Posts Tagged ‘Home Brewing’

Cheers Mates!  This is a nice shot of the hot water tank, mashtun, and the kettle slowly being filled!  This is part of sparging, or in simpler terms, washing the grain of all of its sugary goodness...

Cheers Mates! This is a nice shot of the hot water tank, mashtun, and the kettle slowly being filled! This is part of sparging, or in simpler terms, washing the grain of all of its sugary goodness…

A few years ago I started a series of essays dedicated to homebrewing (Part 1, Part 2, & Part 3 can be found here).  At the time when those articles were written I was still working in the brewing industry.  Since then, as I have alluded to in a few recent posts, I am no longer working in the adult beverage industry and glad of it.  But that has not diminished my love of beer or of brewing it.  In fact, now that I am no longer surrounded by beer and all the things (both good and bad) that happen in a brewery on a daily basis, I now have much more time for family and hobbies.  And because of that, my passion for the actual brewing process has had a bit of a renaissance.  Due to the cold winter and some breaks from the school that I now work at, I have had ample time to brew and bottle a bunch of batches of beer, improve upon my brewing skills, and more importantly getting my home brewery cleaned and organized.


This article is going to explore some of the equipment, space requirements, and other resources that make for a successful and awesome DIY home brewery.  Like so many homesteading projects and hobbies, there are basic procedures, guidelines, and equipment that should be followed to end up with a good result.  Think about canning as an example.  When you set out to can tomatoes, make preserves, or whip up a batch of pickles, you do not try and reinvent the wheel each time.  We know through the scientific process and observation throughout the years that certain recipes, amounts of acidity, appropriate sugar and salt content, and proper processing methods and times lead to a successful end result that will not kill you or get you sick.  This is a good thing and is in place for a reason.


Here is the burner, and someday soon, a stove just for brewing.

Here is the burner, and someday soon, a stove just for brewing.

While brewing is a much more forgiving process in terms of the end product not killing you (at least not  because of crappy equipment or poor brewing methods), having the proper equipment and a decent comprehension of the process can lead to success more times than not.  But don’t let this fool you into thinking that it is a one size fits all approach.  There are quite a few variations on both equipment and procedure that can be adapted to your personal situation.  Do your homework and evaluate what kinds of resources you have available to use, and as Charlie Papizian once said, “Don’t worry, relax, and have a home brew”!  So what follows are some of my thoughts and ideas as far as my downstairs, DIY home brewery is concerned.


Making Space – As most homebrewers can attest to, having a dedicated spot to do your brewing is sure a nice thing.  While it is easy enough to whip up an extract beer kit in your kitchen on a Saturday afternoon without ruining domestic bliss; when you start to move into all grain brewing you will find having a dedicated spot set aside from the kitchen can be a very nice thing for many reasons.  Due to equipment requirements and time constraints for all grain brewing, having a spot that won’t interfere with cooking dinner or story time can be very helpful.  In the summer, this problem is easily solved by moving the DIY brewery outside onto the deck, driveway, or garage.  But in the winter this can be a bit more problematic unless you have a heated garage.


Here is the maitnence department, one of my favorite rooms in my house!

Here is the maitnence department, one of my favorite rooms in my house!

I have chosen to locate my brewery in my basement.  It has taken a few years to get to where I am at (and honestly there is still more to do) but I am to the point where everything has its place, and because of a relatively organized work area, the process of actually turning malted grain into an alcoholic beverage has become more streamlined and efficient.   The most important aspect in the basement brewery is proper ventilation.  Because there is combustion going on (whether that is propane or natural gas) having fresh air coming in, and a vent to remove excess carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and moisture is very important.  In my case I have fresh air coming into the basement for my furnace, a small fan to help move it around, and a vent hood that is located right above my burner.  This has worked out very well for me, and the only improvement that still needs to be made is the installation of a stove (which is currently gathering dust in my garage) that will use natural gas instead of the propane burner that I currently use.  The new stove will burn more efficiently and safely, and will be in a permanent spot dedicated to brewing and maybe some canning in the fall.


Another nice aspect of having an area dedicated to brewing, such as a basement, is that all of my equipment, access to water, ingredients, and tools are all in close proximity to each other.  This helps out immensely, whether that is moving a full 6 gallon carboy into the fermentation cellar or if my mash tun bottom needs to be repaired on the workbench.  By having everything relatively close to each other, and stacking functions of all the different components, my basement performs many roles other than just a DIY brewery, but also a workshop, cellar, dry and bulk storage, a place to do laundry, and a quiet spot to cool off from the hot summer sun.


Equipment – For the all-grain home brewer, having the right equipment can be the difference between great beer versus swill.  In its most basic form, the brewing process is fairly simple, but having a few key pieces of equipment not only makes the process much easier, but can also lead to a better finished product.  As already mentioned, you need something to cook on.  A propane burner or kitchen stove is what most people will use.  Just make sure to have adequate airflow and ventilation and you shouldn’t have any problems.


Here is the corona grain mill crushing corn, or also known as maize that was used in a pre-prohibition lager.

Here is the corona grain mill crushing corn, or also known as maize that was used in a pre-prohibition lager.

One key piece that is absolutely necessary for the all grain brewer is some type of grain mill to crush your malt.  I use an older type of corona mill that I got from a friend.  It is a very simple piece of technology, but when it is dialed in properly, you can achieve a very nice finished crushed grain.  You do not want to turn your malt into flour, so having it properly set can take a little time and adjustment, and will vary depending on what kind of grain you are milling (barley, wheat, rye).  There are many models of grain mills you can purchase all the way from the type I have all the way up to double roller mills that can be powered by a hand drill.  What you decide to use depends on how much you brew, how much money you want to spend, and whether or not you want a machine doing some of the work for you.


Next up is a brewing kettle.  This will be your main vessel for heating water and boiling wort (beer before it is fermented).  I built mine out of an old ¼ barrel keg.  First I bled out any left over pressure that was still in the keg.  Second, using a reciprocating saw and an angle grinder, I cut out the top.  And third, I added a ball valve drain towards the bottom.  While I won’t go into specifics on how to install this part, it is a necessary component for an all grain brewing kettle.  If you have welding skills, or know of someone who does, this is a good way of adding this part, otherwise it can be installed using components that are threaded and within the abilities of most people to install themselves.


You will also need another kettle very similar to your brewing kettle to hold hot water for when you sparge your grains.  I use a four gallon stainless steel kettle that I purchased very cheaply from a grocery store.  It also has a ball valve drain added in the same fashion as the brewing kettle.


The all-grain brewer will also need a mash tun.  This is the vessel where the magic happens, where the starches that are locked in the malted grain are converted to sugar; the necessary ingredient for the yeast to do its job.  My mash tun is made out of an upright, 6 gallon cylindrical Rubbermaid cooler.  Where the original beverage spigot once was, it has been replaced with an almost identical ball valve that the brew kettle and hot water tank has.  Also, a false bottom was made out of coiled copper tubing, copper screen, and copper wire all rescued from the waste stream!


This is one of my storage areas.  Bottling equipment, buckets, and all manner of brewing stuff can be found on these shelves and pegboard.

This is one of my storage areas. Bottling equipment, buckets, and all manner of brewing stuff can be found on these shelves and pegboard.

Keeping on the subject of copper equipment, another nice item to include in your brewing setup, is a coiled copper wort chiller.  These can easily be made out of coiled copper pipe, rubber or silicon tubing, hose clamps, and threaded fitting that will fit a standard garden hose.  Cooling the wort as fast as possible to the desired temperature (about 70 degrees F) at the end of the brewing session is important, as it creates the perfect environment for the yeast to thrive and to turn sugar into alcohol.  The quicker the selected yeast can thrive and do its job, the less of a chance that the beer becomes infected with unwanted yeast or other bacteria.


There are also a few more pieces of equipment that you will need to finish your beer after it is done being brewed.  First is some kind of fermentation vessel.  Most homebrewers use glass or plastic carboys.  These containers range anywhere in size from a one gallon cider jug all the way up to 6 gallons.  They are easy to work with, relatively easy to clean and can be found at any home brewing store or mail order.  I have even found one at a garage sale, so keep your eyes open for unexpected deals.  The glass ones are my favorite, but you have to be careful.  Early on in my brewing, we dinged one on my old cement sink and that carboy exploded into a thousand pieces!  Be warned!


After fermentation is complete, the beer will either be bottle conditioned, or racked into kegs.  Each has its advantages, but for the purpose of this article I will only talk briefly about bottling beer.  I am not opposed to kegs, but I have never really done it so only want to speak to things that I have personal experience with.  For bottling, you obviously need bottles.  This ones easy, buy beer that is in bottles with pry off crowns – 12, 22, and 32 ounce bottles will all work.  And if you are cheap like I am, frequent the recycling bins of any decent beer bar and you will find more than enough bottles in very little time.  New crowns will also be needed as well.


Before actually bottling the beer, you will need a syphon to move the beer out of the carboy into what is called a bottling bucket.  Mine was purchased, but one could easily be made with the right parts.  It is just a 6 gallon food grade plastic bucket, with a spigot added towards the bottom.  You will also want a spring activated filling tube.  It sounds way more complicated than it is and will only cost a little bit of cash at a homebrew equipment supplier.  You will need some type of capper, and there are more than a few models to choose from.


Some milk crates performing one of their many functions in the home brewery, holding two batches of freshly bottled brew!

Some milk crates performing one of their many functions in the home brewery, holding two batches of freshly bottled brew!

Last but not least lets wrap up a few loose ends on the equipment front.  Milk crates are an invaluable resource to include in the DIY home brewery.  They can be stacked to create a higher work area or to hold different kettles and such.  Carboys fit in them perfectly, so when you find yourself with a 40 pound plus filled carboy, it is sure nice to have a way to move them around with something that has handles.  They also work great for storing both full and empty bottles.


A selection of hoses, a stainless steel shower head for sparging, food grade buckets, timers, thermometers, hand tools like screwdrivers and wrenches, smaller containers like cider jugs, quick release clamps, airlocks and bungs, pitchers, a spare scrap of 2×4, and other things I am sure I am forgetting can all come in handy at some point in the brewing process.  As you gain experience and get more batches into your belly and under your belt, you will figure out what kinds of things you may need for your specific setup for brewing.  Just remember, no two home breweries are going to be exactly a like, so be creative and use what you have available.


Time – Time may be the most important asset to have when it comes to all grain brewing.  You can count on at least 4 hours for a single session, but if you have more time available, and a streamlined setup and process, you can get 2 batches done in about 6 hours.  Doing it this way also cuts down on resources being wasted.  Then there will be anywhere from a week to a few months of fermentation and conditioning depending on the beer you are waiting to bottle.  Once it is in the bottle, it is usually carbonated within two weeks, but can occasionally take longer.  So while this may be the shortest section of this essay, time is essential.  Carve out a block of it and use it wisely, and learn to embrace patience and you will be rewarded with some great beer!


The cellar!  Three batches are against the right wall still fermenting, and dry storage and bottles of finished beer against the back wall.  This area also is filled with pickles and jams, and buckets of grains and beans.  A room all homesteads and hobbit holes should have.

The cellar! Three batches are against the right wall still fermenting, and dry storage and bottles of finished beer against the back wall. This area also is filled with pickles and jams, and buckets of grains and beans. A room all homesteads and hobbit holes should have.

To anyone with experience homebrewing, this essay is not breaking any new ground.  It has been a very basic overview of how I go about making a batch of beer and what has been working for me.  I really just scratched the surface of the process and the equipment needed to make good beer.  My intention was to show you some of the the basics to all grain brewing, and as a motivation to give it a try.  There are tons of resources available to the DIY homebrewer these days.  Books, videos, forums, and meet up groups are all avenues to learning more about this great hobby!  Two books that I highly recommend for the DIY homebrewer are Randy Mosher’s Radical Brewing, and The Alaskan Bootlegger’s Bible by Leon W. Kania.  Both of these books have great recipes and ideas for those of us who like to do things for ourselves and are just great reads.


While it may come across that I take this stuff really seriously, I actually don’t.  I am not a beer snob, but do enjoy a good beer!  It is a fun hobby, and a great way to spend the cold winters, but for me it is also a way to save a bit of money, build in a bit of resiliency into my life and still be able to enjoy a few pints of really good beer.  There are plenty of folks out there with more knowledge and know how than I have to offer, so seek that information out.  But to truly learn anything, you gotta get your hands dirty so give it a shot and brew some beer!  Start collecting the equipment you will need, buy your ingredients in bulk and begin your journey on the path of being a DIY homebrewer!  Peace & Cheers


Read Full Post »

A stock photo of me brewing beer in my basement brewery!!

A stock photo of me brewing beer in my basement brewery!!

As of late, I have found myself up on a blogging soapbox quite a bit, and thought it would be a good change of pace to get back into the nuts and bolts of what it means to be an Urban Homesteader. Two years ago I started a short series of posts on DIY home brewing and have not visited that topic since – time to talk about home brew again! Brewing beer is a hobby that is dear to my heart and unfortunately I don’t get to participate in it nearly as often as I would like too. There always seems to be a project that is a bit more important that needs to be finished, or gardens to tend too, or simply a lack of time and energy. Lately it has been finishing the interior of our new room – lots of cutting, staining, and nailing wood trim. I have been in need of a break from all this carpentry work, and found myself with the house to myself for a night, so I decided to brew up a couple of batches.

To be honest, I knew I was going to have the night to myself and had done some prep work in advance. First, two days before brewing I added a bit of sugar syrup to the Bavarian lager yeast to get that active and moving. Second, I got all my grain crushed for making a Pilsner, and got all my equipment set up. I left open the option for possibly making two batches of beer depending on how the first one went, and also how tired I might be by the end. The Pilsner was moving along great, I was feeling good and decided to go for it. So while the Pilsner was boiling away being bittered by the hops, I assembled and crushed the grains I would need for making my Black Rye lager (BRL) – basically a rye Porter, but fermented with the same Bavarian lager yeast used in the Pilsner.

So you may be noticing a common thread thus far, both beers I made are lagers. There are plenty of other websites and books out there that can tell you the fine details about yeast, so I will just leave it at this – lager yeast can ferment at cooler temperatures. Being that it is now winter in Minnesota, my basement cellar temps are in the low 50’s (Fahrenheit) , the perfect temp for lager beer fermentation. This also fits in perfectly with the Permaculture mantra “ Turn the problem into the solution”. I am partial to ales – Porters, ESB’s, Siasons, Wits, all of which prefer warmer temperatures for fermentation. So instead of using an electric heating pad to keep the active temperature of the beer higher for ale fermentation, using a lager strain of yeast removes the added input of electricity and keeps with the idea of seasonality. Lager beers in the winter, and ales in the summer – works for me!

Only once before have I ever made more than one batch of beer in the same day. There is a good reason for this. When you are an all grain brewer like myself, you are looking at a minimum of 3-4 hours for a five gallon batch. You need to figure in equipment setup, prepping all your ingredients (malted grain, hops, yeast, water), time allowed for heating water to various temps, at least an hour for mashing the grains, at least another ½ hour for sparging (washing the grains), an hour for boiling (this is when you add hops), another 15-20 minutes for cooling down the wort, and time for cleanup. Needless to say, there are many variables that play into the efficiency and total time of any particular batch of beer. Surprisingly, making more than one batch consecutively is one of them.

Here is why. When I brewed up two batches of beer one right after the other, I ended up doing less total work. I only had to setup the equipment once. While the first batch was on its one hour boil, I was able to stack jobs and get the grain prepared for the BRL. All the water used to cool the Pilsner was saved and was used in the production of the BRL, and all the water used to cool the BRL was reserved for cleaning, watering the chickens, and wetting down the compost (in the summer it would have watered plants in the garden). Finally, I only had to clean up and put away equipment once. So while it was still quite a bit of work, I was able to finish up two batches of beer in about 6 hours, not too bad!

One last point to take away on brewing two batches of beer on the same night. Without being able to tell you the exact amounts, a significant amount of both water and propane were saved by brewing two batches instead of just one. When cooling the wort of the first batch, the water that would otherwise go to gardens, chickens, compost piles, and cleaning gets diverted to food grade buckets and saved for the next batch. This water is hot, so barely has to get heated, if at all, to be used again. Right there you are saving on water, and a lot of extra propane. Doing the same thing at the end of the second batch also gives you about 10 – 15 gallons of hot water to do all your cleaning with. All in all, I figure I used about 22 gallons of water total to make 10 gallons of beer, that is pretty damn good.

Even the most green, resource aware craft brewer would be hard pressed to make numbers like that. It comes down to the fact that even if a company cares about energy and resource usage, the industrial process by its very nature just uses more of everything – water, fuel, chemicals, etc. There are tons of small, local brewers out there that are making kick ass beer, and we should support these people, but remember they are still making a product that you can make at home for less money and fewer resources than they can, and still have it be a great brew!

Hopefully I will be able to get a few more brewing sessions in this winter before things get crazy again in the spring! It is a great hobby, and one that truly has a wonderful outcome. If you have never brewed before, don’t be intimidated, anyone can do this! Read some books, start small, roll up your sleeves, and don’t be afraid to make a mistake or two! And if that advice isn’t good enough for you my friends, listen to the words of Home Brew guru Charlie Papazian– “Relax, don’t worry, have a home brew!” Peace & Cheers

Read Full Post »

John and Myself Toasting our 2012 Vintage Hard Apple Cider!!

Ahh, hard cider! What a wonderful beverage! Whether it is next to a warm fire reading a good book, or celebrating with friends and family, hard apple cider is one of my favorite drinks to tip back. While I do occasionally purchase a commercial brand of cider such as Strongbow, Samuel Smith’s or Angry Orchard, hard cider can only be truly appreciated when you have had a hand in its production. While nature does do most of the work, human intervention can make this beverage truly superb.

Back in about mid September, we helped our good friend and neighbor John, harvest his abundant crop of apples. Using my apple picker, and a son who would not get out of the tree, we picked two – 5 gallon buckets, and a bushel basket worth of truly beautiful apples. We kept the best, blemish free ones for eating and a bit of baking, and the rest John juiced up in his juicer. He ended up with close to three and a half gallons of raw cider.

Fermenting Cider!!

Once the raw cider was ready, John brought it over to my house so I could perform a bit of alchemy. Since I knew that I would be helping with the fermentation, I had already propped up some of my favorite Belgian Ale yeast that I have been using for over five years (more about this in a future post)! We pitched the yeast into the raw cider, and let nature take over. And take over nature did! In all my years of home brewing and cider making, I have never seen a batch of hooch take off like this one did! It was a good thing that we only had three and a half gallons, it almost overflowed my 5 gallon carboy. After 3 or 4 days of hard fermentation, it calmed down a bit, and continued for another week and a half. At this point it got racked into my bottling bucket, primed with a bit of sugar for carbonation, bottled up, and put up on the cellar shelf for two weeks to finish its fermentation journey.

This last Saturday we tried our first bottle (okay two, and while writing this tonight my third & fourth) and were completely blown away! The first words that come to mind are bubbly, dry, tart and a slightly astringent finish. This is definitely not a sweet cider – there is almost no trace of sugar in the taste or the mouth feel, and there are subtle hints of anise (in the nose and initial taste), raisin, and grape. It is a bright golden color with an alcohol content that I am guessing is around 5%. As a single varietal cider, made with an apple of unknown origin, this cider is excellent. While I think it could be improved by just a bit of sweetness to balance the tartness and astringent finish, this is no detriment to the overall quality of this cider . The good news is this – in the next year or two, a bunch of my apple trees should be coming into decent production. This means we will be able to start fermenting and blending ciders with multiple varietals and this will add character, depth, varying degrees of sweetness vs. tartness and terroir to our neighborhood cider. Along with my trees, there are also a handful of other neighborhood trees that will hopefully start to be harvested and used in the production of our cider. Like most good things we are starting small – 3 ½ gallons this year. Next year I hope to more than double that by using more of the available apples, and also improving our cidering equipment (stay tuned for details!!).  Happy cidering to all you Homesteaders out there… Wassail, Peace, & Cheers

Read Full Post »

Hey everyone!  A big heads up to anyone who is in the Twin Cities, Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin or other upper Midwest locations.  Some dear friends of mine are putting on a great event called the Gathering of the Guilds.  It is a chance for people to get together and talk gardening, permaculture, food justice and many more things. Please refer to the info below for details.  Hope to see you there!!  Peace & Cheers …..

Gathering of the Guilds – 3 Days of Permaculture Skill-shares, Workshops and Networking

September 14-16, 2012

At Harmony Park Music Garden (79503 298th St., Clarks Grove, MN 56016) Open Map

Gates open at Noon on Friday – Come early to set up your camp and help us create the event.


We will provide the infrastructure and logistical planning-YOU provide the knowledge. ALL SKILL LEVELS ENCOURAGED. This gathering will offer local permaculturists, farmers, gardeners, activists, and others a chance to spend a weekend sharing skills, making connections, and learning.

WE NEED YOU to facilitate a workshop or share a skill. Some ideas include:

  • Sheet Mulching
  • Animals in Permaculture
  • Hugelkulture
  • Composting
  • Urban Permaculture
  • Bees and Pollinators
  • Mushroom Cultivation
  • Vermiculture (Worms eat my garbage)
  • Seed Saving
  • Freezing, Canning and Drying
  • Fruit Tree Grafting
  • Humanure
  • Tree Pruning for Tree Health
  • Wild Edibles Walk
  • Grey Water Systems
  • Rainwater Catchment, Storage and Use
  • Seed and Plant Swap (Bring your extras and bring home some new additions)

This is a family friendly, drug and alcohol free event. There is onsite tent and RV camping, a Community Kitchen to provide 6 meals (bring your garden surplus to contribute), a kids space with ongoing activities.

We request a $20 donation to cover toilets, kitchen staples, and site rental.



For questions or to R.S.V.P please email:



Read Full Post »

Some of tomorrow's shining lights - My two kids at Split Rock Lighthouse!

I sit here this afternoon with a pint of my latest finished homebrew (a hoppy, brown lager), honoring the late freedom fighter Martin Luther King Jr. and thinking about all the current events of late. Another thing comes to mind, today is also the one year anniversary of this blog – Autonomy Acres! Yes, Autonomy Acres is one year old, and what a year it has been, not just for the blog, but for myself and family and the world as a whole. I look back at the first post I wrote, and compared to some of my most recent ones, I truly feel that I have grown as a writer. My motivations and intents for the blog have also evolved, I no longer feel obligated to post once a week (not that I ever really did to begin with!), but I feel more compelled to write quality articles rather than quantity. I have also been inspired by so many others out there doing similar things as me – El at Fast Grow the Weeds, Rob at One Straw, Novella Carpenter of Ghost Town Farm, Mike at New Growth, Ran Prier, John Michael Greer and all the folks at the Sustainable Country forum. The world we are entering due to climate change and Peak Oil (and most likely peak everything) is going to be a much different, and difficult world to live in. Autonomy Acres is just my response to our current predicament, so do not look here for a single answer to our problems. One thing I have learned in the last few years is this, if we are going to successfully survive and navigate this new planet and paradigm, then we need a thousand, or a million answers and responses to the problems we face, not just one. I live in Minnesota, and what works for me most likely won’t work for someone living in Florida, and vice versa. Also, we all have different skills, passions and hobbies. I write about what I know and love. As much as I’d like to tell you how to convert an alternator from a truck into a power generating, backyard wind turbine, I can’t (at least not right now!), but I can tell you a bit about apple trees, gardens, and home brewing (to list a few!). I really enjoy sharing my thoughts through a blog; when I was a punk rocker back in high school and college, I put together a few different ‘zines, and a blog is a lot like that. Blogs are not as personal or as fun to look at, but the information is there and the audience is much bigger and broader. As long as we still have the internet I will be publishing articles here at Autonomy Acres, but on a more sober note, it is all of our duties as citizens of this Good Earth, to be shining lights for our neighbors and communities. Peak Oil along with a chaser of climate change is forever altering our homes and lives and landscapes; and skills like knowing how to grow and preserve a portion of your own food, keeping yourself warm, animal husbandry, home repairs, and so many more will become a necessity in the near future – Peak Oil doesn’t just mean gas and fuel-oil rise in price, it also means transportation and production costs go up for everything. So in the mean time, hunker down and keep warm (we still got a little ways to go this winter!), read some good books, brew some beer, and continue adding skills and ideas to your tool box. See ’ya next time! Cheers!

Read Full Post »

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!

Read Full Post »

 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!

Read Full Post »