Better brewing

By Gregg Smith

It's the return of brew season and the Beer & Tavern Chronicle welcomes all new homebrewers with this introductory review of brewing techniques. If you're giving a brew kit as a holiday gift clip and save this article.

You're a beer enthusiast, you must be or you wouldn't be reading this column. So far we know that much about you. You're also fairly new to this intriguing hobby of brewing. Cool! It means you're prepared to join a group which included America's earliest settlers, our founding fathers and thousands of others who've rediscovered their beer roots. Of course entering this hobby also positions you to be the envy of your non-brewing (but beer loving) friends.

This piece is about adopting some simple steps to improve your beer. But first let's get something straight, "home brewing" is a relatively new term, invented actually. Sure, what you're doing is in the home, but homebrew has a connotation of prohibition beer, and today's equipment and supplies makes a brew far removed from grampa's concoctions of the 20's and 30's. So, the first thing you need to do is drop the word "home" out of what you're doing. You're a brewer.

When your grandparents made beer back in prohibition days it was a rather simple process. They went to the store and picked up a can of malt syrup, they asked the shopkeeper for some brewer's yeast and concluded their shopping with a bag of sugar. Grocery clerks all across America rang up the purchase with knowing smiles. At home they mixed the malt and sugar in a big pot of water, and added some hops, if they had a supply or knew where wild ones grew in the woods. Then they boiled the mixture, transferred it to a large washtub, waited till it cooled and added the yeast. After a week they added a little more sugar as they bottled their homebrew.

Today's brewing supplies are now much more refined, improved, and custom made for small batch brewing. But surprisingly the brewing process is still very much like the steps Grandma and Grandpa followed. In fact it will make drinkable beer. It'll even be a little better tasting than what they made in the old days. But with just a little more knowledge and some easy to follow steps you can make a beer you'll prefer over anything you can buy in the local convenience store.

Most articles on easy brewing techniques start something like this..."Ready to improve your beer? The first thing you do is throw away the yeast and directions under the lid." Yes indeed, most advice begins that way - not ours. Early in the "homebrew boom" the supply shops were, like new brewers, fairly unsophisticated. They stored yeast under the plastic lid of malt cans along with a set of directions. You still get a packet of dried yeast with your kit but now most stores will pull the pack from the refrigerator and place it under the lid when they sell it to you.

Shop keepers are also fairly knowledgeable about the brewing process and will probably make one other suggestion. Odds are they'll advise you not to add 3 pounds of cane sugar as called for in the directions. What will follow is a convincing argument to purchase an extra can of malt. If you think something's going on you're correct. The shop keeper is actually trying to help you make better beer. Can you make beer with the cane sugar? Of course you can, but it will be different from an all malt beer. Cane sugar is less expensive than malt, it also produces a couple unbeer-like traits. It'll be somewhat cidery in taste and the carbonation will be more harsh than what you're used to. The shopkeep probably suspected you were a fan of microbrew styles and the push toward an extra can of malt is not an exercise in taking advantage, it's trying to appeal to your taste. The best bet is to take this advice and also ask for a one pound bag of dry malt extract. We'll come back to that dry extract later.

Shopping: If you don't have a large (at least 12 quart) stainless steel pot and a brew kit with fermenter, ask the shopkeeper for a recommendation. Then it's time for the ingredients: 2 cans (3.3 lbs each) of unhopped malt extract, 2oz of Northern brewer hops, 1 oz of Williamette hops, 1oz of Kent Goldings hops, 1 packet of M&F ale yeast, 1 packet of Irish Moss, and a one 1lb bag of light dry malt extract. When you get home place the hops, yeast and Irish Moss in a storage bag in the refrigerator. NOTE: Different combinations of hop varieties are used by the world's great brewers in making their distinctive beers. The hops suggested here will produce an effect similar to an English style ale. Your shopkeeper should be able to make recommendations to alter your hop additions depending on the style of beer you want to brew.

If you are an intermediate level brewer the addition of specialty malts is equally important. For this English ale try steeping 3/4 pound of milled crystal malt in your brew water (155 degrees for 20 minutes.) Remove the grain before adding the extract and beginning the boil.

So now you're the owner of a brand new brewery. Yup, the pot, bottling buckets, hops, malt extract, bottle capper and other goodies is a scaled down version of the same process used by your favorite microbrewery and the big brewers as well. The first thing to do with your brewery is to put some effort into the same start up process they use in big operations- cleaning.

Cleaning? Yes. In a brewery cleanliness is next to...well, you know. Start days before you brew by securing a bottle supply. Actually this can be fun if you intend to empty them yourself. What you want are the "tall necks". Don't get twist off bottles, the thin glass in that style won't withstand recapping. Next, remove the labels, this is easier than imagined, simply ask your homebrew shop for a powdered caustic sanitizer. Place 2 or 3 teaspoons in the bottom of a bucket and fill the bucket 1/3 full of hot water. Fill the bottles with hot water and stand them in the bucket. Then add water to the bucket until it is just under the top of the bottle. Within a half hour the labels should easily come off. More on cleaning later.

Brewday preparations: Place your cans of malt extract in the sink and fill it with hot water (it'll help the malt flow easier when you open the can). Set 3 gallons of good tasting supermarket spring water to chill in your 'fridge as you take the hops, yeast and Irish Moss out. Toss your airlock, large metal cook spoon, a soup bowl and fermenter lid into your plastic fermenter and place that in the bath tub. Add either a couple tablespoons of caustic sanitizer, or 1 cup unscented chlorine bleach in the fermenter and fill with warm water.

Brewing: Add a gallon of water to the brewpot. Open the cans of malt and with your sanitized cook spoon (rinsed off) thoroughly mix the malt with the water in the pot. Add water to make a total of two gallons, turn on the heat and bring to a rolling boil. As the boil starts add 2oz of Northern Brewer hops for bittering. Carefully watch the pot for a few minutes each time you add hops because it could boil over. You will continue this boil for 45 minutes. When you're 15 minutes into the boil add the 1oz of Williamette hops for flavor. Then 30 minutes into the boil add 1 tsp of the Irish Moss (it'll help clear the finished beer.)

After ensuring the Irish Moss doesn't boil over get the sanitized soup bowl, rinse it off, fill it half way with warm water and sprinkle in the yeast. Back at the brew pot you take action again. During the last minute of the boil add the ounce of Kent Goldings hops for aroma, turn off the heat and cover the pot.

Now it's time to cool it down. Toss the ice cubes in the sink with a couple inches of water and settle the pot into this ice bath. Add a little more water to bring the ice/water level to an inch below the pot lip. Keep the lid on the pot to prevent wild airborne bacteria from infecting your beer as it cools.

Go to the bath tub and empty and rinse off the remainder of your brew equipment. After the pot has been in the ice for fifteen minutes add the chilled spring water to the fermenter, then pour the brewpot contents into the fermenter. Pour in the yeast, snap on the lid, place the airlock (half filled with water) in the fermenter, and place the fermenter in a cool (65 degree) dark place for 8 to 9 days. As you become more experienced (and a regular customer) your homebrew shop will eventually try to steer you from dry to liquid yeast. Again, they'll be trying to help you. Although liquid yeasts are more expensive they are, in general, much more pure strains than dry yeasts. The smoother taste of liquid yeast may well be worth the extra money you pay.

Bottling: Sanitize your bottling bucket, bottle caps, bottles siphon tubes and fillers in the same manner described in brewday preparation. Let it sit at least 15 minutes.

NOTE: Here you have an option for easy bottle sanitation. If you have a dishwasher you can rinse out the bottles and place them upside down on the dish rack make sure the labels are removed prior to placing bottles in the dishwasher. Turn the dishwasher on the last rinse and heat dry cycle. It will adequately sanitize your bottles.

Remember the bag of dry malt you were told to buy? Take a cup of the malt powder and mix it with two cups of water and boil it for a minute. Place the remainder in a ziplock freezer bag for storage. Rinse off all your sanitized equipment and bucket. Pour the boiled malt mixture into the empty bottling bucket and siphon the beer into the bucket. This addition of malt will prime (carbonate) your bottled beer.

You should note that the amount of priming malt varies according to the style of beer made. For the English ale we've been describing one cup of dry malt is sufficient. However, a wheat beer, which is known for high effervescence, will need up to one and a half cups dry malt.

Next fill the bottles to within three quarters inch of the top and cap. Place the filled bottles in a cool dark place.

About 3 weeks after bottling the beer should be carbonated. The next part is where the fun starts. I want you to chill your beer and invite me over.

Gregg Smith


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