As a general response to certain current events, I find it necessary to list the ingredients in beer. Here they are. All of the main four (plus Irish moss), in various states of development and brewing. Feel free to send this link to anyone who demands a “full list of beer ingredients”
Got a special gal or guy in your life who is really into beer? Need to show your love for them on this totally not manufactured love-fest holiday? Not sure how to express your undying devotion but also your appreciation for their great taste in fermented drinks?
There are few things that simultaneously sting and soothe as much as sorting through the assorted material detritus of someone’s life. All the papers, the scribbles, the notes left hanging in the pulpy ether, inken echoes of a person’s voice on every leaf. Even the things that don’t bare their literal mark carry grainy nostalgic gravitas, reminders of how that person drove down the highways of time, what prosaic hour-fillers caused a traffic jam of commitment and desire in those relatively few moments we’re blessed with consciousness.
I was helping my mom with some simple jobs at her house, changing a light bulb here, replacing a battery there, organizing her transition into fiduciary executorship even farther over there. After I’d gotten the smoke detectors to screech their new battery announcement through the whole house, she asked if I’d take a look at a box in the garage. A box filled with wine.
I expected to find some store-bought merlots and cabernets, maybe some of the proverbial “good stuff” that my dad had hoarded away as an apocalyptic just-in-case. She pointed me to the decaying ruins of a red and white cardboard cube with eight emerald bottles sticking out like prairie dogs viewing the plain from the safety of their holey home. The bottles looked familiar, but distant, that friend from elementary school whose face changed just enough from the evolution out of childhood and into adulthood that you only recognize them after a few minutes of guarded, remote study. I knew these bottles at one time, maybe even filled them and corked them, but couldn’t triangulate when, or why, or how.
They were unlabeled (the hallmark of Gray family breweries), covered in silky webs and solid dust, and gave no hint of their contents. My dad had been as eccentric in his brewing as he had in the rest of his life: there was equal chance this was carrot wine, rhubarb wine, banana wine, or possibly even sour apple.
The only way to find out was to pierce the cork with silver spiral.
As the soft cylinder popped out, I was hit with oakey, odd aromas. Out of the bottle it was brandy-brown, liquefied caramel, chicken gravy made from homemade stock. Syrupy legs slipped their glassy nylons, slithering seductive and sexy. This was no normal wine. Suddenly, as woody wonder hit my tongue, I remembered.
When my parents moved out of and sold my childhood home, my dad had found a carboy deep in the under-stair recesses of the basement. The airlock was Sahara dry, and we assumed the six or so gallons was lost to oxidation and history. He had no idea what it was, or why he’d forgotten about it, so before we poured it out on Dionysus’s grave, we sampled it. Turns out he’d made sherry. Possibly accidentally. Accidental sherry that had aged for five plus years in quiet, unmolested darkness.
I helped him bottle it, and just like he had, let its existence slip the fetters of my memory. By the time I found it, it had lived another five peaceful years, watching, waiting.
To sip a ten year old sherry, made by your father’s hand, is to reconnect to the way he spent his time. It’s his last vintage, the final fading fermentation of a life that reached full attenuation months ago. And now it’s all mine, salvaged from a dusty garage, plucked from my memory, planted in front of me to raise in cheers of life gone and life yet to live.
Every time I homebrew, I eat a bunch of the ingredients. I scoop big soggy spoonfuls of spent grains from the mashtun and scarf them down like a heaping helping of Frosted Flakes. I nibble on hop cones and pellets, immediately regretting the decision as my mouth is berated by bitter fury. I’ve even sampled the yeast, which I cannot in any way recommend.
All in the name of knowing my ingredients better. I’m still, to this day, amazed that four relatively basic foodstuffs can ultimately turn into something as complex and complete as beer. So today, I’m going to shrink myself down (using my macro lens). Aided by my friend, J. Cousteau (no, that’s too obvious…we’ll go with Jacques C. instead), we’ll journey deep into the heart of the beer, discovering the natural beauty hidden in what some people may regard as simple ingredients.
You ready to go Jacques?
20,000 Leagues Under the Beer
We begin our journey as all who inevitably give into their wanderlust do, lost in fields of grain that blow sweet starchy scents across the nostrils of the soul. The endless plains of husks split and broken mimic Grecian ruins, bygones of a time lost to time, myth and legends seeping from their cracked remains. Every story ever told over a pint dwells in the history of this American 2 row. What do you see, Jacques?
Ze grain, she is beautiful and enigmatic, like a mermaid with a fish face and human legs.
Um, yes. I guess. Well said.
But beer never stays in one state too long; dry becomes wet, sugar becomes alcohol, the beer itself ultimately graces our toilet bowls as blessed urine. Next we move into the sea of mashtun, that veritable Aegean trapped inside a red Igloo™ cooler.
The water swirls together with the simple sugars. Frothy bubbles rise as the near-scalding water sucks the starch from the grain with time honed practice and honored tradition. The mash paddle breaks up doughy balls, setting the saccharides to work.
Ah, ze mashtun, ver ze hopes and dreams of all ze sugars come together. Bath time for ze dirty soul of la bière.
Dirty bath time indeed.
As the grains are baptized by almost boiling, we explore the other ingredients. With Jacques help, I cast a net out across the beery world, hoping to ensnare the most lupulus of the humulus, to pull from the deep hop fields of Yakima Valley.
We find half a pound of pure paradise.
Ze hops, zey look like ze shit of a horse.
What? No. These are decadently aromatic Citra hops pressed into pellets. They burst with fragrance, singing a bitter song to balance out their grapefruit guise. They are the beating heart of the beer, arguably the most distinctive ingredients in the sweet concoction…
Regarde comme de la merde.
The grain is spent now, all its energy taken by the water, two separate spirits now joined as one in wort. It pulled its content and color from the medley of different malts, and after an hour long soak is ready for its long roil.
Ah yes, zis is when we sink deep into the liquid embrace. In ze wort we can return to ze womb, be one, again, with mother ocean.
Now you’re just being creepy.
To float free in ze stomach of life is all man seeks. Ze bière, she washes over us like crashing waves. She is bottled ocean, twelve ounces of jeux de vie.
I’m starting to regret bringing you along.
Sulfides soar skyward as the propane feeds an hour long boil. The beer is on the air, in the smells, in the wispy silks of evaporating wort forever disappear into winter’s chill. Some call it the angel’s share, some call it tragic but necessary loss for the cause. I call it the herald of the ale, the vanguard of a two-week war to be waged in white buckets and glass carboys.
Nope, not sniffing the yeast. Not with the whirfloc tablets or Irish moss, either. Where can an old French dude wander off to in a beer?
Oh. There he is.
Ze airlock, she bubbles with ze zest of life. Like millions of fishes saying hello from ze ocean floor, ze bubbles show the world below ze surface. It is truly magnificent.
Yea, totally. I was just thinking that exact same thing. Thanks for the insights, I think.
In a post a few months back, I made mention of a “brewbie” (brew + newbie); that person new to the craft beer scene, overflowing with enthusiasm like a roughly poured pint. They are usually young, energetic, and raw, leaping on new beers and beer news like a kitten on a stinkbug. They mean well, but have a ways to go from “that person who knows about beer” to “a full-keg of beer expertise.”
I have a confession to make: I am a brewbie.
Sure, I know some things about beer. I’ve put my big white ale pails and heavy-ass glass carboys to near-constant use, dog eared and highlighted many books from Brewers Publications, delved as deep into the mines of malts and hops and yeasts as I’ve been able to in the time between writing, video games, and that place I’m forced to go to 8 plus hours a day. But I can’t deny my relative lack of experience, can’t deny that there are people out in this community who have been tasting, brewing, and studying beer for longer than I’ve been alive.
This has become more and more apparent as I’ve waded knee-deep into the ocean of beer-related media, started to really interact with the swimmers near me. I’ve noticed others who are much farther out in the water. Some are surfing. Others are playing waterpolo way past the breakers like it’s no big deal. Some even have boats! It suddenly makes my progress, which I was so proud of, seem significantly less impressive. Looking down at the water swirling around my calves, holding up my shorts as to not get the fringes wet, I feel like a failure.
But then I turn back and see that there are still hundreds of thousands of people sitting on the beach. They haven’t even got the energy or desire to stick a toe in the water, never mind wade out to where the other brewbies and I are figuring out how to swim.
So I say to anyone else in my position: it’s OK to be a brewbie. At least you’re out there trying.
We live in a world where social posturing and image crafting are not only accepted, but often encouraged. Because there are few ways to validate the claims people make on social media, we suddenly find ourselves surrounded by self-proclaimed experts who have done purportedly amazing things, who in turn, by comparison, make us feel bad that we haven’t done amazing things. One only needs to look at the “job titles” of a whole slathering of 20-something administrative-types on LinkedIn to understand what I’m talking about. Assistant Contract Proposal Coordinators with one year of experience, I’m looking at you.
As a result of this creeping feeling of inadequacy, a direct side-effect of having infinite information freely available a few clicks away, we try to puff ourselves up in terms of knowledge and perceived worth. We don’t want to suffer the embarrassment of not knowing, even if it would be perfectly acceptable, given our age and experience and education, to legitimately not know. I’ve been guilty of this too many times; hastily, awkwardly Googling answers to not appear dense or way behind the ever upwardly bending curve of knowledge. It’s a crappy feeling to be on the outside of a group you really want to be apart of. But it’s also a reality of trying to learn something new.
Despite the traditional model, learning isn’t a linear journey from A to B where you digest a predetermined set of data points like some kind of academic PacMan. We can try to quantify beer expertise with BJCP and Cicerone certs, but even well developed standards can’t capture everything. When your brain is spilling with beer facts, historical anecdotes, quotes from master brewers, you’ll still have so much more to learn. The end point is constantly moving, hurtling away from you at a speed that you can’t possibly match like a comet through space too distant to ever colonize with your brain settlers.
Good news though! Chasing that comet is the what keeps you growing.
The masters of the craft – the Jim Kochs, the Sam Calagiones, the Ken Grossmans – even with their encyclopedic knowledge and decades of hands-on experience, still have a little brewbie dwelling inside them, an echo of their 20-something self still urging them to try new things, to sip new beers, to write down those OGs and FGs in a never-ending quest for brewing consistency. They are experts by all definable measure, but that je ne sais quoi inside them still drives them forward. They got to where they are as the paragons of brewing because they were at one point total brewbies: guys with an unquenchable thirst to make an impact on American beer.
So accept that you’ll always be learning, about beer and about life and about how beer goes with life. Accept that even if you do eventually stumble backwards into the comfortable armchair of expertise, you still won’t know absolutely everything, because some tricky maltster will come up with a brand new magical malt roasting technique the second you think you do. Accept that you’ll learn your own things, at your own pace, which may not match the pace of others.
And before you know it, you’ll be debating if that piney aroma is simcoe or chinook, or if you are getting hints of vanilla behind the delicious burn of bourbon barrels. You’ll be explaining the difference between lengths of sugar chains and mash temperatures, the curse of Dimethyl Sulfide in homebrew, which yeast strains are your favorite and why. You’ll find yourself giving advice, helping newcomers out, passing your knowledge to that person who is a mirror of who you were just a short time ago.
The more you know, the more you realize what you don’t know. In some way or another, you and I will always be brewbies. But that’s OK, because so will everyone else.
If I shoved you through the doors of a commercial brewery and said, “make some beer!” would you have any idea where to start? Would you be overwhelmed by the towering shiny metal of the brew kettles? Would the verdant pounds of hops intoxicate you with their heaven-scented mystery? Would you try to make a beer, even if you didn’t really know the process or how to use the equipment? And if you did, how good do you think the beer would be?
Now, imagine I did the same thing, but you’d been homebrewing for a few years. You may not have experience with the tools and ingredients on such a large scale, but you’d at least understand how beer works. You’d know that you needed to crack the grains and get them sparging, as the wort is the soup stock of your new brew. You’d know that you needed to decide what and how many hops to use for bittering, and then which to add later in the boil for aroma. You’d have a much better understanding of what was going on, and there’d be a chance you’d make a beer that people actually wanted to drink.
If I shoved you into a chair in front of a computer and said, “write a novel!” would you have any idea where to start?
Now, imagine I did the same thing but you’d been writing short stories for a few years.
It’s our nature to think big
I think if you’re dreaming at all, you’re dreaming big. You’re thinking of all the wonderful splendor that your potential might manifest as: riveting novels, acclaimed works of nonfiction, successful innovative breweries, a work environment where flip flops are not a faux pas, but a deliberate and encouraged style choice.
And as a direct result of thinking big, we act big. We draft huge plans for ourselves, for our careers, for our lives, even if those drafts are little more than theoretical scribbles on a post-happy hour cocktail napkin. We imagine our lives as they could be, filling in the holes with success shaped ideas. There is a certain pleasure in being wrapped in the warm, down blanket of future-thinking fantasy.
So we try, from the onset, to do big things. Writers try to go from zero to epic SciFi space drama, homebrewers try a Flemish Red for their very first beer. We aim high, probably too high, because the challenge and wonder of something new drives us. We get drunk on our own potential, our own dreams of what we can accomplish.
But when expectation falls short of reality and our dreams run out of gas 10 miles before the next Wawa, we feel disappointment. We’re confused as to why our novel reads like a Jarlsberg hunk of plot holes, why our beer tastes like band aids and dirt.
But our nature is also cumulative
There is a reason we don’t teach children to read by handing them a copy of Anna Karenina and saying, “good luck, kid.” We have to build our skill sets a bit at a time; win a ton of minor educational battles to win the knowledge war. You’d never expect a surgeon to be able to remove a tumor on her first try, with no experience except some stuff she saw on YouTube. So why do we expect to be able to write full length books with little or no training?
I’m certain there are some people out there who are an exception to this rule, who can, almost by magic (or raw talent) drop out a novel on their first try that is of ridiculously high quality. But for most of us (me included) that’s just not how it works. As much as we want to be the exception, the one who finds the genie bottle, the one who wins the lottery, chances are we’re not going to. We’re those unlucky saps who have to do all those labor intensive things like study and practice.
When we practice, we could keep aiming very high, firing that cannon at all those stars, hoping against hope that we might hit one. Or we could be a bit more realistic and aim for something a few thousand light years closer.
Go small or go home
If you want to brew beer that sells, start by homebrewing. Start with simple recipes, so you can learn what makes good, tasty beer, regardless of the ingredients or equipment.
If you want to write books that sell, start writing short stories. Start with single characters and tight narrative arcs with a focus on sentence structure, grammar, and tension.
Because smaller is easier to digest, break apart, experiment with. A five gallon batch is a good sample size to test what kinds of hops to use (and in what combination) or how a certain temperature during mash can affect a finished beer. A short story is a perfect place to try a new setting or structure or kind of dialogue.
Instead of committing a ton of time and resources to something you’re not sure will work, try it on a smaller scale first. If you nail it, awesome; you’ve learned how it works, and can always scale it up. If it didn’t turn out so well, even more important lesson learned.
Starting small let’s your practice your art on your own time, by your own rules.
Remember: Jim Koch started Sam Adams with a small batch of Boston Lager in his kitchen. George R. R. Martin wrote short stories for years before the Game of Thrones (ASOIAF) series.
They went small so they didn’t have to go home defeated. They went small to teach them how to go big.
Watching the frothy white wort churn, rising high, almost spilling over the edge of the stainless steel kettle, then dropping back down to a calmer roil, I pretend I’m an alchemist trying to transmute grain into gold, tossing in hops like they are little green cones packed with raw natural magic. I like to sit and watch the science happen, equal parts actively and passively involved in the swirling primordial creation of something great.
There’s something peaceful in the rhythmic dance of that malted water, the smell of wet grain on the summer air, the sticky sugar on the end of a big stirring spoon. When I brew, I’m not concerned with what reports are due at work, who I’m supposed to email, what time I need to be somewhere and if I need to put on nicer pants. Brewing is an activity where my mind can solely focus, find flow, reconnect to some more primal, innate elements of my emotional self that are often lost in a sea of tweets or overgrown fields of HTML.
When we’re out there, it’s just me and the pre-beer – mano-a-malto – with no concerns beyond getting the temperatures right and timings down.
The entire process of making beer demands devoted method and time. Scooping grains into bags, measuring them to match your recipe. Cleaning your buckets and mash tuns in the never ending battle against infection. Mashing at precise heat to make sure those amylase alphas and betas get a well-balanced, nutritious meal.
And then the waiting. The definitely not opening the primary fermentation bucket to check out the krausen. The definitely not sticking an eye dropper in there to taste your progress. The patient weeks of listening to bubbles as the CO2 floats its way to freedom. All necessary. Nothing rushed. In a world where people expect instant responses, the beer in stark, stalwart opposition, demands the opposite. It asks to be kindly left alone, so it can ruminate and flocculate.
This forced slow-down is important for a person like me, the frenetic type who can and will do anything and everything (to the point of it being too much) just because he can. The beer looks me straight in the eye – with little to no bullshit – and says, “No, Oliver, you can’t rush this. Do it right.” And, because I love the beer, appreciate its magic, I listen. Because I rushed a few early batches, and got decidedly meh beer as a result, I fight my instincts and take my time. I slow the hell down. I measure twice and brew once.
And as odd at the connection might seem, this ability to slow down, to take your time, to commit to quality and perfection, is directly applicable to writing. The excited rush to get that presumably delicious beer into a keg so you can drink it is the same as that excited rush to finish a first draft to get a story told. The theoretical beer always tastes delicious on the made up taste-buds of your mind, just like the story always works out perfectly, with no flaws, in your head. You even plan a beer recipe like you outline a story, selecting the correct grains (characters), hops (telling details), and yeast (conflicts), always making sure the water (author’s voice) is of balanced pH and doesn’t contain anything that might give the beer (story) any off flavors (inconsistencies in tone).
In practice, a poorly planned, rushed beer, with the wrong hops or yeast, where fermentation never really finished, just won’t taste very good. A story that wasn’t really thought out, that wasn’t edited objectively, that never really resolved some major plot point, likely won’t be a very enjoyable read. Great literature requires proper fermentation time. No amazing novel was finished, and no whiskey-barrel aged stout is ready to drink, in a week or two or even three. The same amount of slow, purposeful development that goes into creating a world class brew goes into creating an award winning story.
Quality takes time. It takes patience. It takes slowing down from the “I’m definitely going to get hurt if I keep going this fast” pace of our daily lives. It takes knowing when to tell your brain that an investment in the development of a product will yield a vastly superior result. It takes discipline. It takes practice.
But in that slow down, that moment of focus on a single luxurious task, you may find some peace you thought you’d lost. As the wort swirls on its throne of steel and flame, and as a plot forms ranks around a few thousand serifed soldiers, you’ll find a moment of clarity – possibly even of zen – where there is nothing but you and your brain. And in that space, you’ll find your best stuff: the freshest ideas, the tastiest beers.
So take your time. Relish rolling around in the decadence and wonder of your own imagination. Don’t try to push it aside, or run past it. Embrace it, spend time with it. When you’re brewing up a batch of story ideas, give them the time they want. Give them the time they deserve.
If you’ve been around for some of my Beer Fiction Fridays it’s not exactly breaking news worthy of auto-tune treatment that I don’t write traditional beer reviews. Sure, I’ve written quite a few nonfiction, more review-ish reviews, but even those tend to fall more on the side of narrative story than they do classic, “here’s what I think and why,” no-frills review.
An article from Focus on the Beer had me doing a Ctrl+F on my soul this weekend, delving deep in my psyche and emotional past for the reasons I write beer reviews at all. I think the obvious reasons are because I like beer and because I like to write. The rest just seems inconsequential, the unimportant details that seem to work themselves out without much extra thought.
But I’ve never been the type to actually read reviews of food and drink with an air of seriousness, never acted like the opinion of the critic or reviewer or dude in his basement somehow matters. I do often find my browser landing on Beer Advocate because, hey, checking out what the collective hive-mind thinks can be fun and a hands-on lesson in collective sociology. But I’m pretty sure I’ve never consciously recalled any of those reviews in the liquor store, saying to myself, “beerstud1991 only gave it a 2.63, no way I’m buying that junk.“ I can say with confidence that I’ve never let a beer’s “score” influence whether I’m going to purchase it or not.
Because taste is subjective. More so, I’d argue, than any other sense. We can pretty much agree (short of color interpretation) that we all see the same things. Aside from the thickness of different ear drums slightly adjusting incoming MHz, we all hear the same things. We can also agree that week-old cat litter smells bad and a freshly baked apple pie smells good. We can even agree that 300 thread count sheets are soft, 60 grit sand paper is rough, and a baby’s butt is the unequivocal standard unit of smoothness against which all other smoothness should be measured.
But taste has few standards; it is permeable, water soluble, in constant flux. Some people out there legitimately don’t like cupcakes. Others legitimately do like tripe. Every late-to-work scalding coffee burn, every jalapeno charged capsaicin rush, every chewing-too-fast-bit-the-side-of-your-tongue is part of the formula that always equals how you go about tasting, no matter what variables are added or changed. Your tongue, like a gross pink snake, sheds its skin and taste buds often, reacting to all kinds of things you put in your mouth, making it so you can’t even trust your own opinions over the course of your life.
And because taste is flawed, the classic beer review is flawed. Just because you liked a sextuple dry-hopped Imperial IPA, doesn’t mean everyone else will. Just because your palette isn’t as open to bitters and coffee malts, doesn’t mean that a coffee stout is bad. Reviews will always be biased and tainted by the reviewer’s in-born, unavoidable subjectivity and thus can’t logically be universally valid. There is no basis against which the goodness of a beer can be measured (although the BJCP is certainly trying to establish one) and as a result, what another person thinks about a beer will remain forever nebulous, floating in a foamy, lacey, off-white head of doubt.
I sound like I’m about to give up on the beer review. Far from it. Actually the opposite. The beer review is still a great thing, still has a place in our writing and beer worlds, but maybe not in the traditional Appearance+Smell+Taste+Mouthfeel form.
When you drink a beer, you’re doing a lot more than just putting some water, malt, hops, and alcohol into your body. You’re doing a lot more than just tasting a drink and reporting your findings. You’re becoming part of an ancient tradition that dates back ~10,000 years. You’re joining a enthusiastic community of like-minded brewers, maltsters, yeast-biologists, and hop-farmers who toil away to bring life to a beverage, a drink that has shaped and supported mankind’s rise to greatness like a pint glass supports an ale. You’re raising a glass to salute the infinite muse of alcohol, and sharing good times with your family and friends. Beer is more than the sum of its ingredients, it’s a glorious gateway, a cultural connection.
When you write a review, you’re telling the story of how you made that connection. You’re filling your reader’s head with the same warm, spinning buzz that filled yours, via a story or anecdote or worded snapshot of life. You’re not just telling them about the beer, you’re taking them with you on the experience you had drinking the beer. Write your reviews to show us the truth that was hard-brewed into the beer, the connection to that timeless tradition that inspired you to take bottle-opener to cap in the first place.
Don’t be so caught up in what people expect from a review. If you want to write about the hop characteristics because that’s just your thing, go for it. If you want to write about a memory that this beer brought surging back to the front of your brain, by all means. If you’re like me, and you want to write a story based on the taste and appearance of the beer, don’t let anyone stop you.
Drink what calls to you. Write what the beer inspires you to write.
I stepped into Maryland Homebrew a few weeks ago with a focused mind. I had a recipe. I had a goal. A singular idea dominated my mind, and my will was committed to pursing it even if it meant my ruin.
I wanted to move from extract brewing to all grain brewing.
To anyone not familiar with homebrewing, this doesn’t sound like such a big deal. It sounds sort of like going from Shake N’ Bake to homemade seasoned breadcrumbs. A little extra preparation work, but similar end product: breaded chicken.
But to a beersmith it’s so much more than that. It’s a right of passage that we must face armed only with a couple of buckets and our wort stirring spoon. It marks the transition from brewboy to brewman. It’s a bubbling, boiling, fermenting, Bar Mitzvah.
When I told the staff at MD:HB I wanted to do my first batch of all grain beer, they all jumped to attention, quick to help me load up heavy bags of grain and answer any questions I had knocking around in my beer-addled brain. One staff member showed me how to best use the mill to crack my grain. Another talked to me about temperatures for strike water and mashing. Yet another guy called to another, across the warehouse area in the back, “hey, this guy is doing his first all grain!”
I was part of a club of people who did things by scratch, with purpose, with art and flourish and drunken enthusiasm. I was now on the all-grain inside. And it felt good.
I went home all blissfully happy, grinning like a little kid who had just eaten the slice of his birthday cake that had his name written on it in icing. I set to mashing and brewing, a new man in a new world.
Of course, I couldn’t be simple (or practical). I decided not only to do my first all-grain brew, but my first lager as well.
Things You’ll Need
- 9.50 lbs of pilsner malt (this is the good stuff, it smells like sweet bread)
- .5 lb Cara-Pils (as a supplement to your main malt to add some color)
- 1 oz Tettnang hops (Noble hop 1 of 5)
- .75 oz of Spalt hops (Noble hop 2 of 5)
- 1 oz Hersbrucker hops (Noble hop 3 of 5)
- 1 oz Hallertau hops (Noble hop 4 of 5)
- 2 oz Saaz hops (Noble hop 5 of 5)
- Czech Budejovice Lager Yeast (I used Whitelabs liquid WLP802, for anyone wanting the specifics)
You’ll also need the full brewer’s regalia and accoutrement (I like to say, “ackoo-tray-mon” all fancy and French-like):
- A mash tun (good job I already showed you guys how to make one, right? guys?)
- A brew kettle (that will hold all of your final volume – 5 gallons for me)
- A big spoon (Yup.)
- Some oven mitts (if you use the nice matching ones your wife has in the kitchen, try not to spill sticky wort all over them)
- Ice bath or wort chiller (I still don’t have a wort chiller, because I’m cheap and cooper is expensive)
- Thermometer (if you don’t have a laser gun thermometer by now, I can’t help you)
- A hydrometer (for measuring the beeryness of your beer)
- Bucket or carboy (unless you want to ferment it in something weird, like 8 two-liter soda bottles)
Step 1: Monster Mash
Malt extract is basically just pre-made (and condensed) grain extract. You’re going backwards one step in the process by doing all grain. It’s up to you and your cleverness to extract all that delicious sugar from that massive pile of grain.
Heat up five gallons of water plus a little bit extra to make up for the volume lost during boiling. Since it takes approximately one epoch to heat up five gallons in one container on an electric stove, I recommend splitting it out into several different containers. If you have a gas oven or a patio stove, feel free to use that, but don’t bring the water to boil.
You want to get your water hot, but not so hot that it scorches the grain. The temperature of the strike water (or the first water you add to the mash tun before the grain takes a nice bath) will vary based on your recipe. For this one, I kept the temperature around 160 degrees. Despite being an efficient holder-o-heat, your mash tun will likely lose a few degrees over the hour you let the grain settle, so heat it up just past your target heat to compensate.
Once you’ve added your water to the mash tun, you want to quickly add your grain. This is sort of like adding hot chocolate mix to a mug of hot water: a bunch of grain will sit on top and not get wet. Like a viking manning a long ship, use your big spoon to stir the grain until it has all been thoroughly wetified.
Step 2: Wait an hour
You’ll need to wait while the hot water sucks all of the sugar out of the grain like a diabetic vampire. To prevent excessive heat loss, wrap your mash tun in some blankets. No, not that one. Or that one. Go get the ones on the guest room that no one ever uses. Deny knowledge if your wife asks why they smell like a brewery.
This is a good time to chill out and drink a beer that is like the beer you’re making. Notice the flavors, appreciate the craft. Sam Adams Noble Pils or Victory Prima Pils were my models. Now is also a good time to stir the grain, but don’t leave the top of the mash tun open for too long while you’re stirring.
One episode of Law and Order SVU later (dun-dun) your wort should be ready for the primary boil.
Step 3: Drain the mash tun into your mash pot
Hopefully you put your mash tun on a kitchen counter or something at hip-height, otherwise, have fun lifting 40 lbs of really hot water plus ten pounds of soaking mash up onto something high. Remind me to go back in time to remind you to put it on the counter, not the floor. You’ll need gravity’s help to drain all of the wort out o the tun.
Position your mash pot on a chair below the spigot coming out of your mash tun. Before you start filling the pot with the precious brown liquid, you’ll want to collect about a liter of wort in another container. This prevents any loose grain husks from getting into the wort.
When the pitcher is full, start filling the pot. Pour the contents of the pitcher back into the mash tun as to not lose all of that sugary goodness. If you used exactly 5 gallons, you’ll need to tilt your mash tun slightly to get all of the liquid out.
(Note: Up until this point, sanitizing your equipment isn’t super important. Everything should be clean and free of anything loose or gross, but since you’re about to boil the stuff for ~60-90 minutes, not everything has to be perfectly sterilized before coming in contact with your wort. After the boil though, make sure everything is clean as bleach. But don’t actually use bleach.)
Step 4: Boil ’em cabbage down
Now you’re back to where you would be with an extract beer. Get the wort to a rolling boil and add your hops as called for by your recipe (for this pilsner, I did Spalter and Tettnang at 60 mins, Hersbrucker and Hallertau at 15 mins, then Saaz at knockout). You don’t have to worry about steeping any grain or anything like you normally would with an extract, as you’ve already done that hard work in the mash tun!
Now you just need to cool and pitch your yeast. If you need help with that part, see my Homebrew 101 post.
Step 5: Make a pizza
There is one slight drawback to moving to all grain brewing. When you’re finished, you still have ~10 lbs of wet, sugarless grain sitting in your mash tun. There are a few options of what you can do with all this perfectly edible grain. Some people like to donate it to local farms (apparently horses and cows quite literally eat this shit up). Others like to make dog treats with it (apparently dogs have similar palettes to horses and cows).
I decided to make a pizza.
These grains are very similar to bread grains, so the crust I formed tasted sort of like multi-grain bread (chunks of grain and hard bits and all). I didn’t really know what I was doing, so I just combined flour, water, baking yeast, some olive oil, and the left over beer grain until I had something that was pretty dough-like.
I thought it tasted pretty good. Not sure my wife was a huge fan.
In honor of my first batch of all-grain beer, this week on LitLib is all about homebrewing!
I fell into my homebrewing hobby as a side effect of growing up in a household that consumed and appreciated a lot of alcohol. My dad used to make what I can only call “odd” wine: carrot, rhubarb, banana, and other things you won’t find at the local liquor store. Our basement was a menagerie of white buckets, glass carboys, empty green wine bottles, and a utility sink over flowing with sodium metabisulfite and thick bristled white brushes.
I learned how to brew the same way a kid learns how to use a Q-tip; through a lot of painful trial-and-error. One of my first batches ended up at about 2% alcohol because I added four gallons of water to a single gallon of actual brew. An early batch of English style pale ale had the delicious added flavor of rotten-eggs sulfur because I did the entire main boil with the lid on the pot. I never made anything undrinkable, but I certainly made a lot of beer only its brewer could love.
As my brewing skills slowly evolve, I spend a lot of time poking through homebrewing forums, looking up recipes, learning about proper yeast pitching temperatures, sometimes even stumbling upon a some unexpected pictures of pimped out kegerators. This has given me a pretty broad knowledge of various homebrewing techniques, but I still have yet to find a single, succinct overview of the very basics of brewing.
So I decided to make my own.
In addition to this guide, I am happy to answer any and all questions about the basics of homebrewing in the comments below!
What is homebrewing?
Without sounding dense, homebrewing is brewing that is done at home, without commercial equipment. It usually means brewing on a significantly smaller scale (5-10 gallons as opposed to say, 7,000,000 gallons) with significantly less control and consistency in the final product. It encompasses beer, wine, cider, and any sub-genre therein, but does not include distillation, as that is illegal and should be left to those few (with even fewer teeth) in the Appalachian foothills.
Despite popular belief, homebrewing is pretty safe. There are some minor threats that come from over-filling or over-sugaring, but for the most part, it’s a low risk, high reward hobby. In a poor attempt at humor, Buffalo Wild Wings lampooned home brewers with a less than flattering commercial. The truth is that most homebrew, even the poorly sanitized or drank-too-early, isn’t going to send you to the ER with GI issues.
And if you don’t believe me, believe science! Yeast eats sugar and poops out carbon dioxide and alcohol, which has the added bonus of sterilizing the liquid. Alcohol disrupts the natural equilibrium of water outside of any bacteria cells, killing them as osmosis forcefully pushes water out of the cells to reestablish the balance. Thermodynamics are awesome. The only obvious health concern is mold, which aside from being visible and gross, usually makes the beer so foul tasting that not even the most self-destructive frat boy could stomach enough to make him sick.
So you want to be a home brewer?
First, ask yourself why.
If the answer is to save money on your alcohol, you need a new/better business model. While the ingredients-per-gallon cost is pretty cheap, you have to factor in equipment and opportunity cost. In the long run, you’re not going to save yourself an extraordinary amount of money by making it yourself.
If the answer is to impress your friends, I hope you’re patient. An ale takes on average 3-4 weeks to be ready to drink, where a lager takes 6-8 weeks. Wine of almost any variant takes even longer. Your first few batches won’t likely win any contests either, so it’ll be a while before your friends start greeting you as “Brewmaster.”
If the answer is for fun and because you’re so stubborn you have to try to do everything yourself, then you’re at least temperamentally ready to fire up your boil pot.
What do you mean you don’t understand these words?
Veteran home brewers like to throw around a lot of jargon and hardly ever qualify any of it. It’s like they expect us to figure these things out, as if there were some kind of widely available, magical book that contained definitions of things.
This is list of the things I had to discover on my own, but it is not nearly exhaustive:
Wort (beer) – a mixture of grain sugars and waters that will be fermentted into beer
Must (wine) – the same as wort, but with different sugars, including fruit pulp
Yeast – eukaryotic microorganisms that are obsessed with eating sugar and produce alcohol as a biproduct
Sugar – alcohol is formed in beer and wine based on the amount of added sugars, which are introduced to the brew bia fruit, grain, honey, or other sources
Sparge (beer) – the process of removing sugars from cracked grain using very hot water to create wort
Fermentation – the process of yeast converting sugars into alcohol
Primary fermentation – the initial conversion of the sugar into alcohol after yeast is first introduced to the worst/must
Secondary fermentation – the secondary conversion that removes extra sediment and allows time for the brew to settle/clear/mellow
Priming – adding extra sugar after secondary fermentation to promote carbonation in bottles/kegs/growlers (only applicable if you want to carbonate your beverage)
What will you need?
Before I get into the actual equipment that is necessary, I’m going to point out a few things you should have that often get overlooked by early brewers:
- Experience drinking what it is you’re brewing (know, at least roughly, why you like certain styles and what they’re made of)
- Basic cooking skills (if you can’t boil water without scalding yourself or manage temperatures on the fly, you’re going to struggle to brew anything)
- Upper body strength (seriously, a gallon of liquid weighs about eight pounds, so a five gallon batch will weigh 40+)
- Patience, commitment, and persistence (a full brew can take most of a day, and can’t really be hurried)
As for the gear (you can buy all of this stuff online, but be a good member of the community and pick it up at a local homebrew store, if reasonable):
- A stove (like the one you usually make pancakes on)
- A sink (like the one you usually leave dirty dishes in)
- Towels (and not your wife’s good towels; don’t even look at them)
- Your ingredients (this is going to vary wildly per type of brew and recipe, think of it as the “food” part of your recipe)
- 1 x brew boil pot w/lid (large aluminum or stainless steel, 5.5 gallons at minimum)
- 1 x plastic brew pail (these are the infamous “white buckets” used for primary fermentation – 5.5-6 gallon)
- 1 x lid for your brew pail (if you seal it, they will brew)
- 1 x air lock w/rubber bung (there are several styles of air locks, but any will work)
- 1 x glass carboy (this is for your secondary; the brew will sit and clarify in this)
- 1 x big metal spoon (for all the stirrin’ you’s gonna be doin’)
- 1 x container of a no-rinse sanitizer (never use soap, try not to use bleach)
- 1 x large thermometer (or just get an infrared temperature gun already)
- 1 x auto-siphon (this will save you a ton of headaches and sticky spill spots on your kitchen floor)
- 6 x gallons of water (distilled, spring, anything clear and tasty)
You’ll also need bottles, growlers, or a keg for your finished brew, but that’s up to you (as I won’t be including bottling in this overview).
You’ve got all the stuff, now what?
This is a high-level, technical overview of the steps involved in brewing almost anything. Some specialty brews requires steps other than these, but that’s what a recipe is for!
- Boil/sanitize your wort/must without the lid on the pot – If you’re brewing beer, you’ll want to bring your wort to a rolling boil in your brew pot. If you’re making a fruit based wine, you don’t need to achieve a full boil just raise the internal temperature to ~175 degrees.
- Add any other ingredients – like hops, spices, etc. – while the pre-brew is still hot.
- Put the lid on your pot and rapidly cool down the liquid using an ice bath or something similar.
- Pour your cooled wort into your primary fermentation vessel.
- Stir the wort vigorously to oxygenate the brew, then add your yeast.
- Seal your bucket and wait for primary fermentation to finish (the bubbles in your airlock should slow down considerably)
- Siphon the brew into your secondary vessel, avoiding any of the settled sediment.
- Allow your brew to settle/clarify as per the recipe.
- Bottle/keg your brew.