Friday, March 15, 2013

Homebrew Internet Overload

I’m thoroughly confused about brewing. I read the instructions that came with the kit, skimmed the brewing book from the kit, and googled homebrewing. All have the same basic ideas, but the variations in methods leave me scratching my head. All-grain, malt extract, hops bag, partial boil, wort chiller: the list goes on. I’m looking through the box to see what I’ve got: besides a plastic carboy and 5-gallon bucket, I’ve got a beer kit for a stout with a silvery 7 lb vacuum bag of syrup that looks like something NASA would send up with the astronauts.
The more I read, the more questions I have. But I’m starting to piece some of the basics together. To create beer you need sugars (from malt), hops, yeast, a sterile environment and time. What methods you use to get through that process is where all the differences in homebrew come into play. How involved you want to be in the process (and how much time you want to spend), what equipment you have, and how much money you are willing to spend (on said equipment) will all dictate the method you end up choosing.

Brewing is a lot like cooking: several ingredients, heat, boiling, multi-tasking. Also, just like cooking you don’t have to start from scratch if you don’t want to. So let’s say you have little time, money, and really don’t want to be too involved in the brewing process. You could find the nearest SkyMall and buy a kit where you mix the ingredients with water, place in a plastic container and then wait. It’s the ramen noodles of brewing: it gets the job done, but c’mon we can do better.

The next level up is working with malt extracts. Here you are basically starting with a cake mix so to speak. The sugars have already been extracted from the malt and boiled down into a thick syrup. So all you have to do is dissolve them in a large kettle, boil them (further converting the sugars into a form the yeast like), and bring them back down to room temperature. This method often uses steeping grains too for color and additional flavors.

The highest and most complex method is called all-grain brewing. In this method you extract the sugars from the roasted grain by a process called mashing before you even start your boiling and hopping. There are no short cuts here.

Each of these levels requires more and more equipment. Also within any level there is equipment you can buy to make the tasks easier and potentially, the beer better. A chiller is probably one of the best examples. After you boil everything, getting the solution of malt sugars and hops down to room temperature fast reduces contamination risk and prevents cloudiness. The low cost, low equipment method is icing the sink or tub and putting the pot or kettle in there. The highest end would be a counter flow device (>$150) that cools the wort to room temp as quick as it can go through there. A mid-level solution would be the wort chiller.

Whether I’m grilling or cooking, I like to do things right and don’t mind getting nice equipment and/or ingredients if it will truly lead to better results. But at the same time I don’t want to spend a lot on something when it’s not going to make a difference at my skill level or if I’m not sure if I’m going to become a serious homebrewer. I read a lot of reviews about different equipment that will make your life easier and lead to better beer. But cutting your teeth on the simple equipment, making mistakes and learning, seems the better course here. It’s like playing guitar, sure the expensive Les Paul or Martin sounds better, but if you’re a beginner is it really going to matter? A professional could make a $100 Fender sound amazing. I imagine it’s the same with brewing to a certain extent: a master brewer could brew some great beer with just about any equipment you give them. After you get a few brews under your belt, then you can get the nice stuff and will appreciate it that much more.

-Brewer Brendan

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