I brew my own beer. It has been a hobby of mine for more than 15 years. When people learn this fact, I get many different reactions. Some people picture me as a chemist, in a white lab coat working with beakers, test tubes, and Bunsen burners. Others envision huge kitchen messes and beers exploding in the basement. Fortunately, the reality and process of beer brewing is quite different. I am not a chemist, nor do I make a huge mess when I brew. There are basically two types of brewing methodologies; all-grain and extract. To debunk many of the myths and misunderstandings of home brewing, I will outline both processes of making beer.
All-grain brewing involves purchasing malt in grain form, and steeping it in hot water for a particular amount of time to create liquid malt. This process is called mashing. When the hot water comes in contact with the grain there is an enzymatic reaction. Starches from the grain are broken down into small sugars and malto-dexterines through multiple stages of reactions. Using different types of grains and changing the temperature of the water will impact the conversion rate and will result in different sugars being produced. The mashing process gives the brewer a considerable amount of control over the types and quantities of sugar in the resulting liquid malt. Although it takes longer and is more complicated, many brewers prefer the all-grain method for this reason. In addition, many brewers feel that the all-grain method results in a higher quality of beer. Given that all major breweries worldwide use the all-grain method, I tend to agree with this theory.
Extract brewing involves purchasing a liquid form of malt that has already been processed. A factory conducts a mash of grains based on a specific mash schedule. The resulting liquid is then condensed and packaged into containers for sale to home brewers. In some cases, the malt is further processed to reduce it to powder form so that it can be shipped easily. Most brewing supply stores sell three to five different types of malt extract. Each type is made using different grains and mash schedules, and will result in different amounts of beer sugars and flavors. Brewers buy the malt extract that is best suited for each recipe. The benefit of extract brewing is that it is a much quicker process. The average extract brewer will save about two hours of time as a resulting of not having to complete the mash step. Unfortunately, the extract brewer loses all control over the amounts and types of sugars in the malt. Brewers are forced to use what the factory provides. Buying malt extract is also more expensive than buying the grains needed to make malt.
If liquid malt extract is used, the malt is poured directly into the boil kettle. For dry malt, the powder is slowly poured into a small container of water while stirring feverously with a spoon. The stirring process ensures that the malt powder is mixed evenly and contains no clumps. Once it is thoroughly mixed, the now liquid malt is poured into the boil kettle. From this point on, the all-grain brewing process is exactly the same as the extract brewing process.
The malt in the boil kettle is heated to a boil for sixty to ninety minutes. Hops are added at different time intervals to change the way that the beer tastes. Once the boil is complete, the wort is allowed to cool and is combined with yeast is a large glass carboy. The carboys are placed in a dark area which has a consistent temperature of 65° to 75°F. The beer ferments for two weeks in the carboy. During this time phase the yeast eats the sugars and nutrients from the malt. As they eat the yeast multiply rapidly and produce alcohol by-products. By the end of the two weeks, the yeast has eaten all of the sugars available in the beer. They become dormant, and fall to the bottom of the carboy. A long plastic tube is used to siphon the beer off of the dormant yeast cells and transfer it into kegs for carbonation and dispensing. One full day after entering the kegs, the beer can be sampled for the first time.
Brewing may sound complicated and time consuming, but the process is easy once you have done it a few times. Choosing between the all-grain and extract process is a personal decision that each brewer must make. There are pros and cons to each method so it is a very personal decision. This decision depends on the brewer’s skill level, equipment, and time available for the process. Ultimately, both the extract and all-grain method can result an outstanding and repeatable beer.