Introduction to Homebrewing

Neil supervising the sterilization of the wort chillerI consider apple cider to be a generous gift from nature: with a small amount of work you can secure enough alcohol to last a year.  There are thousands of well-established apple trees in Edmonton.  At this point in time most of the owners can’t or don’t want to use all the fruit, and by volunteering with OFRE or just knocking on doors you have easy access.  Once you have secured apples, if you crush and press them, they will, of their own accord, turn into cider.  No need to add sugar, or acid, or yeast, or anything.  It’s amazing.

Beer is quite the opposite.  Brewing is so complicated, and relies so heavily on human intervention, it’s difficult to imagine that ancient civilizations were able to stumble upon its invention.  The crux is this: while there is abundant natural sugar in apples and grapes, and abundant natural yeast waiting to metabolize that sugar, the sugars in grains are very complex and completely indigestible to yeast in their natural state.  The grains must go through lengthy processing before there is accessible, useful sugars.  Those processes include: forced germination, roasting, grinding, extraction into liquid, induced enzymatic activity to convert complex starches into simpler sugars, boiling, bittering, and chilling.

Just as you can go to a homebrew shop and buy a bag of concentrated grape juice and a packet of yeast, you can also find concentrated wort, a syrupy liquid to which all these processes have already been applied.  All you need to do is dilute the mixture slightly and add yeast.  But that wouldn’t be very fun, would it?

This fall saw my first attempt at homebrewing from scratch, that is, starting with malted barley, hops, and water, and finishing with beer.  Homebrewers call this “all grain brewing” to distinguish it from other methods that make use of commercially produced wort or malt extract.  It’s something I’ve been meaning to do for ages, partly because I drink so much beer, and partly because of Alberta’s historic association with grain-growing.

Ingredients for brewing are available at homebrew shops around town, notably Winning Wines Plus in Lendrum.  Equipment is a little trickier.  In fact the bulk of the start-up cost and effort went into procuring or fabricating special equipment like gas burners and counterflow heat exchangers.

This fall we made two 5 gallon batches of an English pale ale.  Since the process is a lengthy one, I’ve broken it into five posts:

  • Introduction to Homebrewing (this post…)
  • Mashing
  • Boiling
  • Fermentation
  • Bottling and Kegging

Tomorrow we discuss malt and mashing!