Words to live by: "Relax, don't worry, have a homebrew."
— Charlie Papazian, The Complete Joy of Homebrewing, 3rd edition
Observations from a mild-mannered Eugene craft beer blogger at Learn to Homebrew Day 2010
If you can read, you can brew beer. Actually, even the reading may be optional. If you can keep equipment clean and mix malt, hops, water and yeast, you can brew beer. On Saturday, Nov. 6, 2010, Jeff Althouse of Oakshire Brewing and the brewing-mad members of the Cascade Brewers Society teamed up to prove just that.
Brewing is much simpler than most people think — though as with anything simple, you can get as increasingly meticulous and complex as you want. The setup at Oakshire reflected how you can take many different approaches to get to the same result: a damn tasty batch of homebrewed beer. Beneath tents in the brewery parking lot, homegrown setups included everything from Cajun cookers heating pots of liquid, to barley soaking in Igloo coolers. The beers were just as varied in the day's brew sessions, with lads cooking up everything from a Black Butte Porter clone to a Rye IPA.
Many of the setups outside were all-grain brewing, where brewers first take grain and make their own malt extract, and then continue on with adding hops and boiling and cooling the concoction into yeast-ready wort, or unfermented beer. Inside the brewery, Oakshire founder and owner Jeff Althouse demonstrated extract brewing. Setup at a newly constructed demonstration area (conveniently located directly across from the well-stocked taps), Jeff went over the fine points of grain, malt extract, hops, water, yeast and sanitation, and walked a large crowd through brewing a hoppy American-style Red Ale.
Brewing is a curious thing. Beer is forgiving of conditions, limited brewer experience, and a variety of ingredients — up to a point. The key is to manage what Jeff referred to as "critical control points". Most critical control points revolve around two big factors: temperature and sanitation.
Temperatures are important. When extract brewing, many sessions begin with steeping whole grains (think a really, really big tea bag) in 150ºF water, held at that temperature for 20-30 minutes. The temperature is key in extracting the right amount of sugars, enzymes and color from the steeped grains. Too cool, you won't get enough. Too hot, and just as with coffee made with water that's too hot, you'll wind up with excess bitterness and compounds that can throw off the intended flavor of your beer.
After the steep, you add malt extracts (either dried malt extract, also known as DME, or liquid malt extract, also known, surprisingly enough, as LME) and then increase temperature until you're at hot rolling boil. At this point you'll generally add hops, and temperature, again, is critical. A long boil is needed to pull out the hop compounds that give beer is bitterness, and mix them fully into the wort. Only time and heat will accomplish this, and without them, your beer will lack the hoppiness needed to balance the sweetness of the malt.
The long boil serves another crucial purpose: sanitation. After boiling for an hour (a typical length of an extract brew boil time), your wort is pretty much sterile. This is good, because, once cooled, the sugar-rich liquid you've made will be a perfect environment for yeast to get their buffet on. Unfortunately, things like molds and unwanted yeasts also really, really like wort, and if they're not boiled (or are introduced later through unsanitized equipment), you will likely wind up with a crappy tasting batch of beer. Don't worry about pathogens though — no known pathogens can survive in beer. If your beer gets "infected," the worst thing that happens is that your compost pile will get to drink the beer, instead of you.
For all the time spent heating and boiling your wort, even more critical is cooling it down, and quickly. From a boiling point of 212ºF, you want to quickly drop the wort's temperature to under 85ºF. At this point, you can add your yeast to the wort without killing them, and they will get to work doing that amazing alchemy of turning sugar water into lovely, beautiful, malty, hoppy, buzzy beer.
"Cracking" your grain before brewing is essential. Your homebrew shop will do this for you, or if you decide you really really want to control the degree of cracking, you can purchase your own equipment for home.
Just as critical as temperature control, is sanitation. From iodine to bleach solutions to no-rinse chemical solutions, every piece of wort-touching equipment must be not only clean, but sanitized so beer does not become "infected" with unwanted microbes that can spoil its flavors and character. Jeff demonstrated how to clean a glass carboy, how to mix an iodine sanitizing solution, and how you always keep a pot or bucket or sink basin of sanitizing solution handy, so that every piece of gear is always sanitized.
Many people had questions about water, and Jeff was quick to point out how we in Eugene are among the most fortunate in the world. "We have some of the best tap water in the world." We don't need filtered water, distilled water, or anything other than what comes right out of the home sink. From overall water quality to mineral content, "I recommend heating up the water and making beer out of it, here in Eugene."
Throughout the day, people roamed in and out of the brewery, wandering the different tents, talking with brewers. Ultimately, everyone circled back to the tasting counter for another sampler or pint of Oakshire beers, from their standby Watershed IPA and standout Overcast Espresso Stout, to the rare treats such as the single-batch Novemberfest Marzen Lager. I'll say no more about the Novemberfest, mainly because I don't want you to drink the rest before I can get back down to the tasting room.
At the end of the day, buckets of wort were cooling and fermentation vessels were being filled. Jeff's red ale will be a small batch, about 3 gallons, due to copious hops clogging the brew pot's spout when Jeff was trying to pour off the beer.
These things happen, though — and beer is very forgiving. Give it good ingredients, keep your equipment sanitized, don't let yourself worry, and, as shown on this Learn to Homebrew Day, you too can make some damn tasty beer.
Ready to brew? Here's what to do next…
Visit your local homebrew shop. In the Eugene area, we have 2 choose from:
Check out brewing resources such as
- Cascade Brewers Society
- Beer Northwest
- Beer and Coding in Eugene
- Northwest Brewing News
- Home Brew Forums
- Real Beer
- Home Brew Talk
- Beer Advocate
- American Homebrewers Association
Get these 2 books
- The Complete Joy of Homebrewing, 3rd edition
- How to Brew: Everything You Need To Know To Brew Beer Right The First Time, by John J. Palmer
Sample. Field research is everything, after all. Pull up a pint at some of amazing area pubs, brew shops and bottle shops:
- Bier Stein
- 16 Tons
- Hop Valley
- Steelhead Brewing Company
- Brewers Union Local 180 (in Oakridge, but worth the trip)
- Eugene City Brewery by Rogue
More about Learn to Homebrew Day
- Homebrewing Becoming a Growing Trend – By Stacia Kalinoski | KEZI
- Learn to Homebrew Day – About – American Homebrewers Association (AHA)
- Homebrew beer: From purge to pour – By Kelly Koopmans | KVAL CBS 13 – News, Weather and Sports – Eugene, OR – Eugene, Oregon | Local & Regional News
- Cascade Brewers Society – Events
Brew your first batch of homebrew? I'd love to know what it was like and how it's coming along.