By Dave Dahl – Lo Rez Brewing
Brew day is the what makes home brewing an addictive hobby. You have all your equipment and ingredients, now it’s time to put them to good use.
People don’t make beer, yeast makes beer. On brewday you’re simply making a sugary solution that the yeast will love to party in. And only your yeast. No other beasties allowed. Keep that in mind.
Your brewday will basically look like the following: setup, make the wort, chill the wort, pitch the yeast, clean up. It will be an afternoon of running around in circles, doing nothing but drinking a beer, then running around in circles again. If you feel a bit frazzled on your first few brewdays then you’re doing it right. It’s a blast.
So get things set up. Clear off more counter space than you think you’ll need, weigh out all your ingredients, pop your smackpack (if using Wyeast), set up a bucket of Star San to sanitize stuff, and clean the hell out of everything. In the cooking world they call this mise en place and it’s intended to start off from a sane position. You don’t have to do this, but trust me, it will help keep your wits about you after you’re a few beers and you can’t find that third hop addition.
Make the Wort
Wort is a German word (pronounced wert) that is simply the dark sugary liquid you make before you throw in the yeast, which is called “pitching the yeast”. To make wort, you boil the amount of extract and water which is called for by the kit. Be *very* careful to not let the extract burn on the bottom of your kettle, if it burns you need to dump the whole thing and start over, which is sucky. So first bring the water to a boil, then stir in the extract and still constantly till all of it has gone into solution. It doesn’t matter whether your extract is liquid or dry, add it slowly to boiling water stirring constantly. Once it’s in solution, let the wort come back to a boil and note the time. When the boil starts with all the extract that’s your minute 60 on your 60-minute boil. Keep the lid off AND WATCH THE BOIL CONSTANTLY. Your boil will go for 60 minutes, so this is a good time to grab a beer, but watch the pot. As soon as you turn your head, it will boil over and down the sides coating everything in boiling sticky liquid and it’s a bitch to clean. It’s happened to all of us and it will happen to you, it’s a badge of honor, but watch the pot anyway.
Protip: Once your boil starts, resist the temptation to put a lid on your pot – there are volatiles in the steam that need to be released. If the lid’s on, condensation will form under the lid and run down into the pot – don’t let that happen, let those volatiles free. Dimethyl Sulfide (DMS) in your beer is easy to detect, and it’s disgusting.
As soon as the wort (water and extract mixture) starts boiling, start a timer. Your boil should be 60 minutes and will have either 2 or 3 hop additions during that 60-minute period (with some variance depending on style). So watch the clock, or better yet, start a timer and add the hops per the instructions on the kit. If your kit/recipe calls for 3 additions, you’ll likely add hops right when the boil starts, then at around 20 minutes, and around 10 minutes (or sometimes 0 minutes aka “flame-out”). That hop schedule is often written as “60 minute hop addition, 20 minute addition, and 10 minute addition”.
Once your boil time is up, that’s when things get exciting, so put your beer down. Keep in mind we’re trying to make a liquid your yeast will love….and a liquid where no other yeast or bacteria live. When things are boiling, it’s pretty darn sanitary. But as soon as you kill your boil, the natural yeast and bacterial swirling around in the air will fall into your pot. Additionally ANYTHING you put into the wort at this point needs to be sanitized. You know that bucket of Star San I said you should set up? This is the point where you wish you would have. In a few minutes you’ll need to stir the worth with a spoon, you need to sanitize the spoon. After that you’ll put a lid on the fermentation bucket, you need to sanitize that lid. After that you’ll put an airlock in the lid, you need to sanitize that airlock. Regardless of what stage you’re at in brewing, if you’re not totally confident about what you’re sticking where, sanitize it first.
Your kit should guide you on the amount of water you need to boil with your extract, and most kits (and clone-recipes) are based on a 5 gallon batch size. So for best results, you’re boiling all the extract in a pot that will yield 5 gallons of wort. But that’s not always practical or financially feasible. So scale back. Ideally you’ll use a 32 quart pot for a 5 gallon brew – this is called a “full boil”. Otherwise you can brew same wort, using the same amount of extract in a 16 quart pot with half the water….then “top it off” with the rest of the water later, that’s called a “partial boil”.
Doing a full boil will *definitely* give you better beer. I guarantee it. But if that’s not doable, rock the partial boil.
A partial boil means you brew the same amount of extract using less water simply because you don’t have the space. But you have to add that water back in or your beer will be whacked. Adding water after the fact is called a “top off”. But there’s a twist – you know how the water in the wort is boiling, and therefore sanitary? You similarly need to sanitize the top-off water. The easiest way to do this is the night before, boil the appropriate amount of water for 15 minutes the night before, put a lid on the kettle, and let it chill to room temperature overnight. We’ll come back to this top-off a few paragraphs below.
Okay, one final note on water before we get more interesting….you can use bottled water in place of tap-water. This is particularly handy if you don’t have decent municipal water. I live in Chicago and I’m lucky to have fantastic water for brewing straight from the tap. But if you’re not as lucky, bottled water can be used as a one-to-one replacement for tap water – whether it’s in the boil kettle, or top-off water. However, neither bottled water nor tap water is sterile – so it needs to go through a boil at some point to kill off the bugs.
Protip: If you choose the bottle-water route, do *not* use distilled water, or RO water (which is distilled by Reverse Osmosis). Distilled/RO water is stripped of all minerals that the yeast need for a healthy fermentation party.
Chill the Wort
At this point I’m going to assume you have two pots – one with top-off water at room temperature and your brew-kettle with wort that just came off the boil so it’s fucking hot.
Chilling the wort can be tricky. In a nutshell, you wan to get the wort as close to fermentation temperature as your patience will allow, and do it as quickly as you can (the latter is not required, that’s pro-tip). Shoot for a target fermentation temperature of 68*F. The easiest way to do this, is to set up an ice bath either in your sink or in your bathtub. Keep the lid on your brew kettle and walk it to your ice bath. Stir the ice bath to keep warm spots from forming and add more ice when necessary. Do NOT open the lid on the pot. You don’t want wild bacteria and yeast getting in that petri dish of deliciousness. But you might want to swirl the pot around a bit to keep the wort gently circulating.
Try to chill it down to 65*F (despite the fact I said 68* earlier, I’ll clarify this in a minute). It will take a loooong time but getting it to this temp is more important than doing it fast. Ideally you do both, but that’s more of a 201 technique. So while it’s chilling pop open another beer and clean out the fermenter. Even if you think it’s clean, clean it again. Preferably with the PBW mentioned above. Then spray it, or slosh it, with the Star San solution to sanitize the surface (like bleach) but doesn’t require rinsing (unlike bleach). Then loosely put the lid on top of the empty bucket – just to keep airborne yeast and bacteria out of it.
When your wort chills to 65*F, or your patience runs out, dump it into your clean and Star San-ed fermenter. Then finish it off by dumping in the room temperature top-off water. The two, combined, will be close to the 68*F that I suggested earlier for the fermentation temp for ales.
Finally, and this is important, make sure you have enough head-space in your fermentation bucket. The head-space, which is the room above the wort/water mixture and the top of the bucket should be at least 6″. When fermentation starts, your least will do most of the partying at the top of the bucket and leave lots of bubbles, crud, and more yeast. So, if you don’t have those 6 inches or so, you could find yourself facing a massive explosion and a long afternoon of cleaning.
Pitch the Yeast
Adding yeast to your wort is called “pitching the yeast”. Once you’re wort is at fermentation temperature it’s ready to pitch. If it’s too hot the yeast won’t ferment properly or might be killed, if it’s too cold the yeast will go dormant.
So at this point you have a fermentor with your wort and (maybe) top off water and it’s somewhere between 65*F and 70*F. You also have enough head-space to avoid a blow-off, which is about 6 inches.
Before busting into the yeast, whether a Wyeast smack-pack or a White Labs vial, dip the bastard into the Star San, just to be careful. Then pop it open, dump it into the bucket, and stir the hell out of it. Stirring in the yeast mixes it uniformly and it also adds oxygen to the mix – which the yeast loves. However, this is the ONLY time you want oxygen to be in your wort/beer. So stir like mad. Slosh that bastard around.