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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About mropencontainer

Homebrewer, beer lover, taking in the Pacific Northwest one barstool and pint at a time!
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