And Now, For Something Completely Different

In the curious way that these things often happen, all of a sudden and out of nowhere, over the last short while quite a number of different people have asked me about making beer. Just a couple weeks ago, even my mom –who I don’t believe would drink a beer if you paid her to do it– asked me how I make it. It’s like the universe, at least my little corner of it, is trying to tell me (or, in this case, ask me) something.

Of course there is obviously no shortage of readily available information about homebrewing. But on the other hand, I’ve been brewing my own beer for well over 15 years, and I do refer to the operation as “Brick Pig Brewing.” And this is the Brick Pig Blog, after all. So why not hang in here with me for a few paragraphs and let’s see how this goes, eh?

OK, then.

I do what’s referred to as extract brewing, and it’s really a two-part process: There’s brewing day, and then two or three weeks later there’s bottling day. As it happens, last weekend (May 4) I did both, brewing up a new batch of Bitters while simultaneously bottling up a batch of Grape Nuts Ale that I brewed several weeks ago (yes, Grape Nuts, the breakfast cereal). Since, as I said, several people had recently asked me about brewing, I took some pictures of both processes. Although I brewed and bottled at the same time, I’ll present both separately. This definitely will not constitute a complete guide to brewing, but it will give you an overview of how it’s done in the Brick Pig Brewing kitchens.

NOTE: If this does happen to inspire you to give homebrewing a try, you can buy all the equipment you need to make beer, plus a copy of The Complete Joy of Homebrewing, which is considered to be the bible of the hobby, for under $100. Recipe ingredients run anywhere from around $25 per batch on up. If you don’t have a homebrew supply store near you, there are tons of online sources.

BREWING DAY:

Some stuff soaking in sanitizer.

The first and most vitally important thing about brewing beer is sterilizing your equipment. Nothing is more likely to screw up your beer than a stray microbe. Fortunately there are a number of products on the market that make sanitizing a simple prospect. I use a powdered sanitizer that simply has to be mixed with warm water and sloshed on, around, over, and through every item that’s going to touch your beer. You don’t even have to rinse it. Once everything is sanitized, you’re ready to brew.

Most brewing recipes assume a 5-gallon batch of beer, which will eventually result in roughly two cases (48 bottles) of finished beer. Sometimes you’ll get 46 bottles, sometimes you might get 50. Regardless, you’re going to start with two gallons of water in a REALLY big stock pot, which, when you’re brewing, you call a “brew kettle.” While the water is cold, you put any flavoring (or “specialty”) grains into a muslin bag and plop it in. These grains will steep as the water comes to a boil.

Steeping grains

Malt extract (in plastic tub) waiting to go in after the grains steep

When you reach the boiling point, you remove the specialty grains, turn off the heat, and stir in your extract. (Malt extract is basically the sugar from malted grains, in a concentrated syrup or powder form.) Now what you’ve got is called “wort.”

Extract going in

You want to bring the wort back up to just a low, rolling boil. Nothing too violent; just a touch more than a simmer, really. From this point you boil the wort, uncovered, for 60 minutes, during which time you’ll be making periodic additions of hops.

Hops, which is available in leaf or pellet form, will largely determine the flavor profile of your beer. There’s an enormous variety of hops available, each with its own flavor profile, and your recipe will tell you which kind(s) to use. Just as importantly, it will also tell you when to add them to the wort.

Generally speaking, you add the first hops as soon as the wort reaches the aforementioned gentle rolling boil. This first dose is known as “bittering hops,” because it mostly serves to cut the sweetness of the malt. (This is the point in the brew when your entire house will start to smell like a brewery, and your wife –if she’s like mine– will start complaining about it. That’s how you know that, so far, you’ve done everything right.) Later on, usually between the 30 and 45 minute mark, you’ll add more hops, which are called “flavoring hops.” Finally, in the last 2 to 5 minutes of the boil, the “aroma hops” go in.

Bittering hops just added. You can see the green floating on top.

At the 60-minute mark, you remove the brew kettle from the heat and chill the wort to (more or less) room temp. There are all kinds of devices on the market, called “wort chillers,” appropriately enough, that will bring your wort temp down lickety-split. But I just fill my sink up with ice water, cover the kettle, and sit it in the water for 30 minutes. This won’t bring it to room temp, but it gets it low enough for the next step, which is to pour the wort into the primary fermenter.

“Primary fermenter” is fancy terminology for “5-gallon food-grade plastic bucket.” (As is evident in the pictures, I almost always use a glass carboy instead of a bucket, but it’s really all the same.) You pour the wort into the bucket (or carboy), and add enough cold water to it to bring the total volume up to a full 5 gallons. Using my method of wort chilling, the ice water sit combined with this added cold water will bring the wort to room temp, as desired. You’re shooting for room temp because that’s where the temp needs to be in order for you to “pitch” your yeast. “Pitch” is not-so-fancy terminology for “pour in.”

Carboy (“primary fermenter”) filled, yeast pitched.

Now you put in an airlock (I use an old-school blowoff tube), sit the primary in a place where the temp will remain stable and where there won’t be any direct light, and wait.

Primary with blowoff tube

Clean up your kitchen, ‘cuz brewing day is over.

Sometime over the next 24-48 hours, the airlock (or in my case, the blowoff) will start to bubble, just a little at first, but then very actively over the next few days. This is the result of the yeast doing it’s work, converting the sugars in the wort into alcohol. The airlock allows the resultant gases to escape without allowing air to get into the fermenter. This process will continue for several days, maybe as much as a week or so. There are procedures you can do to measure the alcohol level and determine when the conversion process has finished, but I personally just let it sit there for a couple of weeks, until long after the bubbling has stopped. At this point, I normally transfer (or “rack”) to another carboy (“secondary fermenter”) and let it sit for a minimum of one more week. This is not a necessary step, but it gets the beer off the cake of sediment (“trub”) that collects at the bottom of the primary, and gives the beer more time to clear. Either way, what you’ve got when the bubbling is over is no longer wort. It’s beer.

Congratulations.

Two problems:

  1. It’s completely flat; no carbonation at all.
  2. It’s really difficult, and socially questionable, to drink from a bucket.

The solution to both these problems:

BOTTLING DAY:

Sanitized bucket, siphon parts, and tubing

Again, it is impossible to express how important sterilization is to the homebrewer, so out comes the powdered sanitizer once more. Just as on brewing day, everything that’s going to touch your beer has to be sanitized. Have I mentioned this is really important? If not, let me say: sanitizing is really important.

Caps going on to boil

In addition to sanitizing the bucket, tubing, siphon, and other equipment, the bottles and caps also have to be sanitized. I usually boil the caps, and fortunately my dishwasher has a sanitizing setting I use for my bottles.

Steaming hot, sanitized bottles

When that’s done, I dissolve about 3/4 cup of cane sugar (also called “priming” sugar) into a few ounces of water, bringing it just to a boil. This goes into my (sanitized) bottling bucket, which is another 5-gallon bucket exactly like the fermenter, except that it has a spigot on it. Anyway, the beer is then siphoned into this same bucket, mixing with the sugar water. After bottling, this sugar will activate the yeast one more time, just enough to carbonate the beer.

Siphoning into the bottling bucket

With the beer siphoned over to the bottling bucket, you’re ready to fill your bottles. (By the way, if you’ve thought ahead enough to sanitize a shot glass or something, you can snatch a little taste of your brew. What it tastes like now is pretty much exactly what it’s going to taste like later, except that it’s not carbonated yet.) A bottle filler is a rigid plastic tube with a spring-loaded attachment on the end. Apply pressure, and beer flows. Release the pressure, the flow stops. You can connect the bottle filler to a flexible tube and push it down into the bottles, but I generally connect the filler directly to the spigot and push the bottle up onto it. Same principle, but for some reason this method works better for me.

Filling the one of the last few bottles.
(Photo courtesy Brian Glaser)

If you have a helper, this is a great point in the process for them to lend you a hand. (And there’s nothing smelly about bottling day, so your wife –if she’s like mine– might be willing to assist.) It really works well, and goes much faster, if one person fills the bottles while the other person caps them. My buddy Brian (of Two Jews Brew fame) did some of the capping duties on this particular day. I forgot to get a picture of the capping, but basically you place a cap on the bottle and use a little spring-loaded butterfly device to crimp it on.

Capped and crated

Like I said, you’ll get more or less two cases of beer from a 5-gallon batch. This time my yield was 46 bottles. Anyway, once they’re all filled and capped, you put them back in your temp-stable, light-protected spot, and wait some more.

Clean up your kitchen again. Bottling day is over.

Sometime over the next week or two, your beer will become carbonated and ready for the fridge. The only way to know for sure when this happens is to open one up and try it. I usually try one after a week, but I find most often that they’re really ready on about day ten.

Flemish Red from a previous batch

So there you have it, kids. In a nutshell, that’s how it’s done.

Cheers!

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