Seeing as our apartment has become home to about six different kinds of fermentation processes, how could we resist a friend's invitation to participate in a homebrew competition?

Since this was our first time making beer, we basically just went down to our local homebrew shop and pointed at a couple recipes. They set us up with all the equipment, bottles, and ingredients we needed. Greg picked a chocolate stout and I went with a Belgian white beer. Unable to resist tinkering, however, I put together my own blend of spices to flavor the white beer. Then we carried our haul over to our friend's kitchen for the brewing, joining another half-dozen aspiring (and/or practicing) homebrewers.

The first step of making beer is actually malting the grain, which is the process of sprouting and then quickly cooking the grains. This step converts starches in the grain into sugars that can be consumed by yeast. Since it is a long and annoying process (which means I'd love to try it some day) most homebrewers use commercially produced malt extracts, and we did the same.

All the recipes employed at the brewing party followed the same basic outline— they began with steeping grains in simmering water, and then adding malt extracts and again simmering for a given time. Over the course of the simmering, hops of different types are added. During this stage the proto-beer is called the wort.

It was around this stage that things started to go awry. Cooking malt is a hot, sticky liquid that acts a little like caramel— bubbling up vigorously when boiled... or, uh, left unattended? Um, yeah. I'll just say that, according to my personal method of beer-making, step number three is getting down on your hands and knees to wipe liquid malt up from behind the fridge. Above, you can see what remained AFTER cleaning.

Greg's beer, on the other hand, proceeded flawlessly through the entire process. Here it is, looking rich and chocolaty already! After the brewing, the wort is transferred to the fermentation container, water is added, and the mixture is allowed to cool. When it's the right temperature, the yeast is added. Finally, the bucket or carboy is closed with an airlock to release gasses produced during the process of fermentation. Fermentation can last anything upwards of 10 days. There is a slim risk of pressure building up and the container popping open explosively, which happened to one of the batches for the competition, subjecting our friend's kitchen to another malty flood. Next time: bottling!

Practical Considerations

  • How much space does it need?
    Room for a five gallon bucket and a couple cases of bottles.
  • How much time does it take?
    A couple hours to brew a batch from malt extracts, however long you want to ferment it for, and then another few hours for bottling.
  • Does it smell?
    No. Or, at least not unless it explodes.
  • Does it look grody?
    No.
  • Does it need special equipment?
    Yup, although there's a wide range of price and degrees of complication in the available equipment— glass or plastic carboys, auto-siphons and bottlers, etc... I liked starting with a kit of equipment, for convenience. The basics are a big pot for brewing, a bucket or carboy with an airlock for fermentation, and some method of bottling.
  • Is it worth it to do this by hand?
    After the initial investment in equipment, making your own beer is pretty economical. You might not make the best beer in the world to start, but in my experience it's great for the price. It's fun and doesn't take too much time, but it's enough of an effort to put it in the category of hobby rather than routine kitchen activity.

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