I started brewing my own beer in the 1970's. Like many others, I started with the kits then popular, producing a highly alcoholic, almost tasteless gassy liquid reminiscent of beer, rather than actually BEING beer.
I went through the halfway house of adding some grain malt and real hops to the concoction, and was rewarded with results more closely resembling proper beer. However, the partial success of these endeavours led to an inevitable conclusion. Proper beer comes from proper ingredients - grain malt, good hops, quality yeast, and a small but well considered palette of other adjuncts. Much as in all other endeavours, rubbish in = rubbish out.
Full grain brewing ia a craft, an art and a science, By comparison, wine making is simplicity itself. 'Collect fruit, crush fruit, add yeast, maybe sugar, wait, bottle.'
In brewing, there are many more variables. The main ingredient is (usually) malted barley. Malting is the process of steeping barley grains in water, encouraging them to start sprouting into young plants. The maltster intervenes to stop this process just before the infant shoot emerges from the seed by heating the grains. By this point the starchy content of the grain is ready to be converted by enzymes produced in the grain into sugars to fuel the developing plant, and it it these sugars that provide the fermentable content of the beer later in the process. The grains of malt may be just heated enough to stop growth, and will be a pale colour almost indistinguisable for the original barley. At the other extreme, they might be roasted until almost black, when they will be used to provide the dark colour and bitter taste of a stout. There are many intermediate types also. Already the brewer is confronted with a huge range of decisions. What type or types of malt to use? In what amounts, and in what combinations. How strong is the beer to be? Is it to have a pronounced malty flavour or different characteristics? What colour is it to be? What strength is required?
The malt is steeped in water at about 65 C, a temperature that facilitates the starch to sugar conversion. Altering the temperature alters the nature of the final beer made. Cooler mashing leaves more unfermentable elements, and so the beer will taste sweeter and fuller, but will contain less alcohol than a brew mashed at a higher temperature that will be more dry. 65 C provides a good balance. Again, more variables to consider in creating a style of beer, before we even consider the addition of sugars and/or unmalted grains in order to add different flavours and characteristics.
Hops are the next usual ingredient to consider. They impart a bitter flavour, and have preservative properties. Furthermore, thare are hops selected for their aroma that are responsible for the summery, soporific scent of a hoppy beer. The brewer is selecting hops with two main objectives - balancing the sweet flavour of the malt with hop bitterness, and adding aroma. Often two or more types of hop are used in brew, a bittering hop added early to the boiling beer 'wort', and a hop for arome added later. Again, there are many choices and decisions to make here, and we all have our own ideas.
Water is a key component. Hard waters suit lighter beers, softer water suits mild, porters and the like. Small amounts of salt will alter the mouth feel of the beer. I tend not to tinker too much as I am lucky to have a good quality supply of water for brewing, but again the brewer can alter the water to suit a purpose.
Yeast, known 'Godisgood' to our forebears, is the magic elelment that binds everything together. Once you have prepared our solution of malt and hop products by steeping and boiling, you leave the results to cool and add the yeast to staret fermentation. You can use cheap dried yeasts, you can buy liquid yeast cultures of known provenance, you can scrounge a jarful from a friendly brewer. The last is often the best idea, a local yeast strain will suit local conditions. A favourite yeast strain can be carried forward from brew to brew, given a degree of care.
Beer is a living, natural product when made this way. You're left with waste in the form of 'brewers spent grains', loved by my chickens, and spent hops, that mulch a garden flower bed well. With anything like luck, you will also have a few gallons of beer of a quality that leaves any beer you have ever bought looking very ordinary indeed. Home brewed beer made from grain malt, given fresh ingredients, and attention to detail, cleanliness, etc, is the best beer you will ever drink. This is beyond debate. Additionally, you had the fun of making it, it provides food and amusement for your poultry and it stops your flower beds getting weedy. Furthermore, it will be the cheapest beer available anywhere. You can give the money you save to the cause of your choice, instead of giving it to the Government in the form of Excise Duty to waste on your behalf.
The budding all-grain mash brewer needs three books to read. I've put links to Amazon UK in with the descriptions:
The Big Book of Brewing - David Line
This is the book that informed my early brewing days back in the 1970's. The sections on equipment are a little dated now, the variety of malts, hops, etc now available has grown mightily since the book was written, and mentions of Fahrenheit temperatures seem quaint to modern readers (Google is your friend for conversions to Celsius). However, on basics and technique, Mr Line remains spot on.
CAMRA's Complete Home Brewing - Graham Wheeler
Effectively the sucessor to David Line's book, published in the 1980's. Another very sound book, packed with information and recipes. Note that 3rd edition is due out in September 2011. This is probably the book to buy first. If you do everything the Wheeler way, you'll not go far wrong.
Radical Brewing: Tales and World-Altering Meditations in a Glass - Randy Mosher
Once you have made a few brews from the Gospels according to either Line or Wheeler, if not both, you might be looking to develop your style and craft as a brewer. Look no further than this book. It is not for the complete beginner, but it is a joy to read, bursting with ideas, inspiration and novelty. This should not be the first book on brewing you buy, but it might well be the second, and definitely should be the next you buy after Line and Wheeler.
Recommended Supplier: BrewUK.co.uk
A useful forum here.
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