By Kevin Gray
Most beginning homebrewers make beers using kits that include malt extract, hops and yeast — three of the four basic beer ingredients (the fourth being water). The malt extract contains malted grains, usually barley, and is the sugar source for beer — it feeds the yeast, which in turn creates alcohol and carbonation.
Malt extract is the equivalent of frozen concentrated orange juice. It contains all of the sugars and flavors from the grain, but like the frozen orange juice, requires little labor from the brewer. A malting company has already performed the labor-intensive process of converting the starches in the grains into sugars and condensing the product into a syrup or powder. So an extract brewer simply opens a can of syrup or a bag of powder and pours it into the brew kettle.
Many brewers make excellent beers using malt extracts. However, for many homebrewers, extract brewing lacks precision and control. These brewers eventually turn to all-grain brewing.
If extract brewing is making orange juice from concentrate, all-grain brewing is making orange juice with a juicer and a bag of oranges. Instead of starting with the concentrated malt sugars, all-grain brewers start with a bag of malted grains. They steep the grains in hot water, which activates enzymes in the grain that turns starches into sugar. This process is called mashing. When the mash is complete, brewers rinse the sugars from the grains in a process called sparging. They drain the sugary water, now called wort, into a brew kettle and boil the sweetened mixture.
From this point forward, the all-grain brewing process is similar to extract brewing. In both processes, brewers boil the wort, adding hops for flavor, aroma and bitterness. After boiling, brewers cool the wort to just below room temperature and add yeast to start the fermentation process. In a few weeks, they bottle or keg it and have a finished beer.
Advanced All-Grain Brewing
All-grain brewing requires a more detailed understanding of the ingredients and the brewing process than does extract brewing. There are more variables to control in all-grain brewing, so many all-grain brewers continually look for ways to improve their processes. To that end, BrewTensils, Belmont’s local homebrewing shop, recently hosted an Advanced All-Grain Brewing class as part of their homebrewing education series. The class featured Gordon Strong, author of the recent book Brewing Better Beer.
Strong’s brewing credentials are impeccable. He is currently the president of the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP), the principle certifying program for homebrew judges in North America. He is also the top-ranking judge in the program, and co-author of the BJCP’s beer style guide. Strong is also a three time winner of the American Homebrewers Association’s Ninkasi award, an award that goes to the brewer with the highest overall points at the National Homebrewing Competition. The Ninkasi award is a prestigious honor that speaks to a brewer’s understanding of the craft.
Strong had some very simple advice for all-grain homebrewers. He observed that many all-grain brewers are very process driven, but may not always understand why they take the steps they do. Strong defined brewing as a series of problems to be solved and emphasized that top-quality brewers must “learn the approach, not just the recipe.” All-grain brewers should understand not only what each ingredient or process step contributes to the beer, but also why the ingredient or step is used. What problems can be solved by using a particular ingredient or a particular process?
In his book and in his class, Strong spoke of five brewing tips that help brewers consider the approach, not the recipe. These tips are likely to help even the most seasoned all-grain brewer step up his or her game:
Tip 1: Stop Messing With Your Water — All-grain brewers tend to obsess about water chemistry because it can affect mash efficiency and flavor profile. However, water differs from place to place, and often, changes to water have unintended consequences. Start with reverse osmosis water, which is largely mineral free, and add the minerals that you need back in rather than starting with tap water and trying adjust an existing mineral content.
Tip 2: Handle Dark Grains Differently — Dark grains contribute color, as well as caramel, roasted and chocolate flavors. Most brewers throw them in the mash with the pale grains that form the basis of the beer. However, dark grains can also add harsh flavors. Strong recommends waiting and adding them at the start of the sparge. He also suggests steeping dark grains separately (like making tea) and adding that tea to the wort at the boil.
Tip 3: Maximize Malt Flavor — All-grain brewers strive to get the most out of their malts, but Strong advocates being less efficient. Instead of rinsing grains until they are almost out of sugar, start with more grains and rinse less. Try no-sparge brewing, which results in much higher concentrations of sugars. Also, try mixing up grains — use Belgian or German malts in American-style beers to emphasize malt character.
Tip 4: Maximize Hop Flavor — Brewers tend to follow a prescribed ritual for hops, but Strong advocates mixing this up. Instead of adding a few hops at various stages along the way, try adding some hops right as the wort enters the brew kettle (called first wort hops). Then, add massive hop additions in the last twenty minutes of the boil. This late hopping approach minimizes harshness and emphasizes hop aroma and flavor.
Tip 5: Use Signature Ingredients — There are a lot of underused ingredients available to homebrewers. Try including less frequently used malts like brown malt or Belgian crystal malts to give beers a distinct flavor. Or try blending base malts to create an interesting flavor. Along the same lines, look for interesting hop or yeast combinations to add interesting depth to your brews.
Reach DCP freelance writer Kevin J. Gray at KevinGray@DaytonCityPaper.com.