Hop, Vine, and Barrel: Homebrewing

by Matt and Lauren Foster.

Welcome to Hop, Vine, and Barrel, where we serve only the MOST local concoctions around! We’re glad you found your way back again, because today we have the most local thing you can find anywhere! Today we’ll be pouring from your own stash. What can be more local that beer brewed in YOUR house?

Hops on the vine.

Hops on the vine.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: “Homebrew? Isn’t that MOONSHINE!? Like what those crazy guys on the Discovery Channel do? And isn’t it ILLEGAL!!?” No, and no, and no, again. Moonshine is product of a still, which distills liquor. Homebrew is beer brewed at home and is legal in all states as of 2013 (Some states allow for municipal options regarding its legality.). Most states permit up to 200 gallons per year to be produced by homes with two adults residing in them. You’re going to make five gallons.

The first thing you need to do is secure some equipment. At it’s most basic, you’ll need a large stew pot, something suitable for fermentation (plastic buckets with lids work well), an airlock, tubing, and a spoon. You’ll need more to bottle the beer, but that since that’s about a week or so away, you can get to that then.

Every homebrew store on the planet sells beginner kits that include almost everything we just mentioned (except the stew pot in most cases), plus bottling equipment, usually for under $100. It’s really the best way to go to get started: The fermentation bucket will be made from food grade plastic, and the lid will be pre-punched for an airlock, and you might even get a discount on your first brewing ingredients kit (highly recommended for the first brew day). In our area, I know of South Shore Homebrew Emporium, in Weymouth and Pioppi’s in Plymouth. There are also several online retailers.

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Brewing can be as simple as making Campbell’s soup (which is what we’re going to talk about) or as difficult as baking a cake from scratch. The main point is to collect fermentable sugars and let the yeast eat them.

Step one is the boil. Sanitize a sugar syrup (malt extract) derived from grain. The malt extract typically comes in a 3.3 pound can, and most 5 gallon brews call for two of them. They come in various colors for brewing everything from pilsners to ambers to stouts, and are all simple to use. Start heating 2 ½ gallons of water in the stew kettle. As the water comes to a boil, slowly stir in the cans of malt extract.  Congratulations, you’ve created wort (say: wert), which is the term brewers use for unfermented beer! Remember to stir the wort every five minutes or so, to prevent it from burning to the bottom of the pot.

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Boil the wort for about 60 minutes, adding hops at preset intervals, according to the recipe you chose. The first hops are usually added at the start of the boil (60 minute addition: we always count down) for bitterness. Without hops, wort is a sticky, syrupy, sweet liquid. We add hops for their bitterness to counteract that sweetness, and bring balance to the finished product.

At about 30 minutes in, you’ll add your second dose of hops. This dose will add that hop variety’s particular flavor to the beer. Not only do hops add bitterness to beer, but also flavor and aroma. Hops can have widely varying flavors: from floral, to citrus, to tropical fruit, to a candy-like sweetness! The longer hops are boiled, the more aroma and flavor is lost. This is why the first dose of hops is also called the “bittering” addition.

With about five minutes left to go in the boil, add your third (and for simple beers, last) dose. These are the aroma hops. Hop aromas tend to mimic hop flavors: floral, grapefruit, mango, and grassy aromas can all be found in finished beer, and all are due to hop additions.

Hop pellets.

Hop pellets.

At the end of the 60 minutes, dip your spoon into the wort and give it one last vigorous stir. This will create a whirlpool that will move all of the hop remnants to the center of your pot, and help keep them out of your fermenter. Now it’s time to cover and cool the wort. You spent the last hour boiling it in part to create a sanitary environment for the yeast to work in. You don’t want to invite unwanted bugs in now.

Cooling the wort can involve many different tools, but for starting out the best option is still an ice bath. Carefully carry your pot to your sink, and fill it about halfway with cold water and ice cubes. Your near boiling wort should be right around 70 degrees within an hour.

 

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Ice bath.

 

What should you do with that hour? CLEAN! And SANITIZE! Your fermentation vessel will need a complete cleaning and sanitization before you can add your chilled wort to it. A mild bleach solution works, but be sure to rinse it thoroughly! Every part of the fermentation vessel (lid and airlock included) should be sanitized. Once that’s done, and your wort’s chilled, we can start the final step of brew day.

First, add 2 gallons of cold water to the fermentation vessel. This water, when added to your wort, brings your final total to around five gallons of beer, slowly add your chilled wort to this water (Add more water if you find yourself shy of five gallons.), then add your yeast to the mixture. Place the cover on tightly, and give the whole thing a gentle rock, mixing the yeast solution into the wort. Put some water in the airlock, and pop it into the hole provided in the fermentation vessel lid, and your job is nearly done.

Ale yeast works best in temperatures ranging from 55-75 degrees Fahrenheit, so find a place with a fairly consistent temperature in that range, preferably out of direct sunlight, and watch it over the next 24 hours or so.  Before the end of the second day, you should start to see some vigorous activity in your airlock. This is the sign that fermentation has started, as the carbon dioxide produced by the yeast is escaping through the airlock. After 3-5 days of active fermentation, you’ll notice it will slow to a crawl, then stop altogether. Give the beer (it’s BEER now!) another day of zero activity in the airlock before starting the bottling process.

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Five gallons of beer will net you about 2 cases, or forty-eight 12 ounce bottles. These bottles, like everything that touches your wort/beer after the boil, must be cleaned and sanitized thoroughly. You can use the same process you used to sanitize your fermentation vessel to sanitize your bottles and bottling equipment.

The kits we spoke of earlier usually come with a separate bottling bucket with a spigot, as well as hoses and pressure-dependent bottling wands. Without them bottling is difficult, but not impossible. We can use siphoning and gravity to move beer from the fermentation vessel to bottles, but it is much easier with fancy tools.

Before we bottle your beer, you have to wake up your yeast, since that’s how you’re going to carbonate your beer. Boil about 2/3 of a cup of corn sugar (dextrose) in a pint of water for 5-10 minutes, stirring to prevent burning. Let it cool while you sanitize your bottles and bottling equipment. When it’s cool (we’re going to assume you have the cool tools, because, as we said before, it’s WAY easier if you do), add it to the “bottling bucket.” Then add your beer to the bottling bucket, allowing the beer to mix with the sugar water you placed in initially. The only thing left to do is fill your bottles, cap the bottles (with the provided bottle capper and sanitized bottles caps (we DID say EVERYTHING)), put them in a cool dark place, and wait.

Pre-carbonated, before bottling.

Pre-carbonated, before bottling.

Over the next two weeks or so, the yeast remaining in your beer will consume the sugar you added prior to bottling. Just like during fermentation, they’ll produce carbon dioxide and alcohol (though it’s a miniscule amount of alcohol). The carbon dioxide will float to the top of the bottle, be stopped by the cap, and eventually settle throughout the beer, naturally carbonating it (also called “bottle conditioning”). After about two weeks you should have two cases of well-carbonated beer…beer you made yourself, which is more local than anything else we can present to you!

As always, drink responsibly, and locally!

Matt and Lauren Foster share a love of a well-crafted beverage (as well as their two children!), and have been exploring the world of beer, wine and cocktails together for nearly 10 years. 

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