Homebrewing Beer Basics

I recently helped brew up a couple batches of beer for my office’s holiday party. I wrote up a story for the company blog about the Gingerbread Ale and IPA we brewed for the party, with an overview on the whole Homebrew process. The beer and the story were both well received, enjoy!

(Link: http://www.mcntalk.com/2012/12/14/for-holiday-cheer-we-made-mcn-beer/)

As the popularity of craft beer amongst drinkers everywhere continues to rise, so does the popularity of an age-old hobby: homebrewing beer.

In a report earlier this year, the American Homebrewers Association estimated there are approximately 1 million Americans currently brewing beer at home.

Homebrewing beer has many benefits:

  • It is a fun and affordable hobby
  • It allows beer enthusiasts to learn much more about beer
  • One can be much more creative in making the beer they want to drink
  • It’s a good way to make sure there’s always a supply of fresh quality beer on hand

At the MCN Corporate Office in Seattle, three of the company’s employees collaborated on homebrew recipes this past year – Erik Madrid (Physician Recruiting Manager), Erik Halse (Peer Review Product Manager), and Aaron Schultz (Accounts Receivable Coordinator).

Team Rainwater Brewing (as they’ve dubbed themselves) collaborated on two batches of homemade beer served at the company holiday party. On tap at the corporate office were seasonal Gingerbread Ale and an IPA (India Pale Ale).

Both the crafting of a recipe and the process of brewing beer can be as simple or as complicated as the brewer decides to make it. The four core ingredients making up any beer recipe are: water, malted grains, hops, and yeast. Simple enough, right? Not so much.

There are hundreds of unique types of grains and hops and several different strands of yeast to choose from. Mixed and matched in different quantities, and brewed using a wide variety of methods is what allows for such a diverse mix of beer styles; and is why within any one style, two beers can have incredibly different flavor profiles.

Factor in optional ingredients like fruit or spices and the possibilities are truly endless. Some extreme brewers craft delicious recipes using outlandish ingredients like jalapenos, bacon, and oysters (yes, oysters!).

The basic steps of homebrewing beer: 

Photo: Erik Halse (left), and Aaron Schultz, (right) check the H2O Temperature for the Mash.

The Mash: The grains are mixed with hot water (typically between 148-155 degrees) and allowed to soak/steep for one hour. This process is called the mash, and is done in a mash tun. During the mash, the grains are broken down and the fermentable sugars are extracted from the grain.

Homebrewers often use converted water coolers with false bottoms to easily maintain the temperature for the duration of the mash and then strain the liquid off.  After the initial mash is drained, additional hot water is added to the mash tun to rinse off any residual sugars – a process called sparging. The mix of malted grains make up the backbone of the beers flavor profile and contribute the color to the beer.

The Boil: All of the sugary liquid (referred to as wort: unfermented beer) from the mash and the sparge are collected in a kettle and brought to a boil. The wort is boiled for at least 1 hour, which allows for any of the naturally occurring micro-organisms and bacteria living in your water or the grains to be boiled off.

Photo: Erik Madrid, a homebrewer for a year and a half, has already brewed over 25 batched of beer.

The other big part of the boil stage is the addition of your hops, spices, or other adjunct ingredients (honey, fruit, etc) and getting all those flavors to come together just like a good soup.

Photo: The frothy wort of the Gingerbread Ale.

Hops contribute 3 key elements to beer: bitterness, aroma, and their natural preserving qualities. Hops added at the beginning of the boil contribute more towards bitterness and flavor; while hops added to the end of the boil contribute mostly towards aroma.  You can take 1 variety of hop and get a totally different flavor and/or aroma in your beer depending on exactly when and how much you add during the 60 minute boiling period.

Pitching the yeast: Yeast is a living organism whose role in making beer is to eat all the fermentable sugars, poop out alcohol, and fart out CO2. The 210 degree temperature of boiling wort would kill the yeast. Most strands of yeast used to make ales prefer temperatures closer to room temperature. Once the boil is finished the temperature of the wort is quickly brought down to a range ideal for the yeast being used. Sanitization of all equipment becomes crucial at this point and for every stage from here on out. The chilled wort is transferred from the boil kettle into the fermentation vessel, at which point the yeast is added (pitched).

Fermentation: A restaurant grade bucket or a glass carboy are the most popular fermentation vessels used by homebrewers. Once filled the fermentation vessel is sealed off with a plug and an airlock that allows some C02 to escape while the yeast is actively eating through all the fermentable sugars, but prevents any bacteria from entering the fermenter. For most standard alcohol content ales, your typical fermentation takes about 2 weeks.

While optional, most brewers prefer to transfer their beer from the first vessel to a secondary fermenter. In doing so, spent yeast that settles to the bottom of the fermenter is left behind, preventing the dead yeast cells from imparting any unwanted flavors in the beer.

Photo: Gingerbread Ale bottled for secondary fermentation.

Getting the beer off his sediment also improves the clarity in appearance. These stages are referred to as primary fermentation and secondary fermentation.

Bottling or Kegging: Once fermentation is complete, the beer is siphoned into either individual bottles or a keg to be carbonated and then served. Carbonation will occur naturally in bottles, as there is still a small amount of yeast eating the last of the sugar content in the beer, but now the C02 created is no longer allowed to escape.

Using the bottling method takes between 2 and 4 weeks for the beer to properly carbonate and prime. Alternatively, the beer can be transferred into a keg and hooked up to a C02 tank for force carbonation. A high amount of C02 pressure is infused into the keg for a couple days until the desired carbonation level is reached.

Photo: MCN Holiday Beer Ready to be served!

Drinking: If you can’t figure this part out for yourself, we’re in trouble! Now, if you’ve gotten this far and haven’t become thirsty enough to grab a beer, then you must be at work.

Seriously though, give any beer you’re drinking the justice it deserves and pour it into a glass before consumption. The aroma and the color are part of the experience, and you just can’t get that from the bottle.

If you’re drinking a homebrew, remember to leave the last little bit behind in the bottle – the residual sugars and yeast that have settled after carbonation is complete are not the last thing you want to remember about the beer.

For the MCN Holiday Party, Aaron and the Eriks have brewed up a Gingerbread Ale and an IPA. The Gingerbread Ale is a Brown Ale with nutmeg, cinnamon sticks, cloves and candied ginger added throughout the boil to create a flavor and aroma profile very similar to gingerbread. The IPA was brewed with a mixture of a variety of hops to create a nice crisp and bitter flavor profile typically associated with a good Northwest IPA.

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4 New Discoveries – All Must Try Beers!

Nothing like an extended holiday weekend to help make sure I tried more new beers than I could keep track of.  Despite the foggy memory that comes with sippin’ as many delicious craft brews as I have enjoyed over the week, these babies stood out as must tries:

Brown Shugga’ by Lagunitas Brewing Company: Two words: GIGGITY GIGGITY.  Brown Shugga’ has been on a short list of beers that I had heard and read a lot about, but hadn’t had the opportunity to try one for myself yet.  I eagerly awaited this seasonal release last fall, only to miss out after the expanding popularity of Lagunitas Brewery required their fermenting tanks be put to use with easier/quicker to brew batches to keep up with the growing demand.  At least that’s what I remember from the hilariously clever mia culpa that was printed on the ass side of the “Lagunitas Sucks” Holiday Ale six packs they put out last year as a Brown Shugga holdover (a great ale in itself, by the way).  2+ years of waiting was worth it; as is a trip to the store immediately for any thirsty soul who has yet to try this beer. I’ve seen six packs on the shelves of Seattle area stores as recently as yesterday, so there are still some in rotation if you can beat me to stocking up again. Brown Shugga’ is a dangerously smooth 9.9% beer.  Any fan of fall seaosonal ales, winter ales, barley wines, or well … brown sugar… are sure to enjoy this. Get some.

Sweet Heat by Burnside Brewing Co. (Oregon): It wouldn’t be right if at least one Northwest beer wasn’t on the list. Make no mistake though, this one didn’t make the cut just to fulfill a quota. Sweet Heat is wheat beer flavored with apricots, and then “dry hopped” with peppers added during the fermentation process. I am typically not a fan of many fruit beers – but the apricot in this is just right; it is not overwhelmingly sweet or fruit heavy at all. I’m a sucker for all things spicy and will try any beer with peppers in it – though only a couple have crossed my palate and left me thinking “NAILED IT!”… Add this one to that list! I can’t say I’ve noticed if Burnside Brewing is distributed to the Seattle area at all, but I can’t wait to try more of their beers on my next Portland trip. Given the lack of solid pepper beers on the market (especially any that come bottled!), I will have to stock up on bombers of this winner!

Autumn Maple by The Bruery: I found myself in several staring matches with bottles of Autumn Maple at my local Whole Foods the last few week, only to be turned away by the sticker price. I finally gave it a shot after finding it on tap last week – and since then I’ve already picked up a bottle! Take the pumpkin ale spices you’re used to, add them to a belgian strong ale, mix in some maple syrup – and you’ve got a delicious 1 beer buzz. Seriously, a very smooth 10% ABV – Autumn Maple had me feeling it halfway through my first glass and then feeling little else after glass 2.

75 Minute IPA by Dogfish Head Craft Brewery: Depending on the day you ask, I’ll either tell you my go-to beer of choice is Dogfish Head’s 90 Minute IPA, Boundary Bay’s IPA, or Double Mountain’s India Red Ale. I have an impossible time narrowing it down any further than that. I’m a self proclaimed Dogfish fanboy – and anything they’ve put out in the IPA family has been a winner (60, 90, and 120 minute IPAs, Squall, Aprihop, and Burton Baton are all must tries – and all with very different flavor profiles).  I had heard the myth there was such a thing as the 75 minute IPA, but it wasn’t until a couple weeks ago it found its way to shelves in Seattle. A blend of the 60 and 90 minute IPAs? And it’s dry hopped and bottle conditioned with maple syrup? Hell yes I’ll try some of that!  Unfortunately you’re not likely to find this one on shelves anywhere, as with most limited releases from Dogfish this baby came and went fast. Fortunately for me I have 2 more bottles. I suppose a follow up post with a side-by-side comparison of 60, 75, 90, and 120 Minute IPAs is in order – DARN! 😉

And now, some beer porn:

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New-To-Me Beers of the Week

Two years ago, I used to make sure that every weekend I tried at least two beers I had never previously tasted. On most weekends, I would snag a couple bombers of something new-to-me, and the rest of the weekend would be dedicated to bottles of 90 Minute IPAs from Dogfish, or pints of Boundary Bay’s IPA if pub crawlin’ was on the itinerary. Nowadays, I can’t remember the last time I stuck to the same beer for more than 2 consecutive pints, let alone a weekend. If memory serves me correctly, this weekend 9 new beers crossed my palette (That’s a big IF – hat tip to my Untapp’d account on the assist in recalling most of this weekends brews). Some were amazing, all were drinkable, and holy hell were they all over the flavor spectrum. Starting with the ones I enjoyed the most, here are the brews I discovered this week that you should give a shot:

Jacobite Ale by Traquair House Brewery: Having never previously heard of this Scotch ale, I will damn sure be on the lookout for it whenever I’m stocking up at bottle shops from now on. This was the last beer I needed to try to complete my Pike Brewing Passport (more on that later), so maybe I was too busy tasting sweet victory to be objective about the flavor of this beer – but damnnnn it was delicious.  If you’ve never had a Scotch Ale, you’re missing out – and while I’d prefer to steer you towards something local like Pike’s Kilt Lifter or Boundary Bay’s Scotch Ale, you can’t go wrong starting here with your exploration of this style.

Belgian Pale Ale by Reuben’s Brews: I’m a sucker for Belgian ales of all kinds, but particularly Belgian Golden or Pale Ales. This beer from Ballard’s newest brewery was perfect – tasted so true to style, and has me eager to try and brew up my own Belgian Pale.

Hip Hoppy Party Time!!! Ale by Epic Ales: Sour ales are my new addiction – and while I’ve found most of my friends who try their first sour ale are quickly turned off, I still say everyone needs to give Sour Ales a try for themselves. This was one of the more intriguing Sour Ales I’ve had to date – I don’t know there’s another one out there packed full of IBUs. Cody at Epic Ales nailed it with this, the hop overload actually paired well with the sour punch in the mouth. Find a bottle of this while you can in Seattle area bottle shops or Whole Foods stores in the area.

Pumpkin Rye by Reuben’s Brews: Mmmmm, rye and Pumpkin spice? Yes please. Not much on the actual pumpkin flavor, but there rarely is with pumpkin beers. This beer was frickin delicious. Reuben’s Brews was the big winner in my book this weekend – I tried 3 of their beers at The Beer Junction in West Seattle, and they were all so damn good that I’ll be doing my tastebuds a disservice if I don’t get out to the brewery in Ballard for a taster flight and to fill a growler in the next week or so.

Yellow Wolf Double IPA by Alameda Brewing Co.: Badass IIPA, not too over the top on hops at all, and as far as double IPAs go you could keep powering this baby without OD’ing on IBUs.

Wild Wild Wet Fresh Hop by Terminal Gravity Brewing (TG): I’ve been a fan of their IPA for a while now, and their tap handles are sweet as hell too. I was a bit buzzed by the time I got to this pint, but from what I recall the hop flavor was all over the map and If i were to guess, they mixed in more than a couple varieties of fresh hops into this batch of deliciousness.

Raspberry Wheat by Cascade Brewing Company: Full disclosure: I’m not a fan of fruit beers, and probably would not have ordered this if I had known that it wasn’t a sour ale (most of Cascade Brewing’s beers I come across seem to be sour ales). But to my surprise, I thoroughly enjoyed this fruit-heavy-flavored wheat beer. It smelled like fresh raspberry jam, and was quite refreshing. The color was beautiful – in fact it was surprisingly clear for a wheat beer.

’til next week…

Mr. Open Container


Finished off the Passport in Style!


My first taste of Reuben’s Brews

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