Saturday, November 19, 2011

Brewing: A Primer

I realize that since I'm sharing all these posts on my Facebook page, many people who read what I post may not have any clue what I'm talking about, since much of the language I use is geared more toward fellow brewers. So with that in mind I'll try to provide a basic primer on how beer is created.

I brew in a method that is known as all-grain brewing. Basically I just use malted grain (malt), water, hops, and yeast to create beer. The list of basic steps of brewing are below, with descriptions of each step below that, and I'll probably go into greater detail in future blog posts by fleshing out each of these steps.

  1. Recipe Selection
  2. Crushing Grain
  3. Mashing Grain
  4. Lautering Wort
  5. Sparging
  6. Boiling Wort
  7. Hopping
  8. Wort Chilling
  9. Yeast Pitching
  10. Fermentation
  11. Secondary Fermentation/Conditioning
  12. Bottling
  13. Drinking (this is my favorite part)

Recipe Selection

I create my own recipes, but there are recipes available online too for various types of beers. You essentially just have to determine what type of beer you want to brew and then assemble the correct grains (malt), hops, and yeast for your beer. I create my own recipes using a freeware product called Qbrew, which is available through Ubuntu's Synaptic Package Manager. For those of you out there still using Windows or Mac, you can google it pretty easily and download the packages. Once you have your recipe and ingredients, you're ready to start making beer. The next step is crushing your malt.

Crushing Grain

The easiest way to crush grain is to buy a malt mill. I have a Barleycrusher malt mill, which I think runs somewhere around $125-150. It has two knurled rollers, one of which can be powered by a hand drill (hurray for labor-saving power tools!) Get the mill and hopper set on top of a 5-gallon bucket, add the grain to the hopper, and crush away. You don't want to crush too coarsely because you won't have enough grain surface area for the water to act on in the mash, and you don't want to crush too finely because you don't want to end up with lots of flour and crushed pieces of husk. Either one of those would make the next step more difficult, which is mashing the grain.

Mashing Grain

In mashing the malt, you are creating a mash. Most people when they hear "mash" used as a noun think of distilling, e.g. sour mash, corn mash, etc. This is essentially the same principle, in which hot water is added to crushed malt to activate the enzymes present in the malt to convert starches into sugars. The yeast that will be used in fermentation convert the sugars to ethanol and carbon dioxide, among other compounds, giving us the wonderful fizziness and alcoholic buzz we all know and love. Once the mash is completed and the starches have been converted to sugar, we can begin the process of lautering.

Lautering Wort

Lautering is the process by which the wort, which is the sugary water resulting from mashing, is separated from the grain. My mash tun is a 10-gallon kettle with a valve at the bottom. I hook up a piece of hose to a barb that is screwed into the valve and open it up. The first half gallon or so will contain pieces of grain, husks, etc., so that is drained into a small pot. Once the wort is relatively clear, I let the rest of it drain into my 10-gallon boil kettle. The first half-gallon gets dumped back into the mash tun to filter through the grain bed. Once all the water has been released, I close the valve and begin to sparge.


Sparging is the addition of more hot water to the grain bed to filter out as much of the remaining sugars as possible. I do two batch sparges, which is where I add a quantity of water to the grain bed all at once, wait a few minutes, and drain that water as I did for the initial lautering process. After my second batch sparge I generally aim to have around 8 to 8.25 gallons of wort ready to boil.

Boiling Wort

Boiling wort is relatively simple, just put your kettle over a heat source and bring to a boil. You have to make sure that you have enough headspace at the top, though, because if the boil gets too vigorous it could boil over and create a real mess.


Beer recipes call for hops, which aside from their preservative function also provide bitterness, flavor, and aroma to the beer. Depending on what the recipe calls for, hops can be boiled with the wort for 90, 60, 30, 15, 10, 5 minutes, or anywhere in between. 60-90 minutes of boiling provides the most bitterness, while 30 minutes or less provides the most aroma and flavor.

Wort Chilling

I boil for 90 minutes, and lose 1.625 gallons of water per hour. The rehydration of the hops absorbs some additional water, and coagulated solids in the wort lead to even more water loss. Once my boil is completed, I have about 5.5-6 gallons of wort ready to be fermented. I expect at least a 5% loss of volume in transferring to the fermenter, a 5% loss after primary fermentation, and a 5% volume after secondary fermentation, ending up hopefully with 5 gallons of finished beer.

Once the boil is completed, the wort has to be cooled to a low enough temperature that will not kill the yeast. While yeast can survive at up to 100 degree temperatures, starting your beer off that hot can lead to a lot of off flavors. Generally you want to cool the wort to around 70-75 degrees for ales, and 60 degrees or so for lagers. Once it's cooled, you transfer it to your glass carboy (6.5 gallons is the best size to use) to add your yeast and start fermentation.

Yeast Pitching

There are two major types of beer yeast, ale yeast and lager yeast. Ale yeasts ferment at higher temperatures and ferment on the top of the wort, while lager yeasts ferment at cooler temperatures and at the middle and bottom of the wort. There's also a choice between liquid and dry yeasts. There's a greater variety of liquid yeasts, but I've always used dry yeasts. I just cut open the top of the little 11.5 gram packet of dry yeast and sprinkle the yeast on top. It will rehydrate and begin the process of fermentation, converting the sugars in the wort to ethanol and carbon dioxide.


Once the yeast has been added, the mouth of the carboy is sealed with a rubber stopper containing an airlock. To the airlock I always add vodka because of the disinfectant qualities of alcohol, so that in case any liquid gets from the airlock into the beer it won't cause an infection. After the wort has been boiled, sanitation becomes incredibly important. Any bacteria or wild yeasts that get into the beer can completely spoil it. The airlock allows carbon dioxide from the carboy to escape, while keeping outside air from getting into the beer.

Secondary Fermentation/Conditioning

After one or two weeks I transfer my beer into a 5-gallon carboy for conditioning. As time goes by, the yeast clean up any waste compounds they may have produced and they eventually fall out of suspension and end up at the bottom of the carboy. The more yeast fall out of suspension, the clearer the beer gets. I don't filter my beer, I just let the yeast fall out naturally.


After two weeks of conditioning it is time to bottle my beer. I boil 5 ounces of corn sugar in a cup of water, add it to the bottom of my (sanitized) bottling bucket, transfer my beer on top of it, and proceed to fill up the bottles I had sanitized. The beer is normally carbonated within a week, but it tastes best and gets to peak carbonation after at least two to three weeks in the bottle.


I hope this section is self-explanatory. :)

And there you have it, brewing in a nutshell. I think I'll definitely delve into each of these sections in more detail in the future. Hope my handful of readers are enjoying this blog!

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