The Beginner Brewer: The Skinny on Making Beer

Thursday, 7 June 2012

The Skinny on Making Beer

If you're going to get into homebrewing, it's a pretty good idea to know the basics of how beer is made. There are a LOT of sources out there on the web that show this process in great detail, so I'm not going to cover all the deep detail here (I'll list some of the best sites at the end of this post). Let's just look at the bare basics: the skinny on making beer.

Barley before maltsters get to it

Step 1: The Grains Have It

Beer is made primarily of two ingredients: Grains and Water. For grains, the big commercial breweries use corn and malted barley to produce lots of fizzy yellow beer (mostly lagers).

Corn is used mainly because it is cheaper than barley, and many beer geeks, microbrewers and homebrewers believe that it adds a distinctive and undesirable 'adjuncty' taste to beers.

Homebrewers don't make zillions of gallons of beer, so cost is not necessarily an issue when it comes to your grain bill (the grains you'll use for making beer). That means that you can pretty much avoid the cheap adjuncts and focus more on quality ingredients.

Also, I recommend that beginner brewers use malt extract to get started. Extract is a syrup (or dry powder) made from malted barley and using it cuts out time, money, and complication for someone starting out in the hobby.

 In fact, extract-made beers can be every bit as good as their full-grain equivalents (more on this in an upcoming post).

Step 2: Malting & Mashing

This step is taken care of for you when you use extracts, but for full grain brewers, the barley is partially germinated by Maltsters (think grain wizards) and then the malted barley is mashed--heated at different temperatures and for varying duration in water--to activate enzymes in the barley and extract sugars in liquid form; this is called sweet wort (sorry about all the jargon). Sweet wort is concentrated to make malt extract.

Hops: yummy!

Step 3: The Brewing

Making beer is relatively straightforward from this point. The malt extract is added to water to dilute, brought to a boil, and hops are added for bittering and flavour.

There are a few nuances in this step that I'll cover in future posts, but that's basically it.

After 60-90 minutes of vigorous boiling, the wort (what your concoction is called) is cooled. Then some magic happens.

Step 4: Magical Yeast

Once the wort is at the right temperature, the brewer adds yeast (there are many different types, adding yet more flavour) and the wort now starts its fermentation and journey to becoming beer.

Essentially, the yeast converts the sugars into two things: alcohol and CO2. After about 1-2 weeks, the beer is ready to be bottled.

Step 5: Bottling and Drinking

Naturally brewed beer takes about 2 weeks to mature in the bottle, carbonate itself, and is then ready to drink.

And that's it! Sure, there are a lot more nuance than is described above, but that's all part of the fun that I hope you'll be having in exploring this amazing hobby of homebrewing.

As promised, here are a couple of useful links that show you more of the detailed bits of beer-making:

Next Time: I'll have a look at the concerning phenomenon of Full Grain Snobbery, and tell you why you shouldn't be too worried about it.

{Picture credits: Barley by net_efekt; Hops by Martin LaBar}

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