B.I.Y. (Brew It Yourself)

by Rob Lieblein
2009 March 29

BIYHave you been tempted one too many times to pick up the “bag-o-beer” maker down at the WalMart? What stopped you? Well, you probably realized that if God had intended you to be able to make beer in a week, that he would have been doing some serious drinking while resting on the seventh day.

If you’re thinking of brewing your own, put down those plastic brew impostors and read through our brew master’s article. The hardest part is naming your beer.

B.I.Y. (Brew It Yourself)

We tend to be a bunch of hedonistic gluttons. So naturally, we tend to spend a great deal of our time buying and drinking many different beers with the hope that one day we will find that “proto-brew,” or the one beer that truly speaks for us. After all, the beer we drink is a kind of “signature,” much like cheap cologne is for guys from Howard Beach. Furthermore, we’re lazy bastards, so it’s nice to be able to walk into any grocery store, any time of day, and walk out with a six-pack of canned or bottled joy.

But is the easy way always the best way? Remember, we do have a certain amount of masculine pride to maintain, and sometimes I think that driving up to the local market for some brewskies is the equivalent of stopping the car on a journey to ask for directions. It goes against our genetic predisposition to be creators and improvisers.

With all that in mind, I would like to suggest you take a stab at home-brewing. What better way to find a beer that speaks for you than to actually create one that will, in all likelihood, contain some of your very own spit? It’s not all that hard, and requires a relatively modest initial investment.

The Elements

I began brewing Outhouse Beer with a couple of buddies over 15 years ago. The start-up equipment cost us each about $50, and included the following:

  • 1 Carboy. This is a 5-gallon glass container in which the beer ferments. It looks exactly like one of those water cooler jugs you see in offices, where guys usually gather to discuss which secretary has the finest butt. Your carboy may also become a locus for similar intellectual repartee.
  • 1 large plastic bucket—sort of like a giant spackle bucket. Use of this item may vary, depending on the fermentation process you choose. But you will probably use it as a holding tank of sorts prior to bottling your brew.
  • Clear plastic tube for siphoning the beer from bucket to carboy to bottle. NOT to be used as a straw to suck up your unfinished brew.
  • A thermometer and a hydrometer. (Yep, you better check out a few episodes of Bill Nye. We’re gonna record some real scientific data!)
  • An airlock/carboy cap. Ever make a volcano in 2nd grade science class? The initial fermentation process is sorta like that, so you gotta let out some of the gasses produced while keeping out oxygen—the scourge of the brewmaster.
  • 1 bottle-capping device. This bad boy looks like an old-fashioned car jack.
  • Bottle brushes and other cleaning implements.
  • A shitload of flat (non-crimped) bottle caps.
  • Charlie Papazian’s The New Complete Joy of Home Brewing. Indispensible.
  • A beer ingredient kit. A bit more on that later.

Typical KitI should mention that the above list represents the basics for a decent starter kit. This stuff can be purchased through catalogs, brewing specialty shops and countless websites (see the end of this feature). Check them out and buy what’s on the list. DO NOT cut corners by going for the “Mr. Beer” or beer-in-a bag type kits that are sold in K-Mart-like places. These things are the Chia Pets of the beer world. Not only will your beer suck if you use one of these kits, but you will forfeit access to this website (don’t ask, we’ll just know… it involves javascript, cookies and NASA technology).

As basic as bread. Older than the written word…

BarleySo you’ve got your equipment, and maybe you’re asking yourself “Am I really ready for this? What’s all this business about hydrometers and off-gassing? Hell, I don’t even know what goes into beer!” Well my friend, to quote the mantra of Charlie Papazian (author of the book mentioned earlier) “Relax. Don’t worry. Have a home brew.” Beer is made of some surprisingly simple ingredients—malted barley, hops, yeast, and water. Combine these staples correctly, and Mother Nature works her magic to add the bubbles and the alcohol. Your job is to act like a shepherd to create a clean and safe environment for your “flock” (or batch) to thrive.

GrainsIt’s believed that the ancient Egyptians made the first beer-like beverage, and quite possibly by accident. Someone may have left a basket of grain out in the rain, and after a short time it began to germinate. Rather than just dumping the funky mixture, this prescient fella somehow understood that he had the beginnings of a malted grain mixture that could be put to a higher use. Other fermented beverages probably existed at the time, so the next steps toward alcoholification naturally fell into place. So you see, when you brew, you’re taking part in an ancient rite—something bigger than yourself. This gives us a great opportunity to develop our “spiritual” selves without having to listen to Yanni or wear crystals around our necks.

HopsGetting back to more practical matters, though… All the ingredients you’ll need, especially when you’re just getting started, will be included in ingredient kits you can buy through any brewing catalog or specialty store. The kit will typically include a 3-lb. can of malted barley syrup. This stuff is the consistency of molasses, and is very sweet. The bitterness we find so familiar in many beers comes from the addition of hops. So generally, if you have a beer that’s pretty sweet, you’re tasting the malt. Some ingredient kits will come with the malt already “hopped.” In other cases, you have to add your own hops. The first time I bought my own hops I thought they looked a lot like sensamilla buds. I later found out that was no coincidence—hops are in the hemp family (Cannabaceae – like, uh, Cannabis, dude!). As much as I hate to disappoint you stoners out there, you should know that hops don’t contain any of the psychoactive chemicals that make their wacky weed cousins so appealing. Your ingredient kit will also come with a packet of brewer’s yeast. Yeast is the hero of the beermaking process, since it’s responsible for the alcohol and the bubbles.

Some recipes also call for brewing sugar, which can be purchased separately. However, sugar tends to give a “winey” taste to the beer, so I usually prefer to do without. You will need a little bit prior to bottling though, since it will help with carbonation and additional fermentation.

[sniplet Inline Google]

Brews Clues…

I’ll try not to get too bogged down with details, but the brewing process is fairly simple. Boil 2 gallons of water and add the malted barley syrup. I assume this should be no problem, since most of our cooking repertoires often include “boil water…add pasta.” While this is cooking, make sure all your equipment is spanking clean. NEVER USE SOAP. Rather, use a light bleach solution with warm water. Remember, there’s no excuse for dirty equipment—it can royally screw up your beer.

Fill your bucket with 3 gallons cold water, and add the 2 gallons of cooked barley mixture. Transfer this mixture to your carboy. Wait for the temperature of the liquid to dip below 80 degrees F, and add the yeast. If you drop the yeast in while the mixture is too hot, you will wind up killing it.

Some recipes will call for you to mix the yeast with warm water and stir it in. Others may ask you to just sprinkle it on top of the liquid. It all depends on the type of beer you’re making. For example, ales are “top fermenters” while lagers are “bottom fermenters.”

Out back at Belly HQ
Brewmaster Rob and Belly Buddy Dave inspect the carboy’s out back at Belly Headquarters…

Next, grab a beer and a good cigar and wait for the magic of primary fermentation to begin. It normally begins within about 24 hours. Your mixture, called “wort” (pronounced wert), will begin to bubble and percolate, and a scummy foam will begin to rise to the surface. It’s a most spectacular process. Your carboy should be capped with the airlock- it allows CO2 and other gasses to escape while keeping oxygen (wort’s nemesis) out. When this vigorous primary fermentation stops (about 2-3 days) let the wort ferment for another 10 days or so.

Homer would have a heart attack
… and in the basement.

During this period, you’ll be using your hydrometer to calculate the specific gravity of the wort. Basically, specific gravity is a measure of the alcohol and sugar content of the mixture. One liter of plain water weighs one kg (it has a specific gravity of “1”). Additional components in the water (like alcohol!) will change the weight / specific gravity. Your ingredient kit will tell you what reading to look for before you can consider this stage of the process complete. And please, don’t hold out looking for higher readings than called for, in an attempt to create a super-alcoholic brew. You’re just a novice. You WILL fuck it up.

Now you’re ready to bottle. Bottles, like anything your brew comes in contact with, should be immaculately clean. So BOIL them. And use NON-TWIST TOPPED. You can buy empty bottles at homebrew supply shops, but how lame is that? Buy ‘em full and empty them with some friends. Heat a little bit of the wort with some of the brewing sugar and add a little to each bottle—this will help with final fermentation and will initiate the carbonation in the beer. Using your plastic tube, siphon the wort into the bottles, leaving an inch and a half empty—you don’t want your bottles exploding in storage. Cap the bottles and store in a cool, dark place for another two weeks. You’ll have about 2 and 1/2 cases.

When bottling, be careful not to jostle the carboy. You will notice that a few inches of pasty schmegma have settled to the bottom. This is the natural bi-product of the fermentation process. I’ve heard it referred to as veg-a-mite (yes, as in the Men At Work song), but you’ll want avoid adding it to your bottles.

After the longest two weeks of your life, chill your beer, then gently pour it into your favorite beer glass. (There will be some more veg-a-mite at the bottom of the bottle, so try not to disturb it too much.) Drink up!

So, was it good for you?

If your first batch isn’t all you hoped for, remember Papazian: “Don’t worry. Relax. Have a home brew.” Patience is a virtue. The first batch of Outhouse we brewed was surprisingly awesome. Then we suffered through a couple of disappointments—a pilsner we called “Wompahoofus” (flat, with a conspicuous absence of alcohol; what a waste of a good name!) and a stout that was so overly-carbonated that the contents “forcefully ejected” from every bottle we opened.

Barley: Up Close and PersonalThe crowning glory of Outhouse’s storied history, however, was a solo-brewing effort called “Don’t-Do-It-Ed” Ale. (Although Ed did it anyway.) This was brewed for the occasion of a good friend’s wedding, and it did not disappoint. The key to this brew was probably the hops I added myself while the barley mixture was cooking—a very minor example of the many improvisations possible with this age-old craft.

If done properly, making your own beer can be an occasion in itself. Brew with some buddies. Make sure you have some beers on hand and a few good cigars. It will inspire you. Always eat before brewing—it’s a pain in the ass to leave the carboy in mid-siphon to answer the door for the Chinese food guy. And don’t forget, home brewing is good exercise. Think about it, you have to lift that carboy, you stir a boiling mixture, you press down on a handle to cap the bottles. It’s a complete workout, and good training for the “12-ounce curl” marathon to come. You’ll be a fit zymurgist in no time. (Sorry, you’ll have to look that one up.)

Helpful Links

Equipment, ingredients, and literature on home-brewing are easy to find online. A few good places to start are allaboutbeer.com and with the Alstrom brothers at BeerAdvocate.com. Then there is BYO.com where you can find recipes and a beer replicator to create brews similar to your store bought faves.

In addition to the Papazian book I highly recommend, another respected authority on beer and brewing is the late Michael Jackson (not to be confused with LaToya’s brother). Also, Belly Buddy Mark Stevens has several books on home brewing.

Now get away from your computer, summon up that alcohol-diluted testosterone, and get yourself a-brewin’. We’d be happy to hear from you about your adventures.

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