Posts Tagged ‘Home Brew’

Welcome to the new year! 2010 is history and the start of the second decade in the new millennium is underway. Here is the second installment of On Beer and DIY Home Brewing Basics and I am going to be writing about the raw materials that go into making your own beer. Knowing about your ingredients is a good place to start when we are talking about the nitty gritty details of home brewing. Just like cooking good food, home brewing starts with a working knowledge of not just the process and a good recipe, but how the ingredients interact with each other. The first beer ever made was most likely an accident; a bowl of grain was left out in the rain, sat out in the warm temps for a few days and collected wild microbial critters (yeast) from the air, and proceeded to ferment and become the first ancestor to what we now call beer! What kind of person would have looked at that foamy, stinky bowl full of grain and rain water and thought it would be a good idea to drink it. Somebody who didn’t waste anything; they were probably mad enough that they forgot about that bowl of grain – now it was ruined, but wait, there is something appealing about that bubbling mass of liquid. Nobody is looking, “I’ll just have one sip!” Well that one sip changed history. Like I mentioned in my previous post, human desire for that unique and wonderful beverage changed history forever. Specifically, our relationship with agriculture and the growing of cereal grains.

Pilsner malt on the left, and home roasted Munich malt on the right!

Those first grains that lured people away from their nomadic life styles were wild grasses that have continued to evolve even into the present. The most common brewing grain used in the western world today is barley. Other common grains include wheat, rye, oats, maize, rice and many others specific to individual bio-regions. The majority of grains used today for brewing are first malted, which is the conversion of starch into sugar – remember, yeast loves to turn sugar into alcohol. The malting process has individual books written about that subject, so this will be a very brief overview – the grain is first soaked for a certain length of time (we will say 2 days). At that point, the wet grain is drained and then spread thin to dry and sprout. When the grain has sprouted it is allowed to grow, once again, for a certain length of time. When the maltster has decided it is time, the sprouted grain is killed by a controlled heating called kilning. In the old times that was achieved over an open, smoky fire. That process has changed and developed over the centuries, and now there are giant facilities dedicated to malting grains. The grain is now ready to use, it’s starch has been converted to sugar and is now called malt.

Hops from my garden!

People started drinking this simple grain beverage and, because of the curious nature of humans, started to experiment with other ingredients. Different herbs and flowers eventually found their way into the brew kettle. Some were used for magical purposes, some for preservation, and others just because they added pleasant flavors. Some examples include heather, juniper berries, and all sorts of culinary and medicinal herbs. The introduction of humulus lupus, or hops (the main “herb/flower” used today in brewing) most likely started in Europe and was recognized for its superb preservative qualities and pleasant bittering flavors. Because a beverage made with just malted barley is so sweet, people have always tried to balance that sweetness with a bittering agent. Hops are that plant, and are perfectly evolved for their use in beer. Hops contain many chemical compounds that play many different roles in beer, but the main one that I will discuss is alpha acid. Alpha acid is a measure of bitterness in a hop. It is what helps preserve beer and is a natural anti-fungal and anti-microbial. The amount of alpha acid in a certain variety of hop can help you decide on how much to add to a batch of beer; it will have different aromas and flavors, and ultimately it will determine how bitter the final product will be. The alpha acids in hops also contribute to the head retention in a beer, think of a big burly IPA with a thick, creamy head that will not go away. Some people really like hoppy – bitter beer, others prefer one more balanced where there is still a malt character that shines through.

Coriander and bitter orange peal are traditional ingredients in Belgian farm house ales!

What ever kind of palate you have, there is a hop out there that will please your taste buds; but just because hops are the dominant bittering herb used nowadays in mass produced beers, don’t let that stop you from experimenting with some of the older ingredients. The book Sacred and Healing Beers by Stephen Harrod Buhner delves into the history of pre-hopped beer. Not your traditional home brewing manual, this book is packed with history on ingredients, recipes and many other aspects of ancient uses of alcohol. Another great resource on brewing, but also information on different malts and hops is Randy Mosher’s Radical Brewing, probably my all time favorite book on brewing.

The foam on top is yeast doing it's job, making alcohol!

This brings us to the last two ingredients in beer, yeast and water. Yeast is what makes beer and wine alcoholic. Yeast eats up the sugar; whether that sugar comes from malted grain or from fruit, and turns it into something magical. Yeast contributes many flavors and aromas, and in an unfiltered beer or wine, protein, minerals, and vitamins. Yeast is also what makes an unfiltered beer a living food. Yeast is a single celled fungus, it is alive and multiplies and grows when it is given the right conditions. Yeast is also why in the ancient world fermentation was considered an almost magical or religious event. Nobody knew what was happening – what was causing all the bubbles and foam to appear? Well now we know, it was yeast. Finally we come to water. Beer is ninety percent water, and it plays a very important role in the final outcome of beer. The chemistry behind water and how it reacts with the malt, hops, and yeast is beyond my knowledge, but here are the basics. Obviously you want to start out with good, clean water. Most commercial breweries use there local city water. It is reliable, relatively clean, and very consistent as far as mineral content goes. Filtering the city water to remove chlorine and other chemicals is advisable, but I have made beer straight from the tap with no problems. The mineral content of water, how hard or soft it is also plays a role. Traditional ales from England typically used harder water and it impacts how the hops come out in the finished brew, where as in the city of Pilsen (the home of Pilsner beer), the water is very soft with almost no mineral content and that makes for a very smooth, crisp brew.

Like all other aspects of brewing, if you want more knowledge about water and how it plays a role in beer, there are plenty of resources out there to help you out. So if you got this far in the article you probably have a little bit better understanding of the main ingredients that go into making beer. A lot of this information just touches on the basics, but it is enough to get started, and to also make some damn good beer. In the next chapter I will be talking about equipment and the actual brewing process and present an actual recipe for a batch of beer. Until then remember this – Beer has food value, but food has no beer value! Cheers!

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 Beer is as old as human civilization, and probably one of the main reasons we as humans decided to settle down and become farmers. Upon that first taste of fermented grains and the effects bestowed upon the imbiber, humans have had a very intimate relationship with beer and the brewing process and realized they could not have this wonderful beverage by remaining hunters and gatherers. Everything from farming practices, plant genetics, religion and early tax codes were influenced by the production of grain and the malting and fermentation processes. At first beer was considered more of a food, rather than just a beverage that made you feel better (although that was a nice side effect). Being that early beer was laden with yeast, protein, minerals and vitamins, beer literally was liquid bread, and also a vital source of clean water due to the fermentation process. Beer was used as a means of paying common laborers as much as it was used in celebration in the halls of kings. Throughout history beer has played an important role in the shaping of our society and communities, and to this day it is still inspiring governments, corporations, and poets alike.

Until recently (recent being the last couple hundred of years), beer was mainly a cottage industry, brewed within the household or small community and consumed by those same people. There have always been exceptions to that rule, larger breweries have been around for a long time usually coinciding with a larger urban area (think London). With the advent of the industrial revolution and the harnessing of coal-powered steam engines (for the factories and the railways), breweries were able to exponentially grow and provide beer to an ever larger segment of the population. This one point in history can be looked at as the start of the decline of the original home brewing cottage industry. Sure there were households that held onto family recipes and continued to homebrew, and the rare small town brewery that was able to survive, but the majority of brewing switched to highly efficient, urban breweries producing millions of barrels of beer per year. This is essentially where we are today with a few exceptions. Anyone reading this blog who lives in America knows that up until the last ten or twenty years, beer in America was pretty awful. Gigantic corporations were and still are brewing beer that has no flavor or unique characteristics that are meant to appeal to a mass amount of people. Budweiser, Michelob, Coors etc… are all essentially the same piss water that most people think is beer. Thankfully, starting in the mid 1980’s and continuing to this day there has been a craft beer revolution. It started very small with breweries like Anchor and Sierra Nevada out west in California, Summit and Boulevard in the Midwest, and a handful of others throughout the nation. That revolution has now grown and you would be hard pressed not to find some kind of craft beer in your liquor store or local pub. For as welcome and wonderful as those well crafted, flavorful beers are, my preference in beer still lies with home brew.

I brewed my first ever batch of beer when I was a failing, eighteen year old college student. A friend of mine gave me some very basic home brewing equipment and ingredients, so I thought I would give it a try. I had no idea what I was doing, but I was eager to learn so I brewed up that first batch in the common kitchen in the dormitory basement. I fermented the batch that spring in my dorm room closest, flunked all my classes except for level one canoeing, and got a job on an organic CSA. I cracked the top off my first bottle shortly after that and was surprised that it actually worked. It tasted pretty good, had carbonation and I think I probably caught a buzz. I wish I could say that I have been brewing ever since, but sadly that is not the case. Through a number of moves, that original equipment was lost and about four or five years passed before I brewed again. Since then I have learned an awful lot about beer and some of the chemistry behind it, I have built up a nice collection of brewing equipment, and have developed a greater and more mature appreciation for the beverage we call beer. This is the first installment of posts that I am going to dedicate to that holy beverage and it’s production on the small, home brewing scale. Cheers!

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