I apologize in advance for how long this is.
Alright folks, it’s time for a little brew talk. I ultimately wanted to get this out there so that anyone who is interested in brewing gets an idea of what kind of process these basic kits entail so that maybe it’d make it easier for you to decide whether or not it’s worth it for you.
This brew was actually a little bit different than the other two we’ve done because instead of the airlock I showed you in our equipment, this one is may produce enough krausen (the foam the fermentation produces) that we needed to run a blow-off tube into a bucket of sanitized water to act as a larger airlock capable of collecting krausen overflow.
One piece of equipment that’s pretty crucial to the brewing process that I forgot to mention is a thermometer. The grains have to steep at a specific temperature and then once ready to cool the wort, you need to get to a specific temperature range, so while a simple meat thermometer would work, something that’ll get you a reading a little quicker is better. The one we use might be a little steep where price is concerned, but trust me, it’s worth it. Plus, it can be used it for more than just brewing, as it’s a cooking thermometer.
Now, assuming you have all of your equipment, the first thing you want to do is order your brew. We get ours over at Midwest Supplies, the same place our equipment has come from. Choosing one of these for the first time can be a little daunting, as there are so many. First thing you’ll want to do is narrow your search to “extract kits“. These are the quickest and easiest to get your feet wet.
Then, just take a second to think about what kind of beer you like and search out the extract kits based on your tastes. Chances are if you’re at a point where you’re getting into brewing, you know what you like! As previously mentioned, our first was the Autumn Amber Ale, which was a great first brew for us as it wasn’t a very long brew from start to consumption (2 months). If you’ll notice, though, there are 125 extract kits for you to choose from, so even if you’re picky, you’re bound to find something to get you going!
Once your order is placed, if you’re looking to brew as soon as it arrives, we suggest heading out and picking up five gallons of spring water. You want your water as clean and clear as possible, as the fermentation process can bring out the flavour of any chemicals used to treat other waters. Also, if you want to bring the temperature down on your wort as quick as possible, pick up a large bag or two of ice to submerge it in an ice bath. We use a 15 gallon galvanized tub for this, but you could use anything your brew pot can fit into!
Next step is to wait for your kit to show up! Once it arrives on your doorstep, if you’re not quite ready to brew and you’ve ordered the liquid yeast, make sure you refrigerate it. Dry yeast can withstand not being refrigerated, but to be safe, you might as well throw that in there too. Just make sure with the liquid yeast that you take it out of the fridge 3 hours prior to brewing so it has a chance to warm up before it’s time to add it to your wort. We’ve yet to use dry yeast, but the idea here is that you want to re-hydrate it before you pitch it (add it to your wort) so that you know it’s still active. If you check out this post over at “How to Brew” by John Palmer, he tells you all about it.
With your yeast doing it’s thing, it’s time to sanitize any equipment that’s going to touch your brew post boil.
In order to sanitize any equipment small enough, we simply throw it all into the plastic 5 gallon bucket that came with our kit. It’s actually supposed to be for fermentation, but since we have glass carboys, we use it for this. We then take our sanitizing solution (we use one step, an oxygen-based, no rinse cleaner) and mix one tablespoon of it with a gallon of water and pour it into the bucket. To sanitize the carboy the wort will go into, we mix up another gallon of solution, swish it around real good and dump it directly upside down over top of the sanitizing bucket. That way we get the sanitizer all the way to the top of the carboy.
Since this sanitizer is no rinse, your equipment can go directly from the bucket to whatever you’re using it for and not have to worry about any contamination.
Once you’ve sanitized everything, it’s time to get your brew started!
These kits generally come with the same set of ingredients, just different amounts and varieties based on the beer. This one, for example, came with 6 lbs. of extra light dried malt extract, 2 lbs. of clover honey, 8 oz. of Carapils malt, 2 oz. Hallertau hops, 1/2 oz. sweet orange peel, 1 oz. coriander and a packet of dry yeast. As mentioned, we use liquid yeast just because people seem to get better results with it.
Making sure that your pot is clean (this doesn’t need the one-step process and can just be tossed in the dishwasher on sanitized wash and heated dry, making sure not to use any dish soap), you can use between 2 and 5 gallons for the initial steeping of your grains. We use 4 gallons, as it’s been said that the more liquid you steep and boil with, the better the overall flavour at the end. The fifth gallon we add later on when it’s time to cool the wort. We’ll stick this fifth gallon in the fridge to make sure it’s extra cold.
With the three brews we’ve done so far, the ideal temperature to steep at has been 155 degrees Fahrenheit (68.3 Celsius), so once we’re up to that temperature with our propane burner, we dial it down to keep it steady there and submerge the grain bag. The recipes have called for 10 – 30 minutes to steep, so we split the difference at 20, and then once the 20 is up, we remove from the heat and steep another 10 minutes.
When the steeping of the grains has concluded, it’s time to add the extract, stirring constantly to make sure none of it settles on the bottom and burns. Once the extract has been added, it gets returned to the burner because it’s time for the boil! Be sure to keep a close eye on your pot as the temperature rises. Boil overs happen very easily and are very messy, so once you begin to see the water roll, turn your heat down and keep it at a rolling boil.
Once the water starts to roll, you also want to add your next ingredient! Hops! With this batch, there were 2 packs of Hallertau hops, one that acted as bittering hops for the entire 60 minutes and the other as aroma hops for the final 5 minutes. So, tossing the hops into one of our grain bags, we submerged the sucker and started a timer.
With this brew, at the 30 minute point we had to add the 2 lbs. of honey to the wort, so we set it for 30 and then for another 15 so we could add some Irish Moss (bought separately) for clarity at the 45 minute mark, and then set it for another 10 so we could add the orange peel, coriander and the other pack of hops for the final 5 minutes.
Once the boil is complete, you remove the wort from the heat and proceed to cool it down to 80 degrees Fahrenheit (26.6 Celsius) as quickly as you can. The instructions actually offer a few methods of doing so, ranging from okay to best. If you’re not into splurging on all of the bells and whistles right away, you can cool your wort down by submerging the pot in a simple ice bath, occasionally stirring the wort to disperse the cooled areas of the liquid throughout. You could also use ice in the same way we used the fifth gallon of water to top it off, making sure that it’s frozen spring water.
This image is actually from our previous brew. Temps outside were so cold for this brew that we didn’t even need the ice bath.
The best way to do it though would be to use a wort chiller. Remember that coiled contraption from our equipment post? You submerge it in the wort and hook one end up to the garden hose so that cold water is constantly running through it, effectively cooling down the wort to below 80 degrees. We actually combine this with an ice bath for extra cooling and within 15-20 minutes we’re there!
After cooling, you’re quickly approaching the end of the initial brewing process! Next up is taking a starting gravity reading, which I unfortunately didn’t take a picture of. Like I’d mentioned in the equipment post, this is done with the hydrometer to measure “the ratio of the density of the liquid to the density of water”. With this plus the final gravity reading before bottling, you’ll basically be able to know how drunk you’re going to get from your brew. You simply place the hydrometer and siphon some of the wort into your hydrometer test jar, take a reading from the now floating hydrometer, and jot it down for future reference.
In the case of this specific brew, we ended up with a starting gravity of 1.066. The ideal range is supposed to be around 1.054-1.058, so we were a little over, but we’re not too high that it’s a big deal. I’ve since learned that because we took the reading before aerating it, that can make a difference, especially if you’ve added top off water that hasn’t been well mixed with the wort, so next time we’ll just take it after it’s been aerated. The final gravity is supposed to be somewhere between 1.010 and 1.012, which when plugging it into the ABV equation will give us between a 7 and 7.3% alcohol content.
After taking the reading, we used the auto-siphon to transfer the wort into the carboy for primary fermentation. Our goal is to end up with the clearest beer possible, so when transferring, we used one of the grain bags to act as a filter, collecting any sediment in the wort before it goes into the carboy. We haven’t read anything that says not to do it, so we just figure it can’t hurt to do this between every transfer so the beer is as clean as possible.
Once transferred, it’s time to aerate. There are air pumps and even oxygen tank apparatuses out there sold specifically for this purpose, but as stated in our equipment post, we’re just using an air mattress pump for now. With our last three batches, we’ve successfully activated the yeast using a pump and swirl/shake aeration process, so thus far we’re in pretty good shape. The reason for the shaking and swirling is that the pump isn’t quite strong enough to combat the pressure of the water at the bottom of the carboy, so it only reaches down 1/3 of the way.
After 15 – 20 minutes of aeration, it’s time to pitch the yeast, which is exciting because that means you’re pretty much done! Pitching was a little bit messy for our first brew simply because pouring it from the test tube to the carboy was a little tricky. We’ve since started using a sanitized funnel, making sure to pour a little more spring water after the yeast to rinse any excess yeast in the funnel and on the sides of the carboy into the wort.
Now, depending on the beer you’re brewing, all you have to do is set up your airlock and you’re ready to let it do it’s thing! In normal cases, it’s a simple sanitized bung and airlock set up. The airlock get’s half filled with vodka or sanitized water and plugged into the carboy, but as mentioned previously, we had to go with the large tube running into a bucket of water in case of krausen overflow.
Important note: the yeast will require a specific temperature range to activate and ferment at, so depending on your ambient temperature and the beer you’re brewing, you may need to remedy this . The yeast we used (White Labs Belgian Wit Ale Yeast), for example, needs to activate at a temperature over 70 degrees F (21 C) with an optimal fermentation temp of between 67 and 74 degrees F (19 – 23 C). The current temperature in our basement is around 60 degrees F (15 C), so in order to activate and ferment, we have an electric blanket around it on low, keeping it right around 70 degrees.
It’s not the most accurate and effective means to do so, but it’s what we’ve got for now. Something you might add to your collection of equipment in the event you start up is temperature control devices such as these.
Depending on the yeast and beer you’re brewing, you should see a healthy fermentation start within 12 hours to 3 days. Ours took about 18 hours to begin fermenting and is still going strong!
This initial fermentation stage will last somewhere around two weeks and then we’ll transfer it over to a second carboy (the one our Porter is currently in) for a secondary fermentation for further clarity. After it sits in there for about a month we’ll bottle it up and if I’m not mistaken, these will be in the bottle around 2 months before they reach their best taste. We’ll crack one open at around 2 weeks though, just to check on the status.
We’ll be sure to make a quick post about the bottling process when we bottle the Porter in two weeks, that way we have an account of our entire process!
Hopefully some of you who are interested in brewing and have managed to make it this far into the post are even more exited about the prospect now that you have a good idea of what goes on.
Hopefully I haven’t scared you away from it, because if you’re a beer drinker, it’s incredibly satisfying to be able to create your own beer, and even though it may seem a little complicated, it’s actually really easy!
Happy Friday, everyone!
If you’re reading this and are a little more experienced a brewer and I’ve left anything out or gotten anything wrong, please share your experience! We’re very new to this so we have a lot more to learn, so do teach!