Brewing Techniques

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Some of the things we do to make quality beer.

The process starts out with some beer research. It's a tough job, but somebody's gotta do it. We buy several commercial examples of what we're going to brew, and compare them with some samples of other homebrewers' efforts. We note what we like and don't like. Then we do a recipe search. We'll check several books, including Miller's Homebrewing, Papazian's Complete Joy, Lutzen's Favorites and the Cat's Meow 3. Next, we'll compare that with our most important source, the Notebook. We keep detailed notes of everything we've ever done in the past.

Then we need to do a bit of math. We convert whatever batch size was listed to our own size, which is typically 6 1/2 gallons. This not only takes the simple conversions, but also includes our experience with extraction efficiencies and homegrown hop bittering levels.

Then it's time for a trip to the brewshop. Often they won't have exactly what the recipe called for, but they'll have two or three pretty close substitutes. Now it's time for the taste buds to take over. We'll sample a few kernels of each type of grain and pick the one (or more) that seem to suit our particular taste. Then we'll sniff a few varieties of hops and select the best smelling bunch. Usually at this point, the the ingredients we selected are actually better than what was in the original recipe.

We generally do a two-step infusion mash. We preheat 1 quart of water per pound of grain to about 140°F and mash-in for a 20-30 minute protein rest. The resulting mash will be at about 132°F. This hydrolyzes the protein in the grain into soluble amino acids. Then we step up the temperature by adding another half-quart per pound of boiling water. The resulting mash temperature is about 150°F.

If we want a relatively dry finish in our beer, we'll leave the temperature there. If we want a higher final gravity, we'll boost the temperature up to about 155°F. We do this by decocting out a few quarts of liquid and heating it up to boiling. Then we dump it back and stir to get uniform temperature. We cover up the mash and give it some time. If the temperature drops too much, we'll decoct again. Usually, we let the mash go 1 1/2 hrs, which is a bit longer than most people.

We have a Phil's false bottom for our lauter tun. We collect some of the runnings to set the grain bed. Then we reheat the runnings to 170°F before recycling them back into the tun. We repeat this process until the runnings are clear. Then we start adding sparge water at 170°F. We always keep the grain bed covered with water and keep collecting until the runnings start to loose sweetness. This may take considerably more sparge water than some recipes call for, but a bunch of it stays in the tun and doesn't get used. A hygrometer is handy to help know when the sugar has all been leached out. We stop when it reaches about 1.007 or so. Don't forget to either cool the liquid in the tube, or make a correction for it. The reading while hot can actually be below 1.000.

We let the wort get up to a full boil and skim off the hot break before we start the hop additions. The first hop additions, which are usually our homegrown nuggets, go in for 1 hour. Depending on the alpha level of the later hops, we will recalculate the amount of nuggets we need. For the less hoppy beer styles, we add at 20 minutes for flavor and 10 minutes for finish. For the more hoppy type beers, we will have a flavor add at 15 minutes and a finishing add at 5 minutes. For the hophead styles we will dryhop the secondary.

Once the boil is done, we want to cool the wort as fast as possible. This keeps the alpha acid where we want it and also keeps the amount of dimethylsulfide to a minimum.

chiller by pot chiller in pot

Here is our wortchiller. I made this from copper tubing, brazed together with copper-phosphorus alloy. This guy will chill down 6 1/2 gallons of boiling wort to about 80°F in about 5 minutes. The inlet has a standard garden hose fitting.

We pitch the wort with one of the Wyeast varieties. Sometimes we make a starter, but usually not. Then we shake the carboy up real good to make sure the wort is saturated with air. For ales, we try to keep the carboy between 60-65°F during fermentation. In general, this makes fermentation a bit sluggish to start, and takes considerably longer than most to finish. Lagers, ofcourse, go into the fridge. We usually let the primary go for two weeks, followed by a two week secondary.

After bottling, we put the lagers back into the fridge and the ales in our coldbox.

Fridge and Cold Box open cold box

Click here to see more photos of the cold box.

The cold box doesn't use electricity. Instead, the copper coils form a heat pipe that is connected to a radiator panel on the roof. At night, heat is removed from the box. The combination of styrofoam insulation and water bath keep the temperature fairly constant, even on hot days. The box holds in the mid 60's during the summer and mid 50's during winter. The warmest the box got was 73°F last August when the air temperature hit 93°F. We have to adjust the water level whenever we add bottles to keep the caps above the water line. During the winter months, the box is a bit too cold for the beer to carbonate. We'll keep the bottles in the house until they are fully carbonated, and then put them in. The temperature definitely keeps the beer from spoiling in hot weather, and hold the peak flavor longer in cold weather.

Recently, we began to keg some of our beer. Here is a table to figure out what pressure to keep your kegged beer at. Typically, you'll want about 2.4 volumes in your beer. Go toward the high end for some styles like wheat beer, and lower for some styles like porter.

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