As a teenager, if you told me one day I’d become one of those beer-drinking girls, I would have scoffed at your ability to predict the future. As things often turn out, I was shortsighted in declaring my “nevers, ” and it just so happens that not only did I become a beer drinker myself, but I ended up marrying a beer snob who also enjoys concocting his own brews at home.
Like many Southern women, I was indoctrinated to think drinking is bad and beer only comes in a can. And I guess a few others felt that way, too — up until this year, homebrewing was illegal in Alabama, and compared to other states, our beer selection was what some might call limited.
Similar to my discovery, Alabama residents and legislators are realizing beer is good for more than just college parties and sporting events. Like wine, it has grown into something that can be enjoyed for its craftsmanship and taste, not just its alcohol content.
Beer and food pairing is even gaining traction in culinary circles. After all, there are thousands of varieties and as many craft breweries across the country, including almost 20 in Alabama.
In my opinion, the best thing about beer is making it. Brewing a batch takes at least four weeks and sometimes longer than a year, but it’s worth the wait. Popping the top from a bottle and tasting a delicious homemade beer is a joyful moment. And, the victory is that much sweeter when you bring a few bottles to a dinner party and guests ask, “What beer is this?” You get to respond, “We made it ourselves.”
Journey to Homebrewing
I never drank a drop of alcohol before I was 21. But, while I was becoming friends with my husband, Scott, he convinced me to try a Flying Dog hefeweizen called “In-Heat Wheat.” I wasn’t hooked at first sip, but it didn’t take long for me to realize it tasted great. That day, a love of craft beer and a healthy skepticism of anything sold in a 24-pack was instilled in me. Eventually, Scott decided to brew his own. We started the first batch with a friend in a tiny apartment kitchen in Auburn. My husband, true to his engineer persona, insisted on brewing by the book. And it has paid off — we have never brewed a batch that wasn’t drinkable. You, too, can brew your own. The process isn’t too hard if you can follow a recipe and operate a timer and a thermometer. But first, here are two essential rules.
1. Sanitize, sanitize, sanitize.
Sanitization is the most important step in brewing and can be done cheaply and quickly. Most brewing kits come with a sanitization powder, but a more effective and easier option is a no-rinse sanitizer, which can be ordered online or purchased at a homebrewing supply store. “Anything that is going to touch your beer needs to be sanitized, ” says Dennis Smith of the Wine Smith on Moffett Road, Mobile’s only homebrew supply store. “Beer yeast is bacteria; it just happens to be the good bacteria. In order for it to compete, you have to get rid of as much of the other bacteria as possible.”
2. Keep it simple … at first.
Use a kit the first time you brew beer. Don’t jump the gun and try to create your own recipes or brew an unusual beer right out of the gate. “You can make the mistake of getting too heavy into the weird beers too fast. It’s good to start out with the classics just to get your feet on the ground and discover what’s what, ” Smith says. Once you understand the basics of the logistics, then experiment with different ingre-dients and complicated recipes.
Types of Beer
There are two categories of beer that branch into many different styles.
- Ales are brewed at room temperature with top-fermenting yeast and are therefore the most common homebrewing choice. Styles: pale ale, India pale ale (IPA), barleywine, brown ale, porter, stout, wheat beer
- Lagers are brewed at a lower temperature (45 to 55 degrees) with bottom-fermenting yeast. Styles: pilsner, bock, dunkel, Oktoberfest/marzen
While there are many possible variations and additions, beer only requires four main ingredients.
Brewing beer is kind of like making coffee or tea. Steeping delicious, all-natural ingredients in boiling water makes tasty drinks. Because water is the largest component in beer, it’s important that the water has a mineral profile that will enhance the flavor of the style of beer you’re producing. Most city water is fine for basic styles, but it can’t hurt to ask for a profile of your local water supply from the utility company and use online resources to determine if the mineral levels will be compatible with your brew of choice. (High chlorine levels are never desirable.)
This is the most popular type of grain used for brewing, although wheat or rye are also options. Grains provide sugars necessary for the fermentation process and determine the body and flavor of each beer. Barley, above left, must first be malted, or allowed to germinate (sprout) to a degree and then dried. Next, it must be “mashed” to create malt extract: the malted barley is mixed with water and raised to about 150 degrees, which draws out the grain’s sugars and produces a sweet liquid. This liquid is then separated from the husks and grains. (Some homebrewers choose to perform the extracting process themselves. This is known as all-grain brewing. Others buy premade malt extract, which cuts out a significant amount of work and expensive equipment.) In addition to malt extract, malted barley is also added to the brew. Whole, roasted grains are milled and then added to the pot in a mesh bag. Like coffee, the barley can be light, dark or in between.
The seed cones of the hop plant, above right, impart a bitter, tangy flavor to beer — from a crisp, refreshing bitterness all the way to a bitter, piney punch in the mouth. The difference in flavor depends on when hops are added — hops that are added early in the boil make the beer more bitter, while hops added later give it a floral aroma. Many brewers choose hops that have been processed into pellets.
During the fermentation process, the yeast organisms, which are actually bacteria, consume sugars in the beer (remember, the grains are the source of the sugar) and produce alcohol. There are hundreds of types of yeast, but most fall into two categories: top-fermenting yeast and bottom-fermenting yeast. Rule of thumb: top-fermenting yeast turns out ales, while the bottom-fermenting kind produces lagers.
Timm Gentry, president of L.A. Lagers, prepares to cool his wort before adding yeast.
The Brewing Process
Part I: The Wort
Supplies: Sanitizing solution, 5-gallon (or more) stainless steel pot, large stainless steel spoon, cheesecloth or muslin bag for steeping, thermometer, heat exchanger or wort chiller
Active time: Varies depending on equipment and recipe, but generally between 2 and 5 hours
“The best way to start off a session of homebrewing is to pour yourself a glass of homebrew, ” Scott says. “But don’t get carried away, because ‘boil-overs’ are messy. I’ve had one boil-over, and it made a huge mess — luckily it was outside. It’s true that a watched pot never boils, but an unwatched pot will definitely boil over.”
Wort, pronounced “wert, ” is a sweet liquid made with water and malted grains. In extract brewing, the malted grains are steeped in several gallons of water at around 150 degrees for 20 to 45 minutes. Then, the malt extract is added, and the water is brought to a boil, usually on a gas stove or a propane burner. The wort is then boiled for about an hour. Hops are added at any point in this process, depending on the style of beer.
Next, it needs to be cooled down quickly. The best way is by using a plate heat exchanger, but a more affordable method is an immersion wort chiller, a hollow metal coil connected to plastic tubing. The tubing is connected to a faucet, allowing cold water to run through the coil, which is sanitized and immersed into the wort. Another alternative method is simply sitting the pot in ice water in a tub. The faster the wort is cooled, the better, because it reduces the risk of introducing unwanted bacteria.
Part II: Fermentation
Supplies: Two plastic fermenter buckets with lids (at least 6.5 gallons) or carboys, air lock, hydrometer
Active time: 15 minutes
“I used to ferment beer in the bedroom, and as it’s fermenting, it makes a slight bubbling noise, ” says Paul Simms, who has been brewing since 1987. “So my wife and I laid down to go to bed one night, and she said, ‘I think there’s a rat in here or something.’ We looked and looked and just couldn’t find anything, and we finally realized it was the beer.”
After the wort is cooled, it must be aerated. This can be achieved by stirring the wort vigorously for several minutes. Aerating the beer increases the oxygen content, which is necessary to help the yeast begin their feast on the wort’s sugars. Then, the brewer takes a specific gravity reading with a hydrometer. This is used to determine the beer’s alcohol content.
The yeast is then pitched into the wort, and the wort is transferred to a fermenter, which is either a large bucket with a tight-fitting lid or a carboy, a cylindrical container that narrows to a small opening at the top. The fermenter is sealed, except for the air lock, which allows carbon dioxide to escape. Bubbles will be seen in the air lock after a few hours if the yeast is alive and the fermentation process has begun. The wort must be stored in a dark place where the temperature remains below 75 degrees. Halfway through the fermentation process, which can be anywhere from three weeks to a year, depending on the style of beer, the wort can be transferred to a secondary fermenter to clarify and improve the beer quality.
Part III: Bottling
Supplies: Bottles or keg, siphoning system (plastic tubing and bottle filler), bottle caps, bottle capper
Active time: 1 hour
Following fermentation, a small amount of sugar is added to the beer so the yeast can produce carbon dioxide in the bottles. Bottles, of course, must be sanitized to prevent any other bacteria from stealing the sugars from the yeast and contributing foul flavors. A siphon is used to transfer the liquid into the bottles, and a bottle capper fastens the caps to the bottles. The yeast munches on the added sugar, and unlike the fermenting stage, when the air lock allows carbon dioxide to seep out, it is trapped in the bottles, carbonating the beer. The beer should be allowed to sit in bottles for at least two weeks and up to two months before opening. Alternatively, more experienced brewers may opt for a keg.
“If you overdo the priming sugar with the bottles, you’ll get too much carbonation, ” Simms says. “And if that happens, the yeast will start popping the tops off your beer. That’s one reason a lot of homebrewers opt for the keg. I just got tired of cleaning all those bottles.”
Brewing supply companies like the Wine Smith offer starter kits that range from about $65 to more than $350. It’s much more expensive to get started with all-grain brewing, but extract brewing costs more per batch. Extract brewing costs $35 to $50 per batch, usually yielding about 50 bottles. The same amount of beer can be produced for as little as $15 using all-grain methods.
Either way, brewing is eventually a money saver — a six-pack of good craft beer costs $12 to $15 — you do the math.
The second Thursday of each month, the Bay-area chapter of the American Homebrewers Association, the L.A. Lagers, meets at Alchemy Tavern to discuss the hobby and share tips and sips. Visit lalagers.org for details. Alchemy Tavern, 7 S. Joachim St. 441-7741.
text and photos by Jillian Clair