Making your own beer is easier than you think.
No one knows who first created this deliciously golden, thirst-quenching nectar. But everyone agrees it happened long before the advent of civilisation as we know it. Seeking the low-down on this ancient craft, PM’s Sean Woods signed up for a homebrew course… and blew his colleagues away.
Zymurgy, the Greek-derived name for the science of brewing and fermentation, makes the entire process sound overly complicated, perhaps even intimidating. Happily, this isn’t the case: brewing your own beer can be as easy or complex a process as you choose to make it. Basically, if you can stick to a recipe, read a thermometer, use a spoon and understand the need for strict cleanliness, you can brew virtually any style of beer your thirsty palate desires – and yes, it’s really that simple.
Having fond memories of helping my late dad brew beer as a teenager, I’ve often considered picking up the hobby over the years. But it was only on discovering that Cape Town-based BeerLab runs a beer school for novices that I was galvanised into action.
For homebrewers, walking into the BeerLab – a small but thriving Cape Town-based company that supplies equipment and ingredients to the burgeoning homebrew industry – is a delight. Aside from all the cool gear, they stock an impressive range of malted barley, yeasts and hops, sourced locally and from around the world for experienced brewers who like concocting their own all-grain recipes.
For the not-so-brave, inexperienced or time-pressed, they also stock two other options. The cans of liquid malt extract require only that you add water (think Coopers), and are about as simple to make as whipping up an instant soup. However, if you’re looking for something more interesting, the partial-mash kits combine both methods (that is, malted barley and dry malt extract). These are ideal for those who want the convenience of an extract but prefer more complex flavours in their beer.
BeerLab’s founder, Lynnae Endersby, started teaching herself to brew using liquid malt extract back in 2007. She recalls: “I used the cans for about a year, but because I was studying to become a chef and found the science behind cooking and flavours so fascinating, I soon became bored. For me, these beers were too one-dimensional.”
That doesn’t mean they should be written off, though. Endersby elaborates: “I always recommend that novices start with them. It’s a good idea to get at least one batch out of the way without any pressure. A lot of our customers have been brewing cans for years, either because they have no space or because they prefer the shorter turnaround times – they’re definitely not just for beginners.”
Seeking to up her game, Endersby attended a week-long all-grain course under the tutelage of veteran brewer and certified beer judge Nick Birkby.
“Nick is all about all-grain. He spent a night on each ingredient, and I just couldn’t get enough.”
As hardcore homebrewers go, Birkby’s right up there with the best of them. A professional DJ, he spends his work nights under coloured lights and dedicates most days to beer, typically producing between 20 and 30 batches a year. Says Birkby: “For me, all-grain brewing is where it’s at… there’s a magic in working with raw materials. I also find this method less fiddly than working with extract.” He points out that if one uses local ingredients, all-grain is ridiculously cheap to brew.
“A quart costs me about R3,50.”
After taking a few years to perfect her craft, Endersby launched BeerLab in 2012. Soon afterwards, she teamed up with Birkby, and all at once, her beer school was a reality.
Back to school
The idea behind the beer school, aside from teaching novices how to brew, is to simulate the realities that most homebrewers encounter in their kitchens, thereby equipping them to focus on the partial-mash method. Endersby explains: “It teaches you how to work with grains and requires less, and much smaller, equipment. But you could brew an all-grain batch afterwards, if you like.”
Anyway, it’s doubtful that the average beer drinker could tell the difference between all-grain and partial-mash brews. Says Endersby: “You can make an awesome partial-mash beer. The only drawback is you can’t brew light-coloured beers because the extracts are usually dark in colour.”
Regardless of what brewing method you prefer, it’s critical that all equipment and surfaces are thoroughly sanitised before you start. Simply forgetting to sanitise your scissors, or opening a yeast packet with your teeth, is all it takes for bacteria to get in and ruin the batch. Says Birkby: “Every brewer loses the occasional batch, especially when starting out, so if it happens, don’t let it get you down.”
On with the brew
I have a shameless appetite for craft beer, so I was delighted to discover that we were making an American Pale Ale. First job was to pour water into a 15-litre pot and warm it to exactly 70 degrees. Any warmer, and the enzymes in the malted barley would be prevented from converting the starches in the grain into sugar.
That done, I filled my grain bag with the malt and placed it carefully inside the pot. After thoroughly mixing the contents to prevent them from clumping together, I sealed the bag and gave the mix a gentle stir. The pot was then closed, removed from the stove and wrapped in a blanket to retain the heat for an hour, giving the enzymes a chance to convert the starches into sugars (“mashing the grain”).
During this time, I began warming water in a second pot to 77 degrees in preparation for the next stage. I poured 120 ml of boiling water into a jar and screwed the lid on halfway; this would be used to rehydrate the yeast later.
Once the hour was up, it was sparging time. This involved lifting the grain bag out of the wort (or sugar-infused water) and placing it in a sieve on top of the pot. Then, using a ladle to gently rinse the grain with the new batch of hot water, I coaxed as much sugar from the grain as possible.
The wort now had to be brought to almost-boiling temperature. Turning off the heat, I then added the dry malt extract, stirring slowly to ensure that it formed no clumps. After bringing the wort back to a boil, it was time to add the first batch of hops.
Hops come in many varieties, each with its own distinctive flavour and aroma characteristics, depending on where it was grown. The first addition’s job is twofold: adding bitterness to offset the natural sweet, malty taste of the wort, and acting as a preservative. Says Birkby: “You’ll generally use an inexpensive one first because all you want is the bitterness. I recommend you save your money for more expensive imported flavour and aroma hops varieties that get added later.”
Adding the hops caused the wort to foam alarmingly, much like boiling milk, so I had to stir continuously and watch the pots like a hawk to prevent it from boiling over. Forty-five minutes into the hour-long boil, I added the second batch of hops and lowered the wort chiller – a cylindrical tube of copper piping that is immersed into the wort and connected to a tap to rapidly bring temperatures back to room level – to sterilise it for use at the end of the boil. The final hops batch was added with just two minutes of the boil left to go.
With the cold water tap fully open and the wort chiller rapidly bringing the temperature down, I was able to rehydrate the yeast in the now-cooled water in the jar. That done, I attached the lid as before, with the cleanliness mantra still ringing in my ears: if the yeast is contaminated, you won’t get beer.
All that was left for me to do was transfer the cooled wort to my fermenter bucket, using a sieve to remove as much as I could of the trub (a combination of organic matter and coagulated proteins that fell out of the solution during the boil and rapid cooling stages). After topping up my fermenter to the 20-litre mark with cold water, I gave it a good shake to aerate the contents. The yeast was added, followed by another vigorous shake, and I headed home.
Once home with my fermenter bucket, I had a real dilemma on my hands: I’d been told that its temperature had to be kept stable and should never exceed 25 degrees, or the yeast would go psycho on me and ruin my beer. The only problem was that the Cape was sweltering under an oppressive heatwave, with temperatures in the upper 30s, and I didn’t have one cool spot in my flat.
My solution: place the fermenter in a large plastic tub, fill it with water to a depth of about 10 cm, cover the fermenter with an old towel, and blast it with a fan. Surprisingly, the temperature stopped at 24 degrees and remained stable. Phew. I was melting in the lounge, but hey, my yeast was doing fine. Come bottling day two weeks later, I coopted my colleague, deputy editor Anthony Doman, to help out. This was not especially difficult: I had a good few weiss beers in the fridge and needed the empty bottles. Popping the lid off the fermenter, we peered inside. It looked like beer and the aroma was certainly familiar, so we agreed that things looked promising. Buoyed by another swig from our cold stash, we got busy bottling (not forgetting to sterilise absolutely everything, of course).
The bottles had to “condition” for two agonisingly long weeks before I could even think of popping a cap. It was a long wait, but finally the day arrived. I tentatively prised open the first bottle and was greeted with a reassuring “pffsshtt” sound. Well, I thought, at least it’s carbonated. I poured the amber-coloured contents into a glass – and it looked amazing! It had a great head of foam and, most importantly, it tasted brilliant, with a mild malty flavour enhanced by a slight bitterness from the hops.
In that instant, I became a homebrew convert. I’ve since bought all my own equipment and a couple of books, and will be starting my first unsupervised batch soon. My colleagues are already enquiring about orders.
Now I need the bottles, so it’s time to hit my local liquor store. A man’s gotta do…
The difference between ale and lager
It’s down to the type of yeasts used in the production process. Top fermenting ale yeasts happily consume the fermentable sugars and produce alcohol and CO2 at room temperature. Their fermentation process is also relatively quick; anywhere from two to three weeks. As a consequence, they are very popular on the homebrew scene.
Lagers, on the other hand, are extremely difficult to make. Their bottom fermenting yeasts require temperatures in the region of 4 degrees, and their fermentation and conditioning stages can take months. Says Birkby: “For a lager to taste good, it has to be clean and crisp, with no flaws. You can brew something that’s acceptable, but to create the perfect lager is very difficult. I’ve never done it.”
A brief history of beer
Scholars speculate that a group of hunter-gatherers in the Middle East’s Fertile Crescent may have stumbled upon the process by accident. According to the theory, after collecting some barley one day, they stored it for later use before moving on to more fruitful hunting grounds. While they were away, some light rain fell, moistening the barley and launching the germination process (thereby converting the grain’s starches into sugars).
Then it rained again, this time hard enough to fi ll the container. While the malting barley marinated in the water, wild yeast – carried by the wind – settled on the surface and began converting the barley sugars into alcohol and CO2. On the group’s return, one curious individual looked at the brew and decided to give it a taste. It was one of those “Aha!” moments for humanity – and all of a sudden, life became much more interesting.
The only other ingredient, hops (a bitter-tasting flower used as a preservative), was added to the mix in Europe during the Middle Ages. Since then, not much has changed, and today, regardless of what style of beer you’re brewing, most recipes still feature just four ingredients: barley, water, hops and yeast.
For more information, contact the BeerLab on 084 031 2243 or visit www.beerlab.co.za