This is a bit of a departure for the blog, I suppose. Beer is bread in liquid form, in some sense, so it falls within my purview as the newly minted “Master of Yeasts”. (If I ever expand into cheesemaking it will have to become “Master of Fermentables” as cheese uses bacteria rather than yeast, as I understand it.) I have, in fact, been part of a wine-making partnership with another grad student, with our vintages up to this point having consisted of strawberry, strawberry, cherry (“featured” in the previous post), and strawberry (aging currently). He likes to say that brewing is perfect for the grad student, as you only need one day of activity, and then for the next few months (as the wine ferments and ages) you can spend 24/7 in the lab and still tell people that you have a hobby and thus appear well-rounded. Perhaps not all of us are so cynical in our outlook; I look on brewing as a profession of faith: that we can combine the most mundane of ingredients–grain, water, flowers–and with the spark of divine/fungal intervention we have ambrosia.
I’m not going to attempt to give you a complete how-to for homebrewing; I recommend Charlie Papazian’s excellent Joy of Homebrewing for that. Beermaking is not particularly any more complicated than cooking or baking, but the set of equipment required is somewhat specialized. The basic idea is as follows: barley is malted into “malt”, a syrup in which the grain has been converted into the sugar maltose. This is boiled and the “hops” (the flower of the hop plant) are added for their flavor and preservative properties. The resulting “wort” is cooled and put in the primary fermentation vessel (a.k.a. bucket or carboy) and the yeast is pitched (a.k.a. added). The beer then sits while the yeast converts the sugar into alcohol. Then it is bottled. There are a lot of funny terms, but there’s not much to it.
Since this was my first time making beer, I got a malt extract kit from Northern Brewer–the “Nut Brown Ale” kit to be precise. For detailed ingredients and instructions, go there. With malt extract, the malting has been done for you, so you just have malt syrup to boil. In this kit (and with many types of beer) there are “specialty grains” which are un- or partially-malted barley (or wheat, oats, etc) that are steeped prior to boiling the malt to give additional flavors (and colors) to the brew.
As any how-to-brew guide will tell you, sanitation is of paramount importance. Sanitize anything that comes into contact with your post-boiling wort/beer. This includes the carboy, siphoning hoses, funnels, yeast package, fermentation lock, bottles, caps, etc.
Ingredients (for 5 gallons, or about four dozen bottles)
1/4 lb chocolate malt (no actual chocolate)
1/4 lb Belgian Special B (not a designer drug, I promise)
1/4 lb Belgian Biscuit (no actual biscuits)
1/4 lb Briess Special Roast (no relation to coffee)
6 lb Maris Otter malt syrup
1 oz Fuggle (60 min)
Nottingham Ale Yeast
Steep the specialty grains in a mesh bag in 2.5 gallons water for 20 minutes (below 170 F). Remove and discard grains.
Bring to a boil and add malt syrup. Return to boil and add hops, and boil for 60 minutes.
Hydrate the yeast. Chill wort to 100 F. Fill the primary fermenter with 2 gallons (cold) water and pour in the cooled wort. Fill with water to 5 gallons. Aerate the wort by shaking/rolling around the carboy a bit. Once the wort has cooled to 78 F, add the yeast. Move to a cool, dark place.
For the first 24 hours, this bubbled pretty vigorously, so I had to use a blowoff hose (going into a bucket) as the fermentation lock popped off. After a day or so it had calmed down enough to use the fermentation lock.
After two weeks, it should be ready to bottle. Boil 16 oz of water with 1/2 cup priming sugar (i.e. regular sugar) and add to the beer. Siphon into bottles and cap. Return to cool, dark place.
After two more weeks, it’s ready to drink!
This ale was quite good for a first attempt. No strange flavors, exploded bottles, uncarbonated bottles, or anything like that. We got 43 bottles and 1 growler out of it. It worked out to 52 cents per bottle (ingredients only) , or $1.70 per bottle if you include the total expenditures (some equipment, ingredients, shipping & handling).