step (both readily available) make sanitation easy – just dip the equipment in solution and let it dry.

OK, got it. Now, let’s brew!

The recipe below for DCP Summer Wheat Ale is an easy-to-drink ale that is simple to make. Perfect for your first batch and perfect for drinking in the hammock this summer. The ingredients should be readily available at your local homebrew store, but ask the staff for substitutions if they’ve run out of one of the ingredients.

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DCP Summer Wheat Ale

Malt

3.3 lbs.  Wheat Liquid Malt Extract

3.3 lbs.  Liquid Light Malt Extract

Hops

0.50 oz. Saaz hops pellets (5% alpha acid), boiled 60 min.

0.50 oz. Styrian Goldings hops pellets (6% alpha acid), boiled 15 min.

0.50 oz. Saaz hops pellets (5% alpha acid), added after the boil

Yeast

White Labs WLP300 Hefewizen Ale

Other

6 gallons of bottled spring water

Large bag of ice

¾ cup priming sugar

2 cups bottled water

Brewing

1.  Heat 3 gallons of water on your stove. Just before the water boils, turn the stove off (to avoid boil over) and add all of the malt syrup and 0.5 oz of Saaz hops pellets (these hops add bitterness to the beer). Restart the stove.

2.  Bring the mixture, now called wort, to a roiling boil. Be sure to stir regularly so it doesn’t scald or boil over. As the wort boils, start sanitizing your fermentation bucket and lid, airlock and thermometer/hydrometer. At 45 minutes of boiling, add 0.5 oz of Styrian Goldings hops (these hops add flavor).

3.  After the wort has boiled for 60 minutes total, turn the stove off and add 0.5 oz of Saaz hops (these last hops will add aroma to your beer).

4.  Fill your sink with ice and water. Gently set the wort kettle in the ice bath, letting it rest until the outside of the pot is barely warm to the touch or the wort is roughly room temperature. This can take 20 to 30 minutes. Take care to ensure that nothing lands in the open kettle.

5.  Once the wort has reached room temperature, pour it and the remaining gallons of water into the fermentation bucket. Using the sanitized hydrometer/thermometer, record the temperature and specific gravity of the wort. The specific gravity is a measure of how much sugar is in the wort. For this beer, the gravity should be around 1.047.

6.  Finally, add the yeast to the wort. No need to stir – just dump it in. Place the lid and airlock on the fermentation bucket. Be sure to put a little bit of bottled water in the airlock.

Fermenting

1.  Place the fermentation bucket in a cool, dark place. Within a day or two you will see bubbles in the airlock as the yeast eats the sugars and converts them to alcohol and carbon dioxide.

2.  After about two weeks, or once the activity in the airlock ceases, sanitize your hydrometer, open the lid and take another gravity reading. The gravity should be around 1.011. If not, close the lid up and wait another week.

3.  Once the gravity reaches roughly 1.011, it’s time to bottle your brew.

Bottling

1.  Wash and sanitize all of your bottles and bottle caps.

2.  Boil ¾ cup priming sugar in 2 cups of bottled water. Dump the sugar water into bottling bucket. This sugar water will give the yeast a final boost once in the bottle, carbonating your beer. Use the siphon to transfer your finished and fermented beer into the bottling bucket. Take care to not splash the transferring beer and avoid starting the siphon using your mouth, lest you introduce bacteria into your first batch.

3.  Use the bottling tube and wand to fill each empty bottle. Be sure to leave about an inch of head space. Loosely fit the caps to the bottles then use the capper to seal them.

4.  Let the bottles sit in a warm spot. After about two weeks, they should be fully carbonated, so call some friends over and toast to your first batch!

Make your next batch even better
Your first batch will be amazing and you will be excited to brew again. Eventually, you will look for ways to make your batches even better. Here are a few tips:
Read, read, read. There are tons of homebrewing books, magazines, blogs and forums for all levels of brewing experience. Check out Brew Your Own magazine, join Homebrew Digest (www.hbd.org) or pick up any number of brewing books available at your local homebrew store.

Up your game. The recipe above uses simple ingredients and a straightforward process. More specialized steps, like creating a yeast starter to give the yeast a head start or switching to all-grain brewing (where you start with the actual grains, not the grain syrup) will make drastic improvements in the quality and consistency of your beers.

Join the club. DRAFT, the Dayton area homebrew club, meets the second Friday of every month at the Liederkrantz building in downtown Dayton. The club features a mix of new and experienced brewers and offers a variety of events to help brewers grow. Check out their website at www.daytondraft.org.

Brew, brew, brew. Like anything, practice makes perfect. Get a few more batches under your belt and you will start finding ways to perfect your process. Participate in brew-out events or brew with other home brewers to swap secrets and samples.

Take a class. Miami Valley BrewTensils offers classes for novice and experienced home brewers alike, with topics like Brewing 101: Introduction to Brewing, and Brewing 110: Kegging Your Beer. Schedules and descriptions are available at www.brewtensils.com.

Reach DCP freelance writer Kevin J. Gray at KevinGray@daytoncitypaper.com.

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