Thursday, 24 February 2011

Homebrew for beginners

I don't know what has motivated me to try brewing my own beer. I like beer, that is certainly a factor. The beer at the pub is very expensive, that is probably a factor too. I think, however, that it's because I get a lot of satisfaction out of making my own things and practising "Man Skills". I've enjoyed making my own biltong for a few years now and have enjoyed trying fishing recently. Also, I needed a new hobby.

Once I'd made the decision to try brewing my own beer the next task was to identify the equipment I needed to buy. It quickly became apparent that this is a hobby that can get very complicated! I was overwhelmed by the options and terminology (and some acronyms!). From mashing to sparging to lautering, HLT, MLT, FV and so on, it seemed I had some homework to do.

It was around this time I came across some video's by CraigTube that explained "the simple way" to brew your own beer. It was because of these videos that I made my plan to start simple and then build up to more complicated methodologies.

Broadly speaking there are 3 main categories of home brew:
  • Kit
  • Extract
  • All Grain
The kit option is the simplest. You basically empty a couple of tins of syrup into a big bucket, add some boiling water, stir it until dissolved and then add more water to bring it up to 25 litres. Finally, sprinkle some dried yeast over the top and leave it for a few weeks.

Next up is Extract, this falls between All Grain and Kit. It's probably easier to explain All Grain first; All Grain is where there have been no tins involved at all and the beer is made from scratch, starting with a few kg of grain. This grain generally falls into 2 categories. Most of it will be your "Base Malt", the rest will be "Speciality grains". The grain is mixed with hot water and allowed to sit for about an hour (a bit like making a huge cup of tea), the liquid is then separated from the grain and boiled, adding hops from time to time, then finally cooled, put in a bucket, yeast added and left for a few weeks.

Extract is very similar but replaces the bulk of the grain, the base malt, with a tin of malt extract or a pack of dried malt extract.

Starting simple
I decided to start simple and do a kit brew. This would give me the basic experience which I could then build upon. After doing a lot of research I decided upon the following kit:
  • 40 pint 3Kg Milestone Lions Pride Beer Concentrate Kit.
  • Top Tap King Keg Barrel
  • 25L (40 pint) Fermentation Bucket
  • Paddle
  • CO2 Injection System
  • 10 x 8gm CO Bulbs
  • 5ft Syphon Tube
  • Hydrometer
  • Thermometer
  • 100gm Steriliser
It included a King Keg for conditioning the beer instead of using bottles. Why is this significant? Well - after the primary fermentation you are left with some rather flat beer that doesn't taste too great (a bit like flat beer actually). The beer needs to be carbonated to give it a better flavour and to do this we need a way of getting the carbon dioxide into the beer. There are 2 main ways to do this; bottle or keg. Both rely on more sugar being added to the beer and then being sealed in a container. The carbon dioxide that the yeast release as part of fermentation then builds up in pressure within the container and this pressure then carbonates the beer. A pro that a keg has over bottles, amongst others, is that you don't have to wash and sanitise 80 bottles!

So I ordered the kit timing my order for delivery on a Saturday. My plan didn't work out. Rather than explain what happened here is the letter of complaint I wrote (that no-one responded to) ...
From: Me
Date: Jan 26, 2011 6:21 PM
Subject: A disappointing experience ...
To: <>
I ordered the milestone real ale starter kit, order number 123456, on Tues 18th of Jan and expected delivery by Sat 22nd as it was shown as in stock. 
I was disappointed to find out, soon after placing my order, that it wasn't in stock and stock was due in by Thurs 20th ... so I was still hopeful for delivery by Sat 22nd. I was surprised to see at this time the site still showed the product in stock despite my order status saying stock was on it's way - this is not the message that you give out on your "About Us" page. 
I then suffered further disappointment when Thursday came and went without the stock arriving and thus a delay to my order. I received an update on Sun 23rd of Jan which told me the expected delivery date was now Fri 28th of Jan. 
I've checked the status of my order today and, yes, everything appears to be on track with despatch today however there's more disappointment as I see that the price of the kit I ordered is now £73.74 instead of the £80.22 I paid. 

The order did show up and nothing was broken however the instructions weren't included. This was a bit of a problem as I didn't really know what I was doing. I managed to find a copy of some instructions on-line for a similar kit so I just followed these instead.

It was a fairly straightforward process and I didn't mess anything up (as far as I know!), however there was a problem a few days later ...

A stuck fermentation
One crucial factor for a good fermentation is temperature control, ideally the room should be between 17c to 21c. I had been monitoring the temperature of the room I intended to use and it suffered from some fairly wild swings as the heating came on and off. I tried turning off the radiator and this levelled things out nicely at a fairly even 17c, just about perfect. Unfortunately a few days into the fermentation the weather went a bit colder and as a result the room dropped down to 16c for a while. I believe that this resulted in a "stuck fermentation".

How do I know this? Because of gravity.

There is a device called a hydrometer that measures the specific gravity of liquids. This, broadly speaking, is a measure of water impurities. In our case those impurities are sugar and as the yeast breaks down the sugar the impurities lessen and the measurement changes. Therefore if the measurement stops changing before it reaches the expected gravity the fermentation has stuck.

To get the fermentation going again I increased the temperature of the room by leaving the light on - surprisingly this raised the room by 1c. Also I gave the beer a stir to mix the yeast back into it as it will have fallen to the bottom of the bucket. I was careful not to stir vigorously though as getting oxygen into the beer at this stage would have been bad.

The good news is that this worked and a few days later the fermentation was complete. Time to keg it!

To transfer the beer from the bucket to the keg is a fairly simple task that is accomplished with the use of a syphon. The reason we don't just pour it in is that this would mix oxygen in which would affect the flavour. I'd done some reading up on how to start a syphon by pre-loading it with water but when it came to it this proved rather fiddly, I need to practice this a bit more before attempting it again. Given the difficulty I was experiencing I resorted to starting the syphon the traditional way, sucking.

Initially I tried a technique that avoids mouth contact by sucking through a closed fist but I couldn't get the level of suction required so I had to do it the less hygienic way. The main lesson I learnt here was related to the positioning of the containers and syphon length. As there was not much height difference between my 2 containers and my syphon hose was longer than needed this resulted in the hose going below the target vessel and having to come back up to get into it. This was the cause of my trouble starting the syphon. In future I will be raising the bucket higher to ensure that the hose doesn't get this U-bend in it.

Once the beer was transferred I sealed the keg up and left it alone. Previously I had tested the keg to ensure it was holding pressure by filling it with water and injecting an 8g CO2 bulb. This immediately identified that I hadn't screwed the tap tightly enough as water came spitting out of it, this was quickly fixed and no further leaks showed themselves.

Prior to transferring the beer into the keg I had mixed up some sugar with water and boiled it (as the instructions told me to) and put this in the keg first. This gives the yeast that bit of extra food which, in turn, results in the production of CO2 into the keg. As mentioned earlier this then carbonates the beer as well as giving the keg pressure to deliver the beer out of the tap.

The big wait
Now the beer was kegged the waiting process begins. The instructions say to wait about 4 weeks for the beer to finish it's fermentation, carbonate and clear.

After 3 or 4 days I took a sample from the keg to check 2 things. Primarily I wanted to know that the keg was getting pressurised and there were no leaks, secondly I wanted to take a gravity reading. Thankfully the keg did have pressure and the gravity was in line with my expectations.

Just 3 more weeks to go and I'll have my first homebrew beer :)

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