History has seen beer recorded in Mesopotamian cuneiform (the oldest known form of writing), taxed under the Pharaohs (burial alive was then the penalty for evasion), rinsed through Cleopatra’s hair, spread by the vikings and the Roman legions, fostered at medieval monasteries, mass-produced by America's founding fathers, prohibited by our Constitution (only to be monopolized by gangsters immediately thereafter), and imbibed by just about everybody and his grandma. Yesterday's "Mesopotamian Gold" is being rolled out by the US today—hundreds of thousands of barrels per year. By no means does that figure account for the almost 4,000 - 5,000 different beers consumed worldwide: ales, bocks, lagers, porters, stouts—everything from bitter beers that are virtually unpalatable unless mixed with sweet syrups to crystal clear to warm sakis served in Japanese restaurants. To top it off, more and more people are now resorting to home-brewing.
At the outset, the home-brew hobbyist is impeded by laws that revolve around a curious double standard. True, it is legal to manufacture, sell, and possess brewing equipment. It is also legal for adults to make up to 200 gallons of strong wine each year, if they've registered with the US Treasury's ATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms). Pencil-pushers in Washington, however, have stipulated that beer can only be made within the confines of commercial breweries. So much for the Wonderful World of Jurisprudence.
For the moment, quaff one of your favorite brands and consider the merits of home brewing. Other than a hangover and the outside chance of an exploding bottle, there are no hazards since neither flammable solvents nor poisonous chemicals are involved. Poorly made beer, unlike other "bad" drugs, harms no one and can be discarded without major financial loss. A genuine plus is that the home brewer can make good beer for pennies per bottle once they get the hang of it. What's most important is that home brewing is no harder than maintaining an aquarium.
Yeast cultivation is what brewing is all about. You can't play second fiddle when you haven't got a bow; similarly, you can't make even the most foul concoction without yeast cells—for it is they who produce the alcohol. Yeast, as a form of fungus (a large group of plants including molds, mushrooms, and smuts), has no chlorophyll and therefore cannot make its own food through photosynthesis. Instead, these microorganisms absorb simple sugars. Then they excrete alcohol, their natural waste product, so to be blunt, alcohol is yeast urine. Despite the fact that yeast does all of this chemical processing, or "fermentation," it requires no more compensation than a cool, sealed container of sterile slops.
Aiming to please their public, most American brewers whip out beer that is as clean as godliness (albeit bland); to do so, they add enzymes which break down starches and proteins, making commercial beer look pure. Since mass-producers are loath to age their products long enough, they must amend the resultant lack of natural carbonation by shooting the beer up with carbon dioxide. Unfortunately, artificial carbonation makes for burpy beers with large bubbles and short-lasting heads. This calls for another adjustment. They add a little propylene glycol, a liquid known to laymen as "antifreeze." Goodies such as caramel coloring and gum arabic are tossed in at different stages, strictly for cosmetic purposes. Upon completion, this so-so potable is presented to the public in all its pristine glory-sparkling clean, as suited to a baptismal font as it is to a brown paper bag.
The alternative is a simple home brew. Naturally fermented, without additives, beer takes longer to make and appears somewhat cloudy. But with practice anyone can make beer that is both smooth and tasty. For the maiden batch, I'd recommend the light, hoppy type we're accustomed to—a lager. For personal consumption, a 4-gallon batch would be primo:
- 4 gal. water
- 1 tsp. citric acid
- 2 lbs. malt extract
- 1 tsp. salt
- 1 lb. corn sugar
- 1 tsp. vitamin C (set aside 1/3 yeast nutrients cups)
- 3 oz. hop extract
- 2 oz. brewers' yeast
Whatever you can't cop from your local supermarket will be available at brewery supply stores. Also, be sure to pick up a little extra malt extract and yeast with which to make the ''Starter."
The starter speeds up fermentation and in so doing gives the yeast an edge over possible bacterial contaminants (such as acetobacter, which turns alcohol into vinegar). Mix 2 tablespoons of the malt extract and a pinch of the yeast nutrient into a quart of water. Boil rapidly for three minutes, then pour into a sterilized bottle. Plug the bottle with cotton, and let it cool to room temperature. Add about 3 grams of the brewers' yeast, and put on a "fermentation lock"—a simple valved gizmo that lets out excess carbon dioxide without letting in contaminated air. Age the starter in a cool, dark place for 36 hours.
While waiting for the starter to ferment, kill time by cleaning some necessary equipment. Scrub a 5-gallon plastic bucket with a fairly concentrated solution of baking soda in hot water... pound of baking soda, gallon of water. Let it soak for a couple hours, then rinse it out with hot water: this will remove the industrial film common to plastic pails. Since this bucket is to be the primary fermentor—the container in which the first of two fermentation processes takes place—it must remain as clean as possible. Therefore, it's also a good idea to keep it tightly covered with clear plastic (you might want to see what's going on in there) and masking tape at all times.
As soon as the starter is teeming with yeast, create “wort'': this is raw beer, nutrient soup for the yeast. Boil 1 gallon of water. While it's still piping hot, stir in all the beer-making ingredients listed above, except for the vitamin C, the yeast, the yeast nutrients, and the 1 1/2 cups of sugar you've set aside. This is wort; it must now be poured into the plastic bucket, where it will be mixed with the remaining 3 gallons of water (preferably boiled beforehand).
Optimal yeast growth is ensured by three environmental conditions. The first, darkness, is no problem to provide. Nor, for that matter, is the correct temperature range: most types of yeast thrive between 60 °F and 65 °F, the temperature of a cool cellar. Adjusting the last factor, the specific gravity of the wort, is only slightly more complex.
"Specific gravity" (SG) refers to the sugar content that will be converted into alcohol. It is measured with one of the two pieces of home brewing equipment that must be store-bought, because they are too much of a drag to improvise—the “hydrometer.” (The other piece is the fermentation lock.) Instead of exposing all of the wort to the air for a lengthy period of time, quickly dip out a tall thin glassful and reseal the bucket. For lager, the specific gravity should start off at between 1.035 and 1.038. If the reading is too low, add a bit of sugar; too high, a dash of water. Stir the wort gently, reseal, and take another reading. Once the SG is on the button you're ready to rocket.
Now for fungus husbandry. Stir the yeast, the yeast nutrients, and the starter into the four gallons of wort. Reseal the bucket, cover it with a blanket, and stash it in a cool place. That's it for the work-week.
After a leisurely five-day vacation, check the wort again to see how well the fermentation has progressed. The hydrometer may indicate that the specific gravity is down to 1.010. If so, proceed to the secondary fermentation; if not, give it one more day.
For this you will need a "carboy"—that is, any 5-gallon bottle whose neck will accommodate the fermentation lock. Just siphon the partially fermented lager from the bucket into the carboy, then slap on the fermentation lock.
At this point, slower fermentation is essential to the beer's overall smoothness and flavor. The yeast should be cool, and refrigeration guarantees the ideal temperature range of between 40° F and 50° F. At these temperatures it will take the yeast two or three weeks to convert most of its food into alcohol. Regardless of the time, secondary fermentation is over whenever the specific gravity hits 1.000.
Bottle Your Product
SG 1.000 is what’s called the “terminal gravity” for lager. For you, this means "green" beer aplenty. For the yeast, this is basically the end of the road. It has done its bit; after one last supper it'll be retired for keeps.
You can alter the brewing variables in order to produce radically different types of beer. Variables include the ingredients and their respective amounts; specific gravity; the nature of the yeast grown; and the temperature. The brews presented below will therefore be processed in much the same way as lager, and any necessary changes will be listed beneath each recipe.
Make a revitalizing syrup with some of the green beer, the vitamin C, and the leftover 1 1/2 cup of sugar. As soon as you've siphoned the green beer back into the primary fermentor, leaving behind the sediments in the bottom of the carboy, gently stir in the syrup. In return for this snack, the yeast will age the beer and promote just enough natural carbonation within the freshly-capped bottles.
Bottling is a cinch. About 43 sterilized 12-ounce bottles, with caps to match, will do the trick. Need I mention the bottle-capper? Above all, remember to use dark glass; beer and sunlight don't mix.
Patience is the key to graceful aging. Shelve the bottles—again, in a cool, dark place. Wait for two weeks or so before checking one out. But don't plan on a beer bash for at least three months, when the lager reaches its prime.
Serious hobbyists kick off another batch while they're waiting for the first one to age. Some opt for a gutsy stout, chock full of molasses and black malt. Super-strong ales are also tempting. Or how about something somewhere between a true beer and a mead, tangy and exotic, like honey beer? Thousands of avenues are open to whomever will pursue them.
Here's one designed for relaxation: the extra sugar translates into considerably more alcohol.
- 4 gal. water
- 1 tsp. citric acid
- 3 lbs. dark malt eXtract
- 2 1/2 lbs. brown sugar (set aside ½ cups)
- 3 oz. brewers' gold hops yeast nutrients
- 2 oz. ale yeast
- 1 tsp. salt
- 1 tsp. bitamin C
The starter is made with ale yeast, rather than brewers’ yeast
When using hops instead of the extract, tie them up in a cheesecloth and boil them in one gallon of water for about an hour. Remove the hops and wring the juices back into the pot. This gallon will be used to make the wort.
Starting gravity should be 1.045 or 1.050, but don’t worry about it. Terminal gravity is what counts: 1.004 to 1.006.
Stir regularly during fermentation.
Secondary fermentation is run between 50 and 60 degrees Fahrenheit.
Age four or five months, rather than the three months required by lager.
Darker and sweeter than either ale or lager, stout—traditionally limited to British palates—has gained popularity in the States. And this one's guaranteed to drown the leftover-cornflake blues.
- 4 gal. water
- 2 oz. stout yeast
- 1 lb. crystal malt extract
- 1 tsp. citric acid
- 1 lb. strong molasses
- 1 tsp. salt
- 3 lbs. white sugar
- 1 tsp. vitamin C (set aside 1 1/2 yeast nutrients cups)
- 6 oz. cornflakes
- 2 oz. brewer's gold hops
Starter is made with stout yeast.
Heat the cornflakes in a gallon of water for seven hours at about 150° F. Add the hops, crystal malt (crushed), citric acid, and salt. Bring this mess to a rolling boil for just a minute; simmer 40 minutes, stirring well. Pour through a cheesecloth into the primary fermentor.
Create the wort, and make up the water lost during boiling.
Primary fermentation is run at 60° F to 65° F.
Starting gravity is 1.045 to 1.050; terminal gravity is 1.005.
Secondary fermentation is run at 55° F to 60° F.
Age one or two months.
Beehive Special, a honey beer, comprises a twilight zone between beer and mead. Beer and mead are ordinarily quite different. Malt and hops are essential to beer; to mead, they are not. More like wine, mead (made with honey) is processed with tannic acid and often has a fruit base—not a grain base, like beer.
- 4 gal. water
- 1 oz. Kent hops
- 5 lbs. honey
- 3/4 oz. root ginger (preferably comb honey)
- 1/2 lb. corn sugar
- 1 tisp. tartaric acid (set aside 1 cup)
- 2 oz. ale yeast yeast nutrients
Starter is made three days in advance, with ale yeast.
Chop the ginger, then boil it with the hops and the honey in 2 gallons of water for one hour. Stir well.
Dissolve the acid in one and a half gallons of water, in the primary fermentor. Pour in the boiled glop (through a cheesecloth) and make up the water loss.
When the wort has cooled to 65° F, stir in the yeast and cover.
Both the primary and the secondary fermentation are run at 60° F, give or take five degrees.
Terminal gravity is between 1.005 and 1.010.
Age for two and a half months.