Let me tell you a secret. I hate beer. More accurately, I used to hate most beers, which is why it is such a strange turn that has led me to the art of home brewing. Looking back, it’s not a huge surprise I disliked beer for so long. When I was growing up, the choices were limited to some rather foul fare. Bud, Michelob, Schlitz, yuck. There wasn’t a craft brew industry at the time to speak of. I still remember that first beer I ever had. My dad gave me a small taste of Lone Star beer when I was pretty young and the reaction to it I had was, uh, strong to say the least. Budweiser puts Lone Star to shame in the taste department. I spat it out and my dad, my uncles, and my grandfather laughed and laughed. I didn’t touch another beer until I was in my mid-20s. My dad is a clever man.
The next beer that I had was Shiner Bock. Living in Texas at the time, it was a natural choice. It wasn’t really bad, per se, but it wasn’t my thing, either. It’s what most of my friend college friends drank and Shiner is, what I consider, the stepping stone to craft brew.
It wasn’t until I was having a private dinner at Millennium Restaurant a few years ago that I had my first truly great beer. With no idea what to order, I asked the sous chef to pair a beer for me with the dinner. Why beer and not wine? I was very intrigued by the selection of beers on the menu I had never seen or even heard of and I am always one up for trying something new. I had a whole menu of craft brews laid out in front of me. The chef chose a goblet of Brother Thelonious from North Coast Brewing. It’s a Belgian-style abbey ale, which means it’s full-bodied with a lot of other flavors underneath (I’ll talk about how they achieve that in another article.) I was instantly hooked. It didn’t taste like fizzy golden stuff (you know what I’m talking about when I say “stuff.”) Rather, it was dark, complex, slightly sweet, balanced with bitterness, and full of body. I still keep a stash of Brother Thelonious around at home, replacing it when I’m about to run out. From then on, I tried a few different craft brews every couple of months. Some were definitely better than others, but they were all interesting.
I’ve been thinking for a while that it might be fun to try and brew beer, or make wine. Many alcohols are not vegan because they have fining and clarifying agents made from animal products and breweries are not obligated to list them. I wanted to know exactly what was in my brews and to be sure that they were both organic and vegan. It wasn’t until last July, however, that I took the plunge. World Market had beer kits for sale and I had a gift certificate. I went back and forth between getting more kitchen equipment (like I need more kitchen equipment) or the kit. Curiosity, and the fact that I have every piece of kitchen equipment imaginable, won out and I got the Bone Dry Irish Stout kit made by Craftabrew.
When I got home I popped open the kit and removed the mysterious ingredients inside. A glass jug called a carboy to ferment the beer, a rubber stopper for the top of it, a bag of some strange ingredient called dried malt extract, a clear vinyl hose, some weird looking mini-airlock, what looked like a long thin sock, a thermometer, a bag of specialty grains, a bag of hops, a packet of yeast, sanitizer, a few instructions, and some bottle caps. All this to brew one gallon of beer. What the hell had I gotten myself into?
It turns out, it was actually pretty easy. The sanitizer is to make sure everything is mega clean, because any wayward microbes will throw off the beer. That weird looking sock was for holding the specialty grains, which I had to steep for about 15 minutes at 155°F in a gallon and a half of water and that powdery substance called dried malt extract is actually what’s left after evaporating wort, the liquid precursor to making beer. Just dissolve the extract in water, (in my case, the water in which I steeped the grains) boil it for an hour, and you’ve got a reconstituted finished liquid that you can pour into the jug and ferment into beer. Let that come down to about 65°F to 70°F, transfer it to the jug, shake it around to get some air in it, and toss in the packet of yeast. Put the stopper on it, plug the stopper with the mini-airlock, and wait a couple weeks. Sanitize, steep grains, boil water mixed with extract, cool, add yeast, and wait a couple weeks. Super easy. After two weeks, I bottled my first batch of beer and waited two more weeks for the beer to carbonate. A month after I started, I had one of the best beers I’ve ever had. It was a beer that even a beer hater could love.
If you want to get into craft brewing at home, I’ve put together a few key principles, an equipment list to help you get started, and an easy recipe. I’ll be writing some more articles about home brewing and delving into the specifics of moving from extract brewing to all-grain brewing (that’s when you make that liquid wort entirely out of steeped grains and no dried extract.) I am by no means an expert. I’ve only been doing this for about 8 months now, but I’ve already got fourteen, going on sixteen, brews underneath my belt. I also have some experience making ciders and wine, which I’ll share. Hey, home brewing isn’t just limited to beer!
I’ve outlined an easy way to get started. The very easiest way is to simply buy a one-gallon starter kit. There are several of them on the market, although I’ve only tried the ones from Craftabrew so I can’t vouch for the other ones. The kits have all the equipment you need, the ingredients, and the instructions. However, if you want a little more control over your first batch, you can assemble your own kit. After you’ve got your kit, follow the recipe I’ve outlined below and you’ll end up with a delicious dark beer that keeps getting better with age. Plus, you’ll learn the basic principles of brewing!
Getting Set Up: If you go to a home brewing store, they’ll most likely try to sell you a five gallon starter kit. Don’t do it. First, it’s usually about a $100 to $140 investment to get set up with one of those and you don’t even know if you like doing this, yet. Second, it requires some big equipment and space. Third, five gallons of beer is not easy to drink through. I have a few five-gallon batches sitting around and it will take me forever to drink them. My suggestion is to get a 1 gallon carboy (that’s the fermenter,) a stopper for it, a mini-airlock, a 2 to 3 foot long vinyl tube, and a couple grain bags (those are those sock things I mentioned.) You’ll need sanitizer, a pot at least 2 gallons in capacity (stainless steel works best because it won’t impart any metallic flavors to the beer), a thermometer, a funnel, and a bucket big enough to hold the equipment to be sanitized. All told, the equipment for a one-gallon batch will run about $25. Way better than that $100 investment. You can get all of this off of places like Amazon, but they’re pretty much the same price at a brew store and you can support your local brew store in the process. Plus, you can ask the people that work there about brewing. I do it all the time and I’ve learned a ton doing so. Alternatively, you can purchase a one-gallon beer kit which will come with everything you need except for the bottles.
Sanitize and Sanitize Again: Sanitization constitutes about 60% to the success of a beer, more than the grains, hops, or yeast. Make sure you thoroughly sanitize everything that touches your beer, from the carboy to the bottles and caps, and don’t rely on soap and water to cut it. You’ll want a heavy duty sanitizer. I use one called StarSan, which is pretty much the sanitizer of choice for most home brewers. Sanitization is important because any wayward microbes will throw off the taste of the beer and may even propagate enough in the nutrient-rich beer to completely shove out yeast and ruin the beer.
Temperature Control: Temperature is also very important for your yeast and for steeping your specialty grains. If the temperature is too high, you’ll kill the yeast. If it’s too warm, the yeast will produce flavors you don’t want for this particular recipe. If the water temperature is too high, your grains will give off astringent tannins, but if it’s too low, they won’t give the beer any body. That’s why that thermometer is so important.
Now that I’ve covered some of the basics, here’s a recipe for a basic light Irish stout using a few specialty grains and dried malt extract. It’s easy to do and perfect for getting started. You’ll need to go to your local home brew shop to get the ingredients and make sure to ask them to mill the grains for you.
Basic Light Irish Stout
4 ounces of roasted barley
2 ounces of 60L Crystal malt*
1 ¼ pounds of Briess dried malt extract
½ ounce of Goldings hops
1 packet of Safale-04 yeast
½ ounce of turbinado sugar when bottling
*malt is another name for grains and 60L refers to the color of the malt
Sanitize everything you are using and let it dry on paper towels.
Bring 1 ½ gallons of water to 155°F. Place the roasted barley and Crystal malt in a grain bag (that’s the sock) and tie it closed. Place this in the water and steep the grains for 15 minutes, then remove the bag from the water. Do not squeeze it and this will leech tannins from the grains and make your beer astringent. Make sure to keep the temperature right around 155°F and use that thermometer to test it every few minutes.
Add the dried malt extract to the water and stir until it dissolves. Bring this to a boil and add the hops. Boil this for 60 minutes.
About 15 minutes before the boil is done, plug your sink and fill it with water and either ice or ice packs. You want that water to be as cold as possible. Once the boil is done, transfer the pot to the sink of cold water. Use your thermometer to monitor the temperature and once it gets between 165°F to 170°F, you’re ready to transfer it to the carboy.
Place your sanitized funnel in the carboy and pour the liquid into the carboy. Place the stopper on top, plug it with your thumb, and shake the carboy vigorously for 1 minute. This will oxygenate the liquid, making a healthier environment for your yeast. Remove the stopper, pitch the yeast into the carboy (do not do this before you shake it,) and replace the stopper. Fill the airlock halfway and close up the stopper with it.
Place your carboy of beer in a dark place with an ambient temperature of 165°F to 170°F and let it sit for two weeks. Within 48 hours, you should see quite a bit of activity within your carboy. That’s the yeast doing its job, eating the natural sugar in the beer, and making alcohol. This will slow down after a few days and the beer needs time to finish fermenting. Now you’re ready to bottle.
I use flip-top bottles, which I get at my home brew store, because they are very simple to use. Alternatively, you can use regular beer bottles, but you’ll need a bottle capper. Sanitize the bottles and funnel and let them dry.
Melt the sugar in about 1 cup of water by gently boiling it for 10 minutes. Let the sugar cool to room temperature, then add it to the beer.
Remove the stopper and airlock from the carboy.
Ok, I’m going to commit brewing heresy because I want this to be as easy on you as possible. Ideally, you should use the vinyl tubing to siphon the beer into the bottles. It reduces the amount of oxygen that gets into the beer. Oxygen is good before the yeast is added. It produces off flavors after fermentation is complete. However, making a siphon is a real pain and you should be drinking this beer well before any extra oxygen will ruin it, so I’m going to have you simply pour the beer into the bottles. Using the funnel, very gently and slowly pour the beer into each bottle and cap it. Try not to get any of the yeast at the bottom of the carboy into the beer. The less splashing of the beer, the better.
Let the bottles sit for two more weeks to age and carbonate. Pop one open and enjoy your first home brew! I like this beer slightly cool, but not completely chilled.