I am sure you will agree that beer is synonymous with many of the Immunology Department’s student events. Indeed, if ImmTonight is any indication, the liveliest discussions of immunological theory seem to occur at the pub – after a pint or two. However, this article is not for those who appreciate beer only for its ‘freeness.’ Rather, I’d prefer to inspire the connoisseur-to-be; someone intrigued by the blending of science and art necessary to create a delicious brew.
Beer brewing seems to be a naturally fitting hobby for the scientist: it involves beer, allows us to proudly showcase our sterilization skills, and also requires the kind of attentiveness to a protocol practiced daily in the lab. Moreover, brewing is a creative endeavor allowing one to put their technical skills toward producing a tangible, tasty product. In this process, there exists an enticing blend of artistry and science. While only four ingredients go into making beer (water, yeast, barley and hops), clever variation in how they are combined creates the numerous flavours of beer available. But while the inspiration and daring required in formulating a new recipe requires an artistic inclination, the process itself is grounded solidly in science. After all, beer is produced by direct exploitation of a neat little biochemical reaction whereby our favourite microbe, Saccharomyces cerevisiae, converts sugar into alcohol and carbon dioxide. This process is otherwise known as fermentation, and you could easily fill more than several textbooks about how the biochemistry and growing conditions of the yeast produce the types of flavours comprising a good beer. Detailed understanding of this material is certainly not required to brew a fantastic beer, but I find it exciting that such a simple and fun process contains enough depth that mastery requires years of study and practice. Now, without further ado, here is a basic guide to brewing a batch of your own beer!
The biggest cost for a potential homebrewer is the upfront expense of acquiring basic brewing equipment. Fortunately, there isn’t actually much required and you’ll likely outgrow a starter equipment kit before any of it wears out. Each time you make a new batch of beer you will also need the necessary ingredients. One can scrounge around for equipment and buy individual items to suit the recipe of their choice, but the easiest way to embark on your brewing adventure is to purchase equipment and recipe starter kits. These are readily available at local wine and beer stores, or online.
A local online store is www.torontobrewing.ca, which stocks a wide variety of supplies. Starter kits are about $75 and recipe kits $25 to $50. Each batch makes roughly fifty 341 mL bottles. Essential equipment includes: A large primary fermenter (often simply a pail and lid), a bottling bucket with spigot, hydrometer, thermometer, siphon, bottle capper, bottles (reuseable) and caps, a large pot capable of holding at least 10L, and sanitizer.
Brewer’s Best Scottish Ale is an example of typical recipe kit. This kit makes 19L of 4.5-5.0% beer and is rated as “easy” brewing difficulty. The kit contains:
- Amber dried and liquid malt extracts. Malt extract results from the process of germinating and drying cereal grains to prime enzymes capable of turning grain starches into sugars.
- Steeping grains (caramel, smoked, chocolate, roasted barley). These consist of dried grains, which are steeped (as you would for tea) to enhance the beer’s flavour, colour, and overall complexity.
- Hops (Northern Brewer, Willamette). Hops are a flower that provides beer with flavour, especially bitterness, and also acts as a stabilizing and preserving agent due to their antibacterial properties.
- Yeast. The stars of the show, yeast make all the alcohol and CO2. Enough said.
Beer making essentially boils down to two key days out of the approximately four weeks time required to produce a bottle. The first day is brewing day. This is when all the ingredients are prepared and everything mixed into the fermenter. A critical step, which should be familiar territory for the scientist, is to thoroughly sanitize everything coming into contact with your beer. A poor job here will allow bacteria to compete with your yeast and yield a terrible tasting product. After sanitizing the equipment, water is heated, your grains steeped, and the malt extracts and hops added over a rolling boil (as dictated by your particular recipe). Following boiling, the mixture, which is now called wort, is rapidly cooled to room temperature and transferred to the fermenter for addition of yeast. Store the beer in a warm (20-22°C), dark place to keep the yeast happy. After about 24 hours, bubbling (caused by the release of CO2) should occur, indicating that fermentation has begun.
After about two weeks of sitting in the fermenter, the beer is ready for bottling. All that needs to happen here is that the yeast are given a small pick-me-up in the form of priming sugar and the beer carefully siphoned into bottles. You’ll need a proper capping tool and fresh caps, but you can easily reuse old empty bottles. The yeast will need another two weeks to fully carbonate the bottles, but after this time, your beer should be ready to drink! Unopened bottles stored at room temperature will last upwards of 6 months.
Of course, the last step in any brewer’s experience is what we’ve been waiting for: drinking. Hopefully your new beer will be an excellent tasting beverage (and it had better be because you have 49 bottles left). If it’s at least passible, you should also take pride in the notion that this is something you’ve created yourself using your own hands and skills. This is a fact worth savouring. It also doesn’t hurt that after your first batch, the cost per bottle is nearly half of what the LCBO charges. In any case, it will be time to plan your next brewing adventure; your fermenter is the limit!
For a detailed discussion on brewing including many useful tips and tricks, consult John Palmer’s, How To Brew. This book is published online for free access.
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