Sunday, February 15, 2015

An Overview of the Basic Home Brewing Process

If you've ever enjoyed a good craft beer, you may be wondering what was involved in making that beer.  In this post, I'm going to provide an overview of what the home brewing process looks like. Depending on the style of beer you choose to brew, the exact steps may vary slightly from what I describe here, but this should be generic enough to show you the basics.

You begin by choosing a beer recipe.  There are lots of great recipes in books and online.  (There are also probably some bad ones, so you need to be careful here.)  You may also choose to purchase a pre-assembled, pre-measured kit.  Kits are a good way to be sure you've found a decent recipe and have all the necessary ingredients available to you, but they may be a little more expensive than assembling your own ingredients.

Once you have your recipe and have assembled and measured your ingredients, you can begin brewing. A very high-level view of the process is:

  • Create a wort (a concoction of hops, malt, and other ingredients).
  • Boil the wort for some amount of time to sterilize it and allow the hops to provide bittering, flavor, and aroma.
  • Chill wort down to a temperature safe for the pitching of yeast into it.
  • Put the wort in your fermenter.
  • Pitch the yeast into the wort.
  • Seal the fermenter and install an airlock.
  • Wait until the beer finishes fermenting.
  • Clean and sanitize your bottles and bottling equipment.
  • Add sugar or malt extract to the beer to prep it for carbonation.
  • Bottle the beer and cap the bottle.
  • Wait at least two weeks for the beer to carbonate.
  • Refrigerate and enjoy the beer.
I'm not going to cover all these steps in great detail in this post, but I hope to explain them all in more detail in future posts.  I'll also be including video and photos where appropriate.

The creation of wort through the sealing of the fermenter typically takes me about 3 hours.  That includes gathering my ingredients and equipment, cleaning and sanitizing everything, making and boiling the wort per the recipe, chilling it to room temperature, transferring it to the fermenter, pitching the yeast, and sealing the fermenter.

Once the fermentation process is complete, I need another two hours or so to gather and sanitize my bottling equipment, prep the wort for bottling, sanitize the bottles and caps, transfer the beer in to bottles, cap them, and clean up the mess.

The longest (elapsed time) part of brewing is the fermentation and conditioning of the beer.  Fermentation for some beers can take as little as a week or two.  For some styles, fermentation may take several weeks to complete.  Once the beer is bottled, it generally needs at least two weeks to carbonate.  Some styles, like Belgian ales, need weeks or months in the bottle for the yeast to develop all the complex flavors associated with the style.  

If you don't give the beer the time it needs to completely ferment and carbonate, you'll end up with a bottle of flat, very sugary beer. Worse, you may wind up with "bottle bombs" where the amount of sugar in the bottle is so high that the yeast is too active and generates so much carbon dioxide that it literally explodes the glass bottle. This is not something you want.

Brewing at home, then, should be seen as an exercise in patience and a labor of love.  There are beer styles that ferment out in a week or so, and bottle condition in a week or two.  These would give you a beer in roughly two or three weeks after you start.  Most beer styles need a little longer than that, and high-gravity (i.e., high alcohol content) varieties may need the longest.

Now that you have a basic understanding and expectation of the home brewing process, next week we'll dive into "wort creation" a bit more deeply.

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