BREWING BEER

Brewing beer is an interesting and relatively easy hobby, and I think the best part is that you get to enjoy the results of your efforts every time you drink a nice refreshing beer that you made.

This article will hopefully remove the mystery of exactly how you make beer and show you how easy it can be. I'm not going to provide you with specific recipies or methods, just an idea of what it is you're trying to accomplish and a general feel for how you go about it.

If you take nothing else away from this article, remember these two facts:

1. There is a HUGE room for error (and experimentation) when making beer, so it's actually difficult to screw it up.

2. About the only way to screw up is to not make sure your equipment is absolultely clean.

So, about point #1. Beer is a fermented "tea" made from malted barley, hops, maybe some other grains for flavor, and yeast. The yeast does all the work, and as long as you keep the fermenter clean and keep it within a fairly reasonable temperature range, the yeast will do all the work. The amounts of everything you add is not set in stone, and it simply subject to taste.

About point #2. You are setting up ideal conditions for the beer to ferment, which is also the ideal conditions for bacteria to take hold of your brew. For this reason, it's imperative that you disinfect anything that comes into contact with the beer during the brewing and bottling process.

ALCOHOL

The idea behind making ANY alocholic beverage is to coax yeast to produce alcohol. Beer, wine, and distilled spirits ALL incorporate a fermentation phase where yeast processes the sugars in your mix and produces alcohol (and carbon dioxide). The differences between beer, wine, and distilled spirits are simply what you ferment, and the process you go about in fermenting and conditioning.

Yeast is a fungus that eats sugar. You won't get alcohol if your brew does not contain sugar. When the yeast eats the sugar it excretes alcohol which is suspended in your brew, and carbon dioxide which escapes to the atmosphere.

For beer, what you're mixing together is, as I mentioned, a tea made from various grains. The crushed grains start with barley and sometimes wheat is added, and perhaps others. Many large breweries add rice, because it's cheap and "works." To these crushed grains, you add hops, and finally, yeast.

For wine, you are fermenting grapes (juice AND the crushed grapes), sugar, and yeast. Although, you can make a very drinkable wine using just grape juice, sugar and yeast.

For distilled spirits, you ferment something, and then distill out the alcohol. For instance, in American whiskies, you're usually fermenting malted corn, sugar, and yeast. For vodka, you're fermenting potatoes, sugar, and yeast. Then, there's an additional step where you boil the fermented brew, collect the steam which is about half alcohol, cool it, and collect the result which is your liquor.

MALT

So, what is malt? "Malting" is the process of coaxing seeds to sprout. In the case of beer, these are barley seeds. This process will naturally release an enzyme in the seeds that helps convert the starch in the seed to sugars that the yeast can eat. So, when we talk about malted barley (also called barley malt), we're just talking about barley seeds which have just started to sprout.

When brewing beer at home, you will likely use a processed "malt extract" at least when first starting to brew. This comes in a syrupy liquid form (referred to as liquid malt extract or LME), or a dry powder form (referred to as dry malt extract or DME). Malt extract is basically the fermentable sugars which have been extracted from the sprouted barley seeds. So, in short, malt extract is mostly sugar. There is also an all grain brewing method, in which you actually extract the sugars from the malted barley, rather than using an extract. All-grain brewing is not difficult, but requires more time and more equipment, so most beginning brewers use extract, as I said.

HOPS

In beer-making "hops" refers the flower from the hop plant. This flower is bitter, and provides a compliment to the sweetness of the beer created by all that sugar we added in the form of malt extract. Hops also adds aroma and "that hoppy flavor" to the beer.

THE BEER-MAKING PROCESS

This is a very high level overview of the general process. As I said before, there is HUGE room for error, and because different brews use differing processes, I do not get into the specifics of any particular brew.

There are three steps to making a drinkable beer when using malt extract. The first step is boiling your brew into a tea, called wort (pronounced wert). Then you add yeast and let the wort ferment for a while. Then finally you add a little more sugar, called priming sugar, and put the beer into bottles to "condition." Conditioning is the process of reactivating the yeast a little bit, to consume the priming sugar and produce carbonation. More advanced home brewers sometimes skip the priming and conditioning step by placing their beer into kegs and forcing in carbonation using pressurized CO2. Again, this takes more equipment than most home brewers start out with.

Part 1: Boiling

The first part of the brewing process is to brew your wort. The process is fairly simple. Most home brewers brew five gallons of beer at a time. If you purchase an ingredient kit, it will almost certainly contain the ingredients needed for five gallons. However, to make five gallons, you can boil anywhere from one to six gallons of water. I will explain more about that later.

You bring your water almost to a boil and remove it from the heat source. Most extract brewers will steep a small amount of crushed grains in a steeping bag (just like making tea with a tea bag) for maybe half an hour. Once the grains have steeped, you remove them and throw them away. (When I said brewing has lots of room for experimentation, consider that some brewers skip that first step of steeping the grains.) Then, you add your malt extract and hops. This is then returned to the heat and boiled for anywhere from 20 minutes to 90 minutes. The result of this is your wort.

Part 2: Fermenting

You cool your wort rapidly and add it to a fermenting vessel. This is often just a food-grade plastic bucket. Some people use a glass bottle, called a carboy, for this first fermentation phase. Whatever you use, it's fine as long as it's clean.

If you boiled six or so gallons of water, enough has boiled off that you are likely left with the full five gallons of wort. If you boiled less than five gallons of water, then you simply add clean water to your wort to bring it up to five gallons.

To this cooled wort, you add yeast. Other than making sure your cooled wort is somewhere around room temperature or so when you add the yeast, there's not much to this step. Give the yeast it a quick stir, cover it, and set it aside for a week. Or two. Or three. I will add that your fermenting vessel needs to be airtight, except for an airlock. The airlock allows the carbon dioxide to escape, while preventing air from getting in. Oxygen getting in will produce off flavors in your beer, or even ruin it outright.

After anywhere from two days to a week or two, the yeast will consume all the sugars in the wort, and convert the non-alcoholic wort to a flat, alcoholic beer.

Part 3: Bottling and Conditioning

Once fermentation has stopped, which means the yeast has consumed all the sugar, you can bottle your beer. You add some priming sugar (usually about 4.5 oz of dextrose for a five-gallon brew), siphon the beer into bottles, and tightly cap them. Over the next week (or two, or three) the small amount of yeast suspended in the beer is reactivated because of the priming sugar and produces a small amount of additional carbon dioxide. Unlike the fermentation phase, the carbon dioxide cannot escape the bottle since it's tightly capped, so it becomes suspended in the beer. This is carbonation!

The most important part of this process is to ensure that your beer has ceased fermentation before you bottle it. If you bottle your beer too soon, it could still be fermenting and with the addition of the priming sugar, the continued fermentation process inside your bottles could cause them to explode. Home brewers call these "bottle bombs."

After the bottled beer has sat in a cool place for a while, it's ready to refrigerate, open, and enjoy!

ROOM FOR ERROR (OR EXPERIMENTATION)

So, I've mentioned a few times that there is a HUGE room for error in this process. The painter Bob Ross would call them "happy accidents". I believe that it's because of this room for error, that there are many different kinds of beer in the first place. Different ingredients, but more importantly I think, different processes, account for differences in the various beers you can buy.

Let's start with the boil. As I said, you can start by boiling as little as one gallon of water or as much as six gallons of water. The less water you use, the more concentrated your wort will be, until you add water and bring it up to five gallons. Beer purists will tell you that you ALWAYS need to start with a full six+ gallons, boil it down to five, and never add water at the start of fermentation.

Moving on to grains. I mentioned steeping the grains in the process above, but it turns out you can get a nice, drinkable beer without that step. Steeping the grains adds flavor and color to your beer, but even that is not necessary. There are videos on YouTube, like this one, which show people skipping this step entirely. I should point out that the brewing process outlined in the video I just linked is very minimal. I don't know how that beer tastes, but he seems to skip several steps. This goes to show how varied the process can be, though.

Some people would never add pure sugar to their beer, preferring that all the sugars come from the malt extract. Some people use some malt extract and some sugar. Again, it's a matter of preference.

Now, for the yeast. How much yeast do you need? If you buy an ingredient kit, you will likely get "a packet" of dry yeast. That's enough. Many people actually collect the flocculated yeast from their fermentation vessel, and use it again in their next batch of beer. It turns out, it really doesn't matter how much yeast you add. The point here is to have the yeast consume all the sugar. The yeast will do that no matter how much you add. Once there is no more sugar, the yeast flocculates no matter how much there is. Of course, if you add WAY too much yeast, you will certainly have a "yeasty" flavor in your beer, which may be overwhelming, but it will still be drinkable and alcoholic.

Next, onto fermentation. You can ferment in a bucket. You can ferment in a carboy. It doesn't matter, as long as it's clean.

Finally, for fermentation, some people perform a primary fermenation and a secondary fermentation. The secondary fermenation is usually done to clarify the beer and perhaps increase the alcohol content a little. Some people say secondary fermentation ALWAYS supposed to be done. Some say you should NEVER use secondary fermentation. The fact is, it's all a matter of taste. Beer will ALWAYS brew completely in a single fermentation vessel (called "the primary"). A secondary MAY improve the clarity and taste, or then again, depending on the beer, it may not.

Some people add priming sugar directly to the beer before bottling it, and others add a little sugar to each bottle as they add the beer. It doesn't matter, although adding it to the beer first takes less work.

So there you have it. What I've described is a basic method for brewing beer at home. There are many different things that home brewers do at various points along thise process, and so I have said, there is a HUGE room for error when brewing beer. But, as long as your equipment is clean, you use about the right amount of ingredients, keep the temperature about right when adding yeast and fermenting, you will come out with a drinkable beer. It's at this point where you can start researching ingredients and process, to tailor your beer to suit your tastes.

Happy Brewing!