Boiler Brews: a guide to classy tailgating – Homebrewing for Homecoming

It’s gameday eve again, Boilermakers!  This weekend will see thousands of alumni descending on campus for Homecoming.  And, sensing a clever play on words, I thought I would write about homebrewing this week, hoping to inspire some of the H&R readership to experiment with making their own beer.  Is this tactic a cop-out since I haven’t really tried a whole bunch of new beers lately?  Maybe.   Either way, making beer at home is the ultimate jab at the big 3, so it fits with the theme of this series.

I’d like to believe that any beer drinker would, at some point, stop to think about the origins of their malty beverage.  While most of us know the bare bones of yeast fermenting sugar to produce alcohol, terms like "mashing in," "the boil," and "bottle conditioning" are probably not included in the lexicon of the common suds guzzler.  Craft or macro, beer making is essentially the same across all styles.  Fermentable carbohydrates are extracted from grains.  This sugary mixture is boiled for a period of time and hops are added to impart bitterness, balancing the sweetness of the sugars extracted from the grains.  This mixture, now sterile, is carefully brought down to a temperature hospitable for yeast to grow and produce alcohol.  The yeast introduced and allowed to do its thing.  Once fermentation is complete, the beer is contained and enjoyed.  If you’ve ever seen a commercial brewery, you may imagine that this process requires huge vats and fermenters and more space than your household can provide in order to make beer.  In reality, all you really need to make beer (and good beer at that!) is a big pot and a couple of plastic buckets.

Brewing at home is only as complicated and expensive as the brewer chooses to make it.  Complete brewing systems can cost thousands of dollars, but you can get started with the essentials for a few hundred dollars.  My current situation, startup costs not included, produces 5 gallons of beer per batch, at a cost of roughly $50 per batch for ingredients.  Doing the math, that’s about $10 per gallon, a reasonable price compared to the craft beers available on the market today.

Homebrew is born on brew day, a 3-6 hour time slot set aside for the extraction of sugars, boiling of wort (unfermented beer – rhymes with shirt), cooling and adding yeast.  This part of the process requires the largest time commitment, but can be accomplished with one set of hands and minimal stress. I have a 6.5 gallon stainless steel kettle that I use for my malt extract/boil, and I use a simple electric kitchen stovetop for all my heating needs.  After boiling, the wort is cooled down to around 70 degrees and yeast is added to the wort in a 6.5 gallon bucket that is fitted with an airlock at the top so that CO2 produced by the yeast can get out, but contaminated air from the outside can’t get in.  This is left to ferment for at least 5 days and can be moved to a separate vessel to ferment further if necessary.  Everything is cleaned up and the yeast is left alone to work.    

Once fermentation is complete (usually 2 weeks for me), the beer is contained in either bottles, the cheaper but more tedious method, or kegs, a more expensive but less painful method.  Bottling is a painful process for two reasons: each bottle must be individually cleaned and sterilized and more sugar must be added to the beer so that the yeast can make more CO2, this time trapped as carbonation.  If bottling, the beer needs another 2 weeks or so to condition in the bottle.  Doing the math, with the way I brew, beer is usually ready around 5 weeks from the day it’s brewed.

That’s the basic process.  I could go into a lot more detail, but I can only hold your attention so long.  If you have questions, feel free to contact me or check out your local homebrewing supplier (Great Fermentations in Indianapolis).  I’ve been brewing for about a year now, and it’s a great hobby that produces very good beer.   

Cheers!  Go Boilers, and Hail Purdue!

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