Whew. What a month. Busy with family, finishing a dissertation, and a vacation. Plus all the other projects are bubbling along nicely, sometimes quite literally. Take, for instance, the batch of beer in the basement. The airlock on the carboy is glugging along about once every 8 seconds or so as the gases made by the yeast escape. Since taking up the mantle of homebrewers, our carboy has been filled with one beer after another. I wanted to introduce the basic process of beer making for the blog, focusing on the extraction of sugars from grain. Then I’ll talk about a recent batch that has already been bottled, an Indian Red Ale, with a cost analysis, tasting notes, and then some tips on how to make the brew day work a little easier.
Tradition: All brewing works on the same principle: the yeast eats the sugars extracted from the grains to produce alcohol. The hops are a more recent brewing staple in history; they add flavor and are anti-microbial, helping to keep the beer from spoiling.
Intermediate Brewing: The line between basic and intermediate brewing seems to fall between all-extract and partial-extract brewing. Malt extracts are made by companies who malt the grain, extract its sugars, and convert it into a concentrated liquid or dried form. Homebrewers can then use 100% extracted sugars for the base of the brew, which is what the yeast will eat. Starting with extract saves a lot of time. Basically, you can add extract to water and then jump right to the hour-long boil when hops are added to give the beer its bitter flavor. Cool, rack with yeast, wait for the critters to do their work, bottle. This yields perfectly good beer, but it puts an intricate part of the process in the hands of others.
Partial-extract brewing begins to bring extracting sugars from the grains back into the homebrewing process. It is a bit like cooking from fresh ingredients rather than out of the can or out of the box. Like making pancakes from scratch. It takes more time and knowledge, but you gain flexibility, control, and a higher-level awareness of your beer. You get to work with grain rather than syrup or powder, bringing you closer to the natural reality of the process.
Malting: Think of grain growing in the field. Ok. It is a harvested seed. We’re working mainly with barley, but some beers use rice or wheat. From seed to malt is a genius process. The grain is wetted so that it begins to germinate, transforming (via the seed’s own enzymes) its starchy energy reserves into a form that the plant will use to grow. Before the little tail / sprout emerges from the seed, the grain is dried out in a kiln. The temp at which this happens roasts the grain (kinda like coffee), developing color and flavor. Bam. Malt. This takes around a week. I haven’t done this yet, but keep an eye on the blog this fall.
Extracting Sugars (Mashing): Unless you help it out, however, most of the malt’s raw materials (sugars and proteins) will remain locked away in forms that the yeasts cannot eat. Mashing is the process by which the homebrewer converts them into a fermentable “wort.” Really the enzymes do the work, the homebrewer just sets the conditions for the process. The enzimes cut up the long molecules into shorter bits, making them available to the yeast. From 140F to 150F the wort produced is more fermentable than that produced from 150F to 160F, based on which enzymes are active. (Check this book out if you want an in-depth rundown on the process, along with other enzyme processes.)
To mash, you mill the malted grains, exposing the kernels. A roller grain mill smashes the grains apart, rather than shearing them. This affects the surface area during the soak and the overall quality of the beer, but we’ll save that for another time perhaps. A mash tun is a bit of equipment that allows for controlled temperature during the mash, but I don’t have one yet. Instead, I’ve been using a grain bag in a pot, wrapped in towels for insulation. You get the temp set and let it sit for an hour or two while the sugars extract from the grain and the enzymes render them useable.
Ok, so why partial rather than full? There is the line where you can get away with less equipment if you do a partial mash (steeping of grains) + extract base, and you still save time. Basically, doing a partial mash allows you to convert sugar from, say, three to five pounds of grain with relative ease. Then you add roughly five or six pounds of pre-made malt extract to flesh out the mash. This splits the difference, giving you some control over your flavors, keeps the mashtun optional, and hastens the brewing process. I haven’t done the full mash yet, but I’ll be building the equipment for it this summer and will post about it once I can speak from experience.
Final Boil: From there, you combine your homemade wort and the pre-made malt extract in a kettle, boiling for one hour. During this, you typically add a “bittering” hop early, then a second and even a third “aroma” hop addition later. The idea is that by not boiling the “aroma” hops for more than a few minutes, their floral flavors remain in the beer. Then you cool the wort, put it in the carboy, and add yeast. I’ll post more about hops, which are a flower, later this year. We’re growing a few varieties in the garden.
India Red Ale:
The pictures above show the IRA being made, based on a recipe by Randy Mosher.
The grain bill calls for differing amounts of Munich, medium crystal, dark crystal and black patent malts. The hops were Cascade (bittering), plus Cascade and Goldings (aroma).
Cost: The total cost of this beer was a little high because of the different grains. Some I had to buy a whole pound even though the recipe called for half or less. The total cost for hops and prorated grains, plus tax, came to $52, not counting the yeast. I used a White Labs yeast strain (WLP001: California Ale Yeast), spawned from a previous batch. I think it cost around $7.50 originally.
Yield: So what did I get? 25 bombers, the equivalent of roughly two cases of beer – $26 a case. Compares favorably to craft beers at $33 – $37 per case before tax.
This is actually quite expensive, and I’ve already begun efforts to reduce costs. (Reusing yeast from batch to batch, growing hops, looking for volume discounts.) I’m not sure it pays yet: a $20 payout (the difference between cost and estimated value) doesn’t begin to reward the time it takes to brew at this volume. However, at this point I’m still learning (increasing knowledge and skills), and the savings can count toward recouping equipment investment. The most recent beer was in the neighborhood of $20/case, yielding about a $30 offset. Over 5 batches since the beginning of the year, that equates conservatively to roughly $100. What a great reason for brewing more beer!
Flavor: The flavor is a bit sweeter than I tend to prefer and the hops a little subtle. I’m hoping that as it continues to age its sweetness will mellow out a bit. The rich red color is quite eye catching. I might not want to drink this beer by itself too often, but it was an exceptional pairing to last night’s diner: braised pork shanks and polenta.
1. Plan to cook a dinner that will be very hands-off after a long day in the kitchen. I suggest a slow-cook soup or stew.
2. If you bottle the previous batch on the same day that you brew, you can reuse the yeast – saving cost.
3. Like canning, you will spend a lot of time waiting for the beer to hit boiling and then to cool. You can use techniques (like adding a lid or stirring the beer to cool) to speed up this time.