The Thirsty Beagle: Homebrewers' Corner with the Red Earth Brewers

Friday, June 19, 2015

Homebrewers' Corner with the Red Earth Brewers

Diving into homebrewing can be somewhat of a mystifying experience.

Looking back at when I broke into the hobby, I can recall being confused because homebrewers have names for everything, and they prefer to call everything by its name, even when there's a much more straightforward explanation or description.

I remember overhearing the terms "strike water" and "hot liquor," and wondering what the hell that was. Turns out, strike water and hot liquor are just the water you've heated up right before you add your grains. Couldn't we just call it, you know, the water?

Alas, I never met a homebrewer who wouldn't explain what something meant if you just asked -- it's a great community of people to get tied up with.

So what if you decide you'd like to get involved with the community and the hobby? I can help you with that. I've teamed up with the Red Earth Brewers homebrew club for a series of occasional columns to talk about homebrewing from the ground up.

Today's contributor is Red Earth member Sean McCanne. Sean has penned a great intro and explainer on many of the facets of homebrewing. I'll post the first half of it today, and follow up with the remainder next week.

Take it away, Sean:

So you're thinking about homebrewing? If you're anything like me, you've already read some of the thousands of articles, lurked on dozens of forums with more posts and conflicting ideas than you can count, and maybe you've even bought a book or subscribed to a magazine. You've seen pictures of big, shiny brewing rigs, and entire rooms dedicated to the craft of crafting beer.

You've seen that there are stores that sell homebrewing equipment and ingredients and maybe you've even gone to one of them and looked around at all the gear. 

There's so much information, so many people, so many things to buy, so many opinions ... who do you listen to? It can just be confusing. But it doesn't have to be. 

I’m not going to go in to a lot of equipment, temperature, volume, or recipe specifics here, I’m just going to help you sort through the noise. There are many books and other documents about the technical parts of brewing beer that will give you additional detail. This isn’t supposed to teach you how to brew beer, but to help you decide how you want to brew beer.

And yes, homebrewing can be easy.

We're going to cover several topics in this homebrewing primer.

1. Basic equipment

2. Brewing the same beer in different ways

3. Extract brewing

4. All-grain brewing

5. Tech support and the Oklahoma homebrewing community 

But first, how about a glossary? 

I know you normally find these at the end, but there are some things that could use explaining up front. 

Some of the words you hear don't make any sense. Wort, sparge, vorlauf, mash. Really? So I'll add these at the beginning of each section as necessary. 

1. Basic equipment 

There are a lot of ways to start homebrewing and what you do up front is in large part determined by two things: the amount of space you have and the amount of money you want to spend. Brewing takes up space, there's some special equipment, and there's a bit of an entry fee in a pot, and buckets or carboys no matter how you decide to do it.

Let's go through the basics of what you'll need regardless of how you choose to proceed.

"How to Brew" By John Palmer. Read this book. I (and most of the brewers I know) highly recommend it. 

“How to Brew” will go in much more detail on most topics than I do here. It can help you start off from scratch and will be useful to you for your entire brewing career. You can buy it from your local homebrew shop (LHBS), and while you're there you can introduce yourself and ask about brewing. Tell them you're new and considering it. I've not met anyone at a LHBS that isn't helpful.

Most LHBSs or online stores have a set of basic brewing gear for sale in kit form, with large plastic buckets, hydrometer, bottle capper and caps, maybe a carboy (big glass jug), bottling wand, bottling brush, sanitizer, and an instructional DVD. I'd recommend one of these because it will have a lot of what you need up front. And you'll use all of it no matter the direction you go.

You'll also need a pot. Some folks brew in enameled pots and some in aluminum, but most use stainless. 

There are pots available for all price ranges, but you can get a perfectly good stainless pot in the 5 gallon range for less than $50 most places. While you're doing that, get a long stainless or plastic spoon. Don't use wood because you can't sanitize it.

You'll need bottles (unless you're kegging). You can buy bottles ... wait ... you drink beer, right? Save your bottles. Rinse them out and strip the labels off. For your first batch you'll need about two cases (48) of them. Just don't bother saving the bottles with twist caps. You can't reuse them with a standard capper.

Now that you have the basic equipment, let's talk about how you brew beer. 

2. Brewing the same beer in different ways 


-Wort: In its simplest form ... sugar water used for making beer. It's pre-beer, if you will.

-Hops: Flowers of the hop plant. They add bitterness, flavor, and aroma to beer. Added to the wort and boiled or steeped.

-Yeast: The same little buggers that make bread rise. Except brewing yeast is highly specialized for beer in general and especially to the type of beer you're making. Yeast gets "pitched" into the wort to start fermentation.

When you make beer, you make wort, add hops, boil, cool, and then pitch yeast. The yeast eats the sugar in the wort and the happy result (for us) is alcohol and flavor. The yeast really doesn't care and most of it doesn't survive the long-term process anyway.

To be a little more detailed...

1. Make the wort

2. Boil the wort and add hops

3. Chill the wort

4. Put the wort in your bucket or carboy and pitch yeast

5. Wait for a week or two

6. Bottle or keg the beer

7. Wait until it's carbonated

8. Drink

The big differences are all in step 1.

There are two basic ways to do that step 1: using packaged malt sugar extracts, or extracting the sugar yourself using all-grain. Extracts are easier, faster, and normally require less equipment. You only boil part of the wort and later top off with more clean water to reach your batch size, so you can get a smaller pot.

All-grain is more customizable and (dare I say it) makes better beer in general. You do generally boil a larger volume of wort but you don’t have to top off with water. After step 1 the rest is the same. You use the same hops, the same boiling procedures, same sanitation, cooling, fermentation, waiting, and packaging. Let's go through the different ways to accomplish step 1. 

3. Extract brewing 


-Malted barley: Barley grain that has been germinated and then heated to stop the germination process. Some malt is very light and neutral in flavor, some is very dark and roasty, and there's every color and flavor in between.

-Mash: The process of soaking malted barley in hot water to convert starches in to simple sugars and then rinsing that sugar out, creating wort.

-Malt extract: Wort that's been concentrated into a syrup: liquid malt extract (LME); or dried into a powder: dry malt extract (DME). Extracts can come in different colors and flavors (darker is richer and roastier generally) based on the malted barley used in its production.

There are several different ways to brew with extracts, but I'm only going to discuss three of them:

1. Extract kit with grains: You get LME or DME and a small amount of specialty color or flavor malts to add depth and character to the beer but no large amount of sugar.

2. Partial mash kit: Like the extract kit with grains, but contains a much larger amount of grain and less malt extract, meaning you extract your own sugar and supplement it with extract instead of the other way around.

3. Build your own extract kit: You can design your own recipe with extracts and grains as you like, but I have a better option for you later. 

Extract kits with grains

Process: The malt extracts provide the sugar and sometimes more color and flavor. The grains get steeped in your pot like a tea bag in hot water and you add the extracts. That's step 1 for an extract kit. Then you follow steps 2 through 8.

Pros: This is the quickest and easiest way to get started, and there are kits for almost every taste. From the lightest wheat beer to IPAs to imperial stouts, you can make almost anything from a kit. They make pretty darn good beer and I know that a very large percentage of new brewers (including me) started that way.

Cons: If your kit comes with an amber or dark extract you have no control over what grains the manufacturer used. You'll probably get the flavors you're looking for, but it's really someone else's vision you're working with. Still, extract kits make some pretty good beer. 

Partial Mash kits

Process: You soak the larger amount of grains in your pot in hot water for about an hour. This is a small mash. You get a larger amount of your wort's sugars from this process. You remove the bag from the new wort and add the extract. That's step 1. Now you follow steps 2 through 8. 

Pros: This is more involved than an extract kit, and about half way to all-grain. Because there's more grain involved and less extract the flavor can be more customized and you will have a better overall beer. You also don't really need any more equipment ... just a larger mesh bag. This will make better beer than an extract with grains kit.

Cons: This takes longer and still uses extract to make up a good amount of the sugar content of the wort.

Build your own kit 

After the first several off-the-shelf kits I brewed I started building my own "kits" with extract and grains. After all, I could buy grains, and I could buy extracts. I quickly learned that using a light or extra light extract and more specialty grains to make up color and flavor made a much better beer than using the darker extracts and fewer grains. I didn't go to partial mash, but I got close. 

Process: Just like the kits above, but you design the recipe based on your tastes.

Pros: The real pro is that you can basically build whatever beer you want. It's your vision now. My first couple of build your own kit brews were less than stellar but it helped me develop my understanding of flavors and increased my brewing knowledge.

Cons: Companies who build kits brew them many times before they sell them to you. If you're going to spend the money on ingredients you want good beer the first time. This doesn't always happen. 

OK, Nick here. Hate to break up the party, but that will do it for today. Informative, right? Tune in next week for the conclusion of Sean's guest blog.

Pints and Pins

-Reminder: Republic is hosting a Prairie Beer Dinner on Tuesday. Call 286-4577 for more info.

-This may just be one of the saddest things I've ever read.

-Your upcoming Monday pint nights at the McNellie's pubs: Founders Porter in OKC; Bitburger in Tulsa; Left Hand Good Juju at Tulsa-South; and Mustang Washita Wheat in Norman.


  1. Yeah also helps prevent Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease.

    The more hops the better!