About the brewing process, part one

So I started typing up my first brew day, and I realized that I really need to talk about the basics first, rather than drag out the brew day post to ridiculous lengths.

What kind of equipment does brewing beer require? A typical homebrew batch is 5 gallons. On brew day, you’ll need at the minimum a 3.5 gallon brew pot (20 quarts, or five gallons, is preferable). Mine is thin-walled stainless steel, but aluminum is fine. I’ve also seen people using the thin walled “granite” pots you can find at Wal-Mart and such. You will need something to stir the brew with – I use a spatula from my regular kitchen arsenal. If you are using specialty grains, you will need a mesh bag for them. Following the actual brewing, you will need fermentation container at least 5 gallons in size. Options include glass carboys (I use a 6.5 gallon one), plastic buckets, and Better Bottles, which are essentially plastic carboys. For any plastics you use, make sure that it is made of HDPE (high-density polyethylene), aka food-grade plastic.

If you’re interested in plastic buckets, I highly recommend doing a quick search on Google maps or wherever you please for a local restaurant supply store. They’ll have food-grade buckets of all sizes with practically unbeatable prices. Buckets will require lids, which are often sold separately. The lid will need a 1/2″ hole drilled into it with a rubber grommet inserted into it. You can get pre-drilled lids from online brew shops, but just man up and drill your own hole. You’ll feel more virile afterwards.

Into that grommet will go an airlock. This will allow ventilation of all the carbon dioxide the yeast is going to produce while keeping everything else out. I strongly recommend the 3-piece airlock over the bubbler. In my experience it’s easier to use, less likely to fail, sturdier, and easier to clean.

If you are using something with a narrow neck (e.g. not a bucket), you’re going to need a funnel. A strainer for the funnel could be useful, but you don’t need one. If I had one in my kitchen, I’d probably use it, but I don’t. A carboy or better bottle will need an appropriate rubber cork/bung with a hole for the airlock. There are also carboy caps instead of corks, but I haven’t used them. The very first time I was getting everything set up, I accidentally pushed the cork into the carboy. There are some interesting methods on the internet to remove a cork from a bottle, but since these have a hole in them, I was able to use a hex wrench to pull it out. This almost, almost made me purchase a carboy cap immediately. After my first brew, however, I have had exactly zero problems with corks. Word to the wise: sanitizer makes those rubber corks extremely slippery.

Airlock and bung

Airlock filled with sanitizer, in rubber cork/bung in the glass carboy opening

In theory you don’t need a thermometer, but it’s really indispensable. Any old kitchen thermometer will do. You don’t technically need a hydrometer either, but in my opinion, anyone not using one is less interested in the art and science of brewing beer and more interested in having cheap (probably unpalatable) beer in large quantities. The thermometer and hydrometer will help you control the process and at various times inform you when to wait and when to proceed. Sounds pretty important, yes? A simple plastic spray bottle or two (also available from your local restaurant supply store) will come in handy, but aren’t necessary. I keep one filled with water for brew days, and one filled with sanitizer for any time. A measuring cup isn’t necessary, but I find my 2 cup Pyrex to be very handy. I also keep my copy of John Palmer’s ridiculously useful How to Brew at arm’s reach. It is generally regarded as the single most useful book for beginning brewers. There is no reason you should not own this book before you brew your first batch. The first edition of the book is available at http://howtobrew.com, but the third edition in print has newer and more accurate information, is more thorough, and is at least twice the size. So spend the twelve bucks on the book. Keep in mind there is a good deal more equipment you can use, and I am just trying to list everything you would need.

Hydrometer

Hydrometer in action

Cleaning is removing visible particulate from your equipment. Clean all of your equipment scrupulously, as any visible matter or discolorations may house bacteria or other contaminants. PBW (powdered brewery wash) is a damn good cleaner. It is, however, relatively difficult to get into solution and may be overkill for basic cleaning. It is excellent for cleaning your brew pot, though. Being cursed with an electric stove, I wind up with the caramelized spiral shape of the coil at the bottom of the pot after every batch. PBW destroys this without remorse. Any normal soaps or detergents you have will work, though be mindful that scented detergents may deposit their scent on your equipment and therefore in your beer.

Sanitizing is killing off all the bacteria and other persona non grata that may be present on your equipment. This is necessary for everything that will touch your wort after you take it off the heat. You don’t have to initially sanitize your brew pot or anything that will go in during boiling, just clean it. You should sanitize your scissors because they will cut open the yeast smack pack, which will be poured directly into the cool wort. So if they weren’t sanitized, the scissors could introduce unwanted bacteria into your beer. You will also have to sanitize the carboy (the primary fermenter), and various other things. Star San is my choice of sanitizer, and it works very well. Other sanitizers, such as Iodophor or bleach, are available. Bleach is workable but recommended against because it may leave bleach flavors and scents behind (go figure). “70% of brewing beer is cleaning.” I’m sorry, but it’s true. Clean beer is good beer; it will look and taste like you want it to. Bacteria will produce off flavors and potentially make your beer undrinkable. You cannot be too thorough when cleaning and sanitizing.

Introductions may be in order

So, I started brewing beer. It seemed like the obvious thing to do. I did a fair amount of research on equipment, and rather than buying one of the kits that every site sells their own version of, I pieced together what I wanted and left out what I didn’t want. I got everything from Rebel Brewer and Northern Brewer. I also read. A lot. I was a little surprised at the huge amount of information out there regarding homebrewing. I’m also surprised at how much really good information there is out there. The one problem that I have run into, though, is that most non-printed sources (e.g. forums, like Homebrew Talk, YouTube videos, and videos available for purchase) give a lot of anecdotal and empirical evidence. “I brew like this and it works, so you should too” is the general mindset of anyone who answers a question. This is, perhaps not surprisingly, something I find intensely frustrating, particularly because I’m fairly well trained in evaluating scientific literature. If it’s not an experiment, I really don’t want to hear it. I know better than to expect that from the internet, but every once in a while some actual experimentation does float to the surface. Amateur experiments are better than none at all. And there is also a small cadre of researchers who really do run legitimate, complicated experiments, and publish their work, if not in brewing journals then probably in their own books. This is what I find most interesting and important, because it lays the foundation for all future beer brewing. As I understand it, contemporary homebrewing fundamentals have changed drastically every decade or so because of all of the new information that comes out.

Humans have been brewing beer for over 10,000 years (can you believe it?), but the product was almost entirely created by chance throughout most of that time. Even though there have been centralized breweries for the past thousand years (2040 AD should be the 1000 year mark), they didn’t even know that yeast was what was making beer (and wine, cider, mead, etc.) awesome until Louis Pasteur in the 1800s. Considering the paramount importance of yeast in making beer, it’s safe to say that they were mostly winging it, although empirically they were getting better at it without understanding why. What’s more, we’ve only been doing real research specifically on brewing for a few decades, and it’s not exactly something you can major in in college (well, there are a handful of schools in the country that have brewing programs, I think). So it takes some passionate and talented guys to move onward in the world of brew science.

All that being said, the science obviously isn’t that important to brewing since they’ve been doing fine without it for 10,000 years. Even now, many (most?) homebrewers are just following a handful of steps and waiting patiently for beer to come out the other end. But you know me, and I can’t leave well enough alone, so I’ve got to do everything ‘right.’ I want high-quality reproducible beer, and I want to know how and why. I want to leave as little up to chance as possible, so I can say “I did this because I want that.” So I have done more reading than the average homebrewer (I suspect), and my records (yes, I keep records; many don’t, however… that is simply unconscionable to me) are fairly meticulous. Through years of lab work (especially chemistry), I learned to write down all of the information you have as often as possible, because once something changes, you may never be able to get back to that point again. Beer can be such a unique experience, I think it fits that mold rather perfectly.

So what to brew first? That was the most difficult, decision, I think, after I convinced myself to drop the cash and get started. I wanted something quick (waiting is such an endeavor, especially in the beginning), but modestly complex. Not simple, but not something that would blow your mouth away, like a Belgian Strong Dark Ale or Russian Imperial Stout. Those are also much more involved beers and, well, I haven’t done this before. I finally decided on two kits, both from Northern Brewer (I like their ingredient and kit list better than Rebel Brewer). First was the Patersbier. It’s a light Belgian, and I was particularly intrigued by the explanation that this is what Belgian monks would brew for themselves rather than sell. For the second, I went with Oud Bruin de Table. This one was less calculated and more of a shot in the dark. I was not terribly familiar with Oud Bruin going into it, but the description sold me on it.

This entry has gone on long enough, so I’ll cut it here. This blog is going to predominantly serve as a reference to me, to aid in my record keeping and such. I also enjoy writing. I also figured some of my friends would be interested in following my beer exploits, so now it’s simple and I don’t have to deal with the obfuscation that geography provides. I’m also going to teach you about beer (spread the gospel, if you will). Feel free to leave comments as you please, ask questions, etc. Next time around I should leave my first set of notes (and pictures) for the Patersbier.