homebrewing, part one…

so, as i’ve promised some people (i promised a homebrew blog to the Babbledog folks something like three, four months ago), i’m finally writing about how i homebrew. you could consider this a précis of the process, but i’d suggest referencing more sources than me if you want to start brewing.

that said, i realized that one post really wouldn’t let me cover the entire experience in the detail i would like. so i decided to break it up – today’s will give a little background on brewing in general and a walkthrough of my personal boil process, up to the point of fermentation. a later post will cover the fermentation process itself and what happens after. i’ll probably also reference some of those additional sources in the future posting, to help prospective brewers get started.

so, part one: brewing history – including mine!

beer brewing is an ancient process – there are writings from Sumer, thousands of years old, that reference the brewing of beer (interesting note: the ancient Sumerian brewmasters were women). Hammurabi’s famous Code included laws governing the production and sale of beer (a far forerunner of the Reinheitsgebot!). the Pharaohs were great beer drinkers, too.

moving on to the Christian era, there was a great explosion in brewing with the growth of the monastic system. many of my favourite styles of beer come from the experimentation by monks during this period. beer was a common drink in the Middle Ages – among other things, it was safer than water!

multiple types of beer developed, depending on region. not only did the available ingredients affect what was brewed, but local climate as well. the English brewed (and probably invented) ales; the (relatively) mild weather of the British Isles was well-suited to the temperature requirements of the top-fermenting ale yeast. German brewers invented lager beer; with a different type of yeast and fermentation process, enabled by the locations they had available to store their beers, they achieved an entirely different style (which happens to be the most popular style in the world today). the Belgian brewers of Pajottenland created the lambic, which is a spontaneously-fermented beer depending on the natural airborne yeasts and bacteria of the region.

so, now there are any number of beers available commercially – how did i get started brewing? well, over ten years ago now, a friend of mine gave me a homebrew kit for my birthday. since then, i’ve been playing with different styles and processes, expanding my repertoire and recipie book. while some of my early batches were a bit scary (i made a traditional English-style unhopped ale that was downright evil), i think i’ve developed a deft hand for the process and some small ability with recipie tweaking.

part two: we actually get some action! the brewing process begins!

so, making beer is pretty simple at its most basic. you need water, grain and yeast. hops are good, but not really “required” for beer. from experience, however, you really want to use hops.

commercial brewers start with a process called mashing. mashing is what separates the sugars from the previously malted grains. i’m not going to go into a discussion of malted grain – that’s a huge topic in its own right. suffice it to say, there are a lot of different types of malt that brewers (big and small) can use.

some homebrewers also start with mashing – they’ve got a lot more time (and space) than i would want to dedicate to brewing, usually. the mashing process leads into the lautering process, where the grains are sparged to separate the wort from the mashed grain (wort is the name for the sugary liquor that will become beer).

so, since i don’t mash (and therefore, don’t lauter), what do i do?

i use malt extracts – either dry or liquid. these are the malts that would be extracted during the mash/lauter process, but with most or all of the water removed for ease of transport, storage and use. i usually use dry malt extract (called DME for short), as it has the most sugar content for its weight. it’s therefore cheaper to ship. DME also has the benefit of being easier to handle than liquid extract. DME looks like this:


that’s five pounds of wheat DME. most extract is quite a bit darker in colour than this, by the way. if you’re thinking about trying homebrewing for the first time, however, i’d suggest one of the many liquid kits on the market. they’re easier to deal with than DME for a novice, and have many fewer steps to deal with than i’m going to go through.

whatever brewing process used (commercial or home), the wort needs to be boiled. i use a 15.5 gallon half-barrel keg with the top cut out:


it also has a siphon in the bottom, which makes draining it much easier:


but you don’t need anything this large or complicated! i like the big pot because it lets me boil the entire 5 gallon batch, but most brewers (including me) got started with a big stock pot. anything that can hold 2 gallons or so will do, and it should be stainless steel as well.

there are some steps that some recipies require at this point, but for the most part i just dissolve the malt extract in water to get my sweet wort:


doesn’t look like much, does it? but this is the first step on the path to beer! mmmm, beer…

oh, sorry.

so, once the wort is boiling, various and sundry other things get added (this recipie used crushed coriander seed and dried Curaçao orange peel). but the most important of these additions are hops.

“hops” are actually the dried flowers of the hop plant. they were originally added as a preservative; the bitterness they added to the flavour of beer was incidental. later an appreciation of the flavours (and aromas) afforded by hops led to the current use.

different brewers add hops in different ways, but the two most common ways they are added by homebrewers are in pellets:


and in plugs:


both pellets and plugs are just compressed forms of the dried flower. i like the plugs slightly better for flavour and aroma, but pellets are much less messy.

so, you boil the wort and add the hops (timing dependent on the recipie). eventually, the boil is done and the (hot! hot! hot!) wort is decanted into a fermenter. i use plastic fermenters (there are other choices available), but i’m not going to go into the different styles until the fermentation section. a plastic fermenter may look like this:


once the wort is in the fermenter and chilled, the fermentation process is begun. but i’ll cover that in the next installment.

happy drinking, and stay tuned!

quote of the day:

“This is grain, which any fool can eat, but for which the Lord intended a more divine means of consumption. Let us give praise to our maker and glory to his bounty by learning about… BEER.” – Friar Tuck, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves


6 Responses to “homebrewing, part one…”

  1. Lowcountry Blogs Says:

    […] JJ has Homebrewing Part One. […]

  2. and finally, part 2! « i’m not drunk enough for this. Says:

    […] part 2! yes, it’s finally the second part of my homebrewing series. part one is here, for those who came in […]

  3. JET Says:

    Do you have a home-brew kit to recommend for those of us just starting out.

  4. jhota Says:

    hmm. if there was a local brew shop still in Charleston, i’d suggest seeing what they had. but there isn’t.

    there is Bet-Mar in Columbia – they have a starter kit for $55. it’s only got a 6.5 gallon fermenter, though. but it does have a bottling bucket, which the basic $55 kit from Homebrew.com does not.

    most of the starter kits are going to be very similar in price and equipment – the best thing to do would be just price shop for the best shipped price. once you get into the hobby more, you’ll be upgrading or tweaking your setup anyway.

  5. JET Says:

    Thanks for the advice, I ended up getting one of the Mr. Beer contraptions at Bed, Bath, & Beyond of all places-serendipity. And now, my next question: where are you getting empty bottles to put your beer in? Or are you just saving your empties?

  6. jhota Says:

    i’ve been kegging my beer for years now. when i did use bottles, i saved my empties. drank a lot of Sam Adams and Grolsch…

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