Brew Your Own: Home Brewing 100

Some mead fermenting in an ale pail
High quality honey from Lancaster PA

Beer, wine, and mead- some people like them, and some people love them. If you don’t, you’re probably not going to keep reading this article. For far more than 10,000 years, the human race has been brewing alcoholic beverages for consumption and enjoyment. The argument goes back and forth between whether beer or mead was made first, but regardless of which it was… the beverage came down to a simple sugar being added to water (which was likely hosting bacteria, yeast, and other hosts as well). 

Top: A standard siphon to put your drink into its primary or secondary container and into the bottles for bottling.
Bottom:A large spoon for stirring/agitating (and aerating) mead, wine, and beer during the heating processes.

The Basic Science of Brewing

A flask for making a yeast starter: Yeast and a fermentable sugar are place together and the flask and are constantly agitated to help assure maximum potential of yeast growth and fermentation.

When you are brewing beer, mead, or wine, the process is really quite simple. You’re using a basic sugar (honey for an example if you’re making mead or a braggot), clear and quality water, and a culture of yeast that best fits your brewing needs. For beer, there are a staggering number of possible yeasts to use. For wines there are still a great variety, but not nearly as many as beer. When it comes to mead, the selection (as of now) is moderately limited. However, meadmakers are often in the practice of either using the sweet mead yeast (lower alcohol content) from WLP or a champagne yeast that will allow for 18%+ alcohol by volume (ABV) for fermentation. Once the ingredients are added in the proper proportions and style for each type of beverage and you’ve pitched your yeast into the mix, the next step is to wait.

A large (6+ gallon) pot will be needed in order to brew

Stowing Your Beverage for Fermentation

A glass carboy for storing your beer/wine/mead during fermentation (this one has a thermometer strip on the side so you always know the temperature of the brew)

So you’ve got an alcoholic mixture with some yeast in it… now what? Unfortunately the only thing you can do at this point is to wait for fermentation to complete. Depending on your style of beer, wine, or mead and the ABV you’re shooting for the time can vary drastically. While most beers are ready to bottle, prime, and cap within weeks to a month, wines and meads can take a bit longer to ferment and rest before they’re ready to bottle. Often with a mead, I find myself leaving the fermented beverage in the primary (the first carboy/ale pail/container you put everything into) for a few months after fermentation is completed so that everything falls out nicely before I go to rack/cane it (siphoning out the good stuff and leaving the spent yeast behind) and put it into a secondary container to age for another few months. Once that’s done I can finally bottle the mead and store it. The longer mead rests, the more balanced and mellowed it becomes.

An airlock for a carboy or ale pail. This device is partially filled with water and lets gas out during fermentation without letting anything in.

Knowing Alcohol Content

So your brew of choice is done fermenting- how do we know how much alcohol is actually in the drink? There’s an important tool for brewers to use called a hydrometer. Actually, we’ll have wanted to use this tool when we first mixed everything together to get a baseline reading of the gravity of the original mixture. The change in gravity between the original gravity (OG) to the final reading (FG) is the key to knowing how much sugar has been fermented- thus revealing the ABV. Most beers don’t stretch too far over 6-8%, though there are specialty beers that are much lower (3-5%) and those that are higher (12%+) if your conditions are correct. Wine is most typically 14% or greater, whereas mead is the true wildcard- I’ve had meads (depending on the style) anywhere between 4.5% through 18%+.

Top: A floating thermometer used during the heated phases of brewing
Bottom: A hydrometer for measuring alcohol potential and gravity changes
A case of 375mL bottles; typically used for wine or mead- especially for higher ABV potency or desert-style beverages

Bottling

When it comes time to bottle, there are various tasks that must be completed depending on what type of alcohol you’re working with. The most important thing to know is that beer will need to be bottled and closed with a crimper for the bottle cap. Mead and wine needs a corker and the right diameter (and length) of cork to seal it properly. A corker compresses the cork and uses a finger in the device to press it into the bottle completely (or not, if you didn’t do it right). 

Storage of Your Newly Bottled Drinks

Sanitation is at a premium through all portions of home brewing- make sure to have some variety of sanitizer on hand at all times.

Beers you’re ready to try can then move into the refrigerator while the rest can fit nicely into cases to be stored anywhere in the house (since they provide their own darkness for storage purposes). The wines and meads are best left on a wine rack or in a cellar to keep them away from light and humidity/temperature changes. A rack /cellar is not only important due to humidity and temperature, however, they are essential to help keep the corks damp so that they can be opened later without incident. Nobody likes a dry, flaking cork in their drink later on- and pouring through cheesecloth or a filter doesn’t look particularly appetizing to some guests. Typically wine (and mead) is best kept at a constant temperature of 45-65 degrees Fahrenheit, humidity is important, but temperature is king in my experience.

Various additives you can use while brewing to help make it potent (yeast energizer), clear (sparkolloid powder), and to stop fermentation (potassium sorbate).

Consumption

Now all that’s left is to pick the time and the place to drink your creation. Definitely check out some of the fruit of your labor before you share it with anyone else- that way you know if the flavors are what you were hoping and if there are any defects to the drink. Some things you can pick up on for beer is whether it’s too foamy (over carbonated), has too much sediment (improper siphoning technique/siphoned too deep into the bottom of the carboy), whether a bottle is explosive or not (sounds crazy- but it can happen). For wine, you can pick up on whether or not it matches the style of wine you were hoping to create. You can take some time to figure out the flavor profiles if it doesn’t match the label from your original creation process. More important still, you can tell how well the maturation process is coming along for the drink based on how it tastes and fits your desired levels.

Remember, this is a super basic guide to brewing, and we can definitely expand and divulge further into it if there’s interest. If you’d like to know more or have any questions, let us know in the comments below and we’ll be happy to share more of our knowledge of brewing with you (and there’s a lot to share!).

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