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?
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.
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.
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.
I know you’ve been looking at your prosaic smattering of material goods, wondering why you don’t have a custom made mash tun to brew all grain beer. It’s OK. I was too. It’s a normal and healthy question to ask yourself.
Until very recently, I had done all of my homebrew with malt extract: big cans of thick gloopy brown stuff that is packed with sugar for the young voracious yeast in your beer. This is great for learning the basics of brewing (it is simpler, takes less time, and is less messy), but it’s an established fact that real home brewers make their tinctures from 100% whole ingredients. Making the move to all grain is like a homebrewing right of passage; the malty vision quest that all young brewmasters must go on to realize their beer-soaked destinies.
All grain brewing basically means that you make your own mash from pounds and pounds of grain, instead of using extract. Aside from making you into a total beer brewing badass, using cracked malt leads to better tasting beer and gives you a lot more flexibility in flavor, color, and final ABV.
But how do you get the sugar out of all that delicious grain?
With a mash tun.
Things you’ll need:
- A large drink cooler (I used an family sized 52 quart Igloo cooler. The key is to find one with the drain spigot on the side, not the bottom.)
- A large stainless steel toilet or sink supply hose (I used a 24″ tube, but you can use whatever best fits your cooler)
- Two to three feet of 3/8″ plastic hosing (you don’t have to spring for the heat resistant kind if you want to save a few cents)
- Two 3/8″ hose clamps (to clamp off the ends of the supply hose)
- Various parts to make an on-off valve (I’ll explain this in detail below; you’ll probably have to order these online or get them from a local brewing store)
- A hacksaw (to hack things)
- Pliers (to ply things)
- An adjustable wrench (to wrench things)
- Beer! (Yuengling Porter for me, as I had it left over in a sampler my neighbors gave me for Xmas)
Step 1: Prepare your supply line
A mash tun is just a large receptacle for grain and hot water. You want your grain to sit and steep inside of it so that all of the delicious sugars blend with the water and make tasty wort. The key here is that you don’t want the grains to come with sugar/water concoction, as they can cloud up (and add nasty chunks) to your beer.
The supply line hose you bought is going to be a filter inside the cooler that stops the cracked malt from entering your wort.
First, hack off both ends of the supply line with your hacksaw. This is easier if you have a vice. I don’t have a vice, so I held it with my super manly hands. Be careful that the frayed pieces of steel wire don’t poke and hurt your manly hands. When you get near the end, if a small section of the steel won’t saw, clip it off using some wire clipper to fully separate the ends from the main tube.
Once the steel beast has been (double) beheaded, use your pliers to pull the plastic lining out of the steel part of the tube. This will leave you with a mesh hose with very fine holes all up and down it. A perfect grain filter if I’ve ever seen one.
The last thing you need to do with the hose is fold it over itself two or three times and clamp it down as tight as it will go with one of your hose clamps. This will keep grains for sneaking into your filter through the end.
Step 2: Install your on/off valve
This is really important. If you just connect a hose to the spigot of your cooler, chances are pretty high that you’ll have boiling hot wort all over your floor as soon as your start to sparge your grain. I tried a few different variations here, and a ball-lock valve with some nice copper fixtures makes for the most solid, leak-proof seal.
You’ll need parts similar to (or exactly like) the ones pictured below:
You have to build this device in two sections: one on the inside of the cooler, one on the outside of the cooler. The “threaded middle piece” sits in cooler limbo, half in, half out, all ready to receive its respective end of the device.
When you’re ready to install the valve, carefully remove the original drain spigot by undoing the plastic bolts that hold it in place. Save this piece as you could always put it back in a re-convert this into a regular old cooler when you need it for a party.
Assemble your valve, make sure the o-rings are tight against the walls of the cooler, then fill it with a small amount of water and check for leaks. It helps to wrap the “threaded middle piece” in some Teflon tape if you’re getting small drips on the outside of the cooler.
Your finished product should look like this:
Step 3: Install your grain filter
This part should be pretty easy, just connect your pre-fabbed toilet-hose-filter to a piece of 3/8″ inch tubing that connects to your valve on the inside of the cooler. Secure it with hose clamp if you can’t get a very good fit.
Step 4: Buy some grain and start brewing!
As long as this bad boy doesn’t leak, you’ll be all grain brewing in no time. When using this, make sure to keep it insulated (with towels or blankets or insulated wrapping) so that all that sugar-sucking heat doesn’t escape. Also elevate it so that you can use and abuse gravity to get all of that sparged wort into your brew pot as quickly as possible!
But more importantly, enjoy. All grain brewing brings a whole new level of dorkiness to your homebrewing activities, and puts you one step closer to owning/running your own brewery. Dream big my friends, dream big.
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.
I know not everyone likes pumpkin beer. But I do. A lot. Maybe to the point of obsession. Last year I went on an adventure to find and try as many new varieties of pumpkin brew I could find, which looked something like this:
-Dogfish Head Punkin Ale
-Bluemoon Harvest Moon
-Southern Tier’s Pumking
-Smuttynose Pumpkin Ale
-Wolaver’s Organic Pumpkin Ale
-Brooklyn Post Road Pumpkin Ale
-Harpoon UFO Pumpkin
And, being the kind of beer drinker I am, I loved all of them. I still argue that DFH Punkin Ale is my favorite, but at $7.99 for a 4 pack (and that’s shopping around quite a bit) I can’t justify buying much of it each year.
A few others are comparable in terms of pumpkin taste, but there is something about the spiciness of the Dogfish Head variant I love.
The spices make the beer warm and cozy. They remind me of a night outside in the woods with my buddies, telling stories, drinking beers, keeping the chilly winds of late October at a distance with a pillar of fire and the warmth of fun and cheer.
Being all overwhelmed by sentimentality, but also very cheap, I decided to try my hand at making a Punkin Ale clone, with a little bit of LitLib spice (read: unprofessionalism) dashed in for good measure.
How to Brew Spiced Pumpkin Ale:
The recipe isn’t straight forward, but it also isn’t difficult. There is a good amount of prep time because you have to cut up and roast the pumpkin before you even start your boil. The boil itself takes at least two hours, and cooling the wort can take a while if you’re not setup correctly, like me. Make sure to set at least a six hours aside if you want to do this right.
Stuff you’ll need:
-Pumpkin (I used 10 lbs, which equals about 4 smallish pie-pumpkins once all cut up.)
-Butternut squash (these add to the pumpkin flavor, and tend to be more fragrant than pumpkin alone. I cut up two large gourds, about 3lbs each, and added it to my pumpkin.)
-Cracked Malt (I used 1lb of Vienna, 1/2lb of Crystal 20, and 1/2 lb of wheat. You could sub in any malt that blends well with an American ale, so feel free to be creative here.)
-Liquid Malt (I used 6.6lbs of liquid light malt extract. You could use anything you want here, but the amount of sugar is going to dictate your final ABV.)
-Hops (I used 1oz of Mt. Hood for the primary, as I wanted something to compliment my spices. I also used 1/2oz of hueller bittering hops right at the end of my boil. You could certainly change things up here if you wanted a less citrusy/less spicy final product)
-Yeast (I used a liquid American ale blend. Not a lot of give here if you’re making an ale.)
-Spices (This is where you can go crazy, or not very crazy. I used cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, ground cloves, vanilla, brown sugar, and a tiny bit of molasses. I wanted heavy, sweet, and hearty. You could leave any [or all of these] out and still have a nice, pumpkin flavored beer, but it would lack the things that make it taste like you’re drinking a liquefied pumpkin pie.)
-A big, sharp knife (seriously, butternut squash is no joke. It will make lesser blades look silly.)
-All of your brewing stuff (I won’t harp on [too much] about what you need to brew, as hopefully it is a given if you’re reading a brewing recipe.)
-Water (this is something I always forget when I collecting my ingredients, and it makes a big difference. Grab five gallons of filtered spring water. Any one who drinks your beer will thank you for starting with fresh, clean water.)
-Beer (I chose Harpoon UFO Pumpkin because it is really, really good.)
Step 1: Chop n’ Bake
Before we can even start our primary boil, we have to prepare the fruit. Gourds. Vegetables. Whatever the hell pumpkins and squash are. We’re going to roast everything in the oven for about an hour at 350 degrees, so get to preheating. While the oven slowly bakes itself, start cutting your gourds into manageable chunks. You want them to be small enough to bake quickly and fit into a muslin bag or cheesecloth.
When you’re done, spread them out on a cookie sheet and add a bit of water to the bottom of the tray. I ended up having to use a shallow Pyrex container as well, because it turns out 10lbs of pumpkin and squash is a lot of fruit-flesh. If you’re going to use cinnamon, sprinkle a liberal amount onto the raw chunks before they go into the oven. If you’re not using cinnamon, don’t.
Step 2: Bag n’ Boil
While the pumpkin roasts and fills your house with the delicious smells of autumn, you can start your primary boil. Fill a large stock pot with as much water as you can effectively cool down later.
Note: There is some debate in the home brew world about doing a partial boil (in which you boil as much as you can of the actual beer, then add water to reach the desired final quantity) or a full boil (in which you boil the full volume of the beer and don’t add any water afterwards). A full boil is usually preferred, but if you’re doing this in your home kitchen and don’t have access to a fancy wort cooler, you can’t really get away with boiling 5 gallons and cooling it quickly enough to pitch your yeast. That, and heating 5 gallons of liquid on an electric stove top takes approximately one epoch of time.
I did a 3 gallon boil, and saved another 2.5 gallons of water to add afterwards.
Place your pot on the stove and set the heat to high. While the water very, very, very slowly heats to a boil, put your cracked malt into a muslin bag. I dumped all of mine into one bag because I overestimated how many bags I had left in stock, but feel free to separate them to make them easier to dispose of when you’re finished. Drop the bag(s) into the pot of water. Let the flavors seep into the delicious pre-beer as the water reaches a boil.
By now, the timer on your oven should be letting you know that your pumpkin is hot and roasted. Remove the trays, forget that Pyrex gets very hot, burn your hands. After swearing and pressing the cold glass of your Harpoon UFO Pumpkin against your burn, transfer the newly roasted foodstuff to a muslin bag or large swath of cheese cloth. You’re going to put this into the pot with the malts, so you want it to be relatively contained by the cloth. If a few pieces escape, don’t freak out. You can always scoop them out.
Your setup should look something like this by now:
Step 3: Sit n’ Sip
Now comes the idle part: waiting for the pot to boil. I heard that if you try to watch the pot boil, it never will. Seems crazy to me, but I’m not one mess with tradition. This is a great time to collect the spices for the next step, or just sit around watching a ba movie on SyFy, nursing your burn and breathing deeply the aromas of primordial beer that are filling your house. Your wife will tell you that it smells like breakfast cereal. Take that as a compliment.
It took about an hour and a half for my boil to get rolling. Once it’s there, remove the malt and pumpkin. They will hold onto a lot of delicious liquid, so do your best to press or drain the bags before you throw them in the trash. They’ll be scalding hot, so do your best not to add a trip to emergency room to this guide.
You can now pour in your liquid malt and add your Mt. Hood hops, sugar, and molasses. Even though the mixture is boiling, be sure to give it a good hearty stir (with a sterilized spoon) to make sure none of the malt sticks to the sides or bottom. Stuck malt can lead to scorching which can leading to burnt taste which can lead to “gross beer face.” Nobody likes burnt beer, not even me.
More sitting and waiting. You want to let the whole concoction boil for about an hour, so set your timer accordingly. After 45 minutes, you can add your bittering hops. At the end of the hour, add your other spices and vanilla.
Your final product (sans yeast) should look something like this:
Step 4: Cool n’ Drool
This next step is arguably the trickiest; you have to cool your work down to ~75 degrees as quickly as reasonable so that you can pitch your yeast. Letting the beer sit around and cool works in theory, but it can also lead to the unwanted creation of sulfurous compounds that make your beer taste all funky-like.
An ice bath is the easiest solution. I tried a rapid cool-down by adding the rest of my water (slightly chilled) but it didn’t work as well as hoped. To cool it down even more, I used my kitchen sink (with the wife’s permission, of course) as a beer bath. You can do the same, just make sure you have enough ice on hand to keep the bath cold.
I didn’t have enough ice. I used frozen 2 liter bottles of water instead. Ingenuity!
Every fifteen minutes or so check the temperature of your wort. You can use a cooking thermometer, but be sure to keep it clean, as you don’t want to contaminate your beer.
Or, if you’re a DIY dork and IT nerd like me, use your infrared laser thermometer to check the temperature. It’s hyper-sanitary, and the cats love it.
You’re almost done! Once the wort is sub-80 degrees (or so) you can pitch your yeast. Any higher temperature and the heat might kill the yeast, so don’t rush it.
You’ll also want to make sure the wort is aerated appropriately, so give it a nice big stir just before you pour in your liquid yeast.
Now, seal your bucket, add an airlock, and put it in a nice, darkish corner to ferment. Primary fermentation should start in 6-24 hours. If you hear crazy fast bubbling, you’re in business. If you don’t, you did something wrong. Repeat steps 1-4 and do better this time.
This is what your airlock should look like ~15 hour after you add the yeast: Bubbles!
I’ll post again when it’s ready for kegging and I can tell you what it actually tastes like. For now, fingers crossed.