Not long after I started baking bread, Mike began talking about how he’d like to brew beer. I fully expected this to be a Mike-thing, but when brewing day came, the labor was split pretty evenly between us, and it was good fun, so I thought I’d chronicle it here. As I write this, the summer ale is fermenting in the pantry, so I have no idea yet how this turned out. Here goes!
The first step in the process is sterilization. The equipment kit includes an oxygen-based sterilizer, which is what we used. Everything that will touch any ingredients, wort, or beer must be sterilized; this helps limit the chances of bacterial infection. Once that’s taken care of, water is boiled and the grains are steeped in the grain bag. The scent is subtle yet delicious.
A friend of ours took home the spent grains, which can apparently be used to make beer bread. I’d definitely like to try that after future brews, but I simply didn’t have time to try a batch myself at that point.
Once the grains have been removed, the now-wort is brought to a boil, and the various liquid and dried malt extracts are mixed in. We added them in the order they were presented in the list of ingredients, but I’m not convinved that it matters, since the instructions didn’t specify an order.
A light film forms on at the surface, but beneath it the wort is dark, more or less the color of the liquid malt extract. At this point, the wort must be stirred continuously while being allowed to come back to a gentle boil. This helps prevent it from caramelizing on the bottom of the pot. Once it’s boiling again, it’s time to start adding the hops. First come the bittering hops, then the flavoring hops and the spices together, and finally the aroma hops. In between these additions, the wort is allowed to boil for various (decreasing) periods of time.
Once the last of the hops have been added for the appropriate period of time, the wort-pot must be moved into a sink filled with ice water to be cooled to approximately 70° as quickly as possible, again to help prevent bacterial infection. This individual step takes the longest. We made the mistake of stirring it a bit during this time to help cool it faster, but of course that had the effect of stirring up the sediment, too. Next time, we’ll avoid that and just be patient.
Once the wort has cooled, it’s transferred into the fermenter. Because the sediment wasn’t settled, we used a colander lined with paper towels to strain as much of it out as possible. It was tedious, but it did the job, I think, and I’m sure we’ll be glad for it when it’s drinking time—since we’re only doing one fermentation process, this was really our best chance to remove it.
After the wort has been transferred into the fermenter, water is added until the alcohol by volume (ABV) is within the target range. The instructions specified that we should put water in until the wort was approximately 5 gallons, which we did immediately; however, this put us over the target ABV%, so next time we’ll add most of the water first, take a measurement with the hydrometer, and add water more slowly from there until we reach the target range. In any case, the next step was to add the yeast.
By the following afternoon, it had started to ferment. During fermentation, yeast turns the glucose in the wort into ethyl alcohol and carbon dioxide; in other words, it gives the wort both its alcoholic content and its carbonation. (You can read more about fermentation—and beer brewing—here.) Obviously, you can’t see the activity very well from a still image, especially given that the fermenter is opaque, but the bubbles on the edge of the econo-lock provide a clue.
It’s already slowed down slightly since it originally started, but I did take a video to illustrate what’s happening:
We’re storing it a bit at on the warm side (the target range is 64°F–72°F, and we reached 73°F the other day), but I’m hoping that won’t be detrimental. We’ll have to keep a close watch on things to see when it appears to stop fermenting. Then, once we reach 48 hours without activity, it will be time for the next step. Check back in the coming weeks for the bottling and tasting of our first summer ale.
Edit: Read about part two of our adventure here!