I’ve explored the three simplest levels of homebrewing so far. All have used extract rather than mashed grains (mashing is the process of converting the starch in the grains to sugars). “Extract” is wort (unfermented beer) from grain that has already been mashed by a brewery and then condensed into either a syrup or a powder. Extract brewing is very suitable for stovetop homebrewing, generally using only one kettle and burner, and a limited water volume to boil. The simplest method uses hopped extract. That’s what Mr. Beer is. There’s no boil and no hop additions. Just heat water, dissolve the extract, cool, and stick in the fermenter. The amount in the kettle is usually smaller than the desired batch size so makeup water is added. This is planned for in the recipe so the result isn’t diluted. In the fermenter, yeast consumes the sugars in the wort and produces carbon dioxide and alcohol. The CO2 isn’t used and is vented (after fermentation is complete, CO2 is added for carbonation). The alcohol is the point of the exercise. A more complicated method of using extract is simply referred to as extract brewing. In this case,the brewer didn’t add hops before condensing the wort. To use this, you heat water, dissolve the liquid and/or syrup extract, and then bring to a boil, usually for one hour. During the boil, hops are added at various intervals to cancel out the sweetness that is a characteristic of wort, and to add flavor and aroma. Then it goes into the fermenter and any needed makeup water is added. Partial extract brewing is similar but before dissolving the extract one steeps specialty grains in the heated water, usually for twenty minutes or so. These don’t add any fermentables to the wort but do add color and more compexity to the taste. From that point, the process is the same as extract brewing. I’ve done those three so far, and have found that increased effort brings rewards; the partial extracts have been my best beers.
The next level of complexity is called partial mash (or, sometimes, mini-mash). In this process, some (usually about half) of the extract is replaced by actual grains. These are “mashed” (soaked at a controlled temperture for an hour or so) and do contribute fermentable sugars to the wort. Then the extract is added to make up the remaining fermentable sugars. The result is then boiled and hops added as required. After the boil makeup water is added if needed, and it goes into the fermenter.
The next level of complexity is all grain brewing. In this, extract is generally not used and, when used, provides only a small portion of the fermentable sugars. Usually, all of the fermentable sugars in the wort come from conversion of starch in the grains. All of the wort volume for the entire batch is present in the boil; no makeup water is added. These characteristics require a more complex setup and the greater (full batch) boil volumes generally dictate a larger heat source than a stovetop. Propane is the most common fuel, though a number of electric brew systems are in use as well. I’ll write about all grain brewing after I gain some experience at it. There’s a stovetop variant known as Brew in a Bag, but most all grain brewers use two or three (usually three) vessels on a brewstand with multiple burners and multiple levels so that gravity can be used to transfer liquids from one container to another. That’s the system I’ll be using. The modern trend is toward single level brewstands incorporating one or more pumps to manage liquid transfers. A number of newer setups also include temperature-controlled burners (either gas or electric), for varying degrees of automation.
I’ve been pushing “production” because there’s a gathering of local astronomers coming up at my place and I want to be able to offer some variety of homebrew samples. I’ll be kegging batches 4 and 5 tomorrow night. batches 6 and 7 are in the fermenters and won’t be ready for this sesson – but there’ll be another soon enough. I figure I’m sufficiently ahead to relax a bit and work on infrastructure. It’s been a learning experience, for sure. Fortunately, none of the lessons have been particularly expensive or disastrous. This is fun.
The photos at the top of this post show some of the changes I’ve made. At the left are the two kegerators. They will permit me to keep 6 kegs cooled and under CO2. In the middle is a project that has not yet reached the stage of producing anything. It will permit me to go to all grain brewing, and to increase my batch size from 5 gallons to 10 gallons (or a little more). The trial run of that rig is planned for June 13 so watch this spot. At the right is a tap handle that is currently installed on one of the kegerators, though it wasn’t yet there when the kegerators photo was taken.