Homebrewing

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Making alcohol is very easy. Brewing up something alcoholic that you can actually drink is a little trickier, but not too much. This article will show you how to brew your own beer.

Alcohol

Sugar + yeast = alcohol

However, the yeast also needs water and heat to activate before it can break down the sugar (usually dextrose, available in any supermarket). So now we already have the three basic ingredients to any alcoholic beverage: warm water, yeast and sugar.

Now, you can, of course, brew up this mixture and drink it if you want to, but it will taste fuckin' awful. Take a look at the ingredients on the back of a beer bottle and you'll more than likely see stuff like barley and hops. This is what gives the beer its flavour, and will often come in a thick gloopy mixture called wort. Chinese beers like Tsing-Tao will use rice instead of barley, but most of the beers over here will use barley and hops. Now we have our fourth ingredient.

Preparing Equipment

You will need a plastic barrel of some sort that has a capacity of 23 litres. It is highly recommended that you buy a homebrew kit which comes with all the equipment you need, including the barrel, a U-bend valve, a thermometer and a tap. The U-bend is a little plastic thing that sticks into the lid of the barrel. It holds a small amount of water and is designed to let gas out of the barrel, but not let anything in. The tap will fit into the barrel close to the bottom (just above where all the sludge will be).

A brewing barrel

Before you do any sort of brewing with your equipment you must wash and sterilise everything you will use. Don't use anything abrasive (as scratches in the plastic will hold bacteria) and don't use detergent (beer will taste foul). Use plenty of warm water and a soft sponge to clean it. Once you've done this, fill up the barrel, close the tap and put the U-bend and any stirrers into the barrel. Fill it up with cold water and throw in a load of Milton (used for sterilising baby bottles). After 20 minutes or so, open the tap and let it drain through. Once everything is clean, you're ready to start brewing.

Brewing

Cans of wort aren't too common in Irish shops, but can be bought online, or in shops in the UK. The Australians love their homebrewing so if you ever pay a visit to Oz it's worth buying a kit and a can or two of wort while you're there. When you take the lid off the can you'll find a packet of yeast. Don't lose this. Different brands may have different brewing instructions, but the following method is pretty standard and should work for most cans of worth of 1.5 kg or so.

Cans of wort for different beer styles

Open the can and dump the wort into the empty barrel. It may be worth heating up the can (after opening it) in a pot of hot water to loosen it up. Then throw in 1 kg of dextrose. Now add about 2 litres of boiling water and stir the mixture until it's all dissolved and there are no thick gloopy bits at the bottom of the barrel. Now top up the rest with cool water until the total volume of water is 23 litres (around 40 pints). The temperature of the water should be around 20 degrees Celsius when full. If it doesn't seem like it's gonna be this warm, boil up the kettle again and allow the last couple of litres of water to be hot.

Now open the yeast packet, and sprinkle the whole lot of it evenly over the top of the mixture. When this is done, close the barrel with the lid and put in the U-bend valve.

Leave for 12-16 days.

Bottling

After about two weeks the barrel should now be full of alcoholic beer. However, you're not finished yet, and drinking this will probably turn your stomach. You now need to wash and sterilise enough bottles to take 23 litres of beer. When buying your kit make sure to buy plenty of bottles too. It's also a good idea to keep the bottles when finished drinking from them to use again.

Into each clean bottle, add a teaspoonful of ordinary white sugar for every 500ml volume. This sugar will be part of the second fermentation and will carbonate your beer. Using the tap, and making sure not to agitate or mix the beer in the barrel, fill up each bottle, leaving about 3 cm of space from the top of the bottle. Screw on the cap tightly and give it a very light shake to stir in the sugar. Repeat until all the bottles are used up. Put them all standing up in a tray or something and put them somewhere dark where you won't be tempted to drink them prematurely.

Carbonation drops are tablets of sugar and can be used instead of normal sugar

Drinking

The longer you leave the bottled beer, the better. In Australia, you could be drinking your beer withing 3-4 weeks. Unfortunately, our climate in Ireland doesn't allow for this, and a minimum of eight weeks is recommended before drinking. I suggest marking one of the bottles as a "test bottle", and after seven weeks or so, open this one and sample it. If it tastes "unripe" or bitter, leave the rest of the bottles for another few weeks. Once they are ready to drink, load them into the fridge and enjoy!

What can go wrong

Sometimes, your mixture will become infected. This most often occurs due to equipment not being properly cleaned and sterilised

Other variations

Sugar can come from lots of places, not just a bag of dextrose from the supermarket. The reason dextrose is used is because it's easily fermentable. However, I recently brewed up a version of Coopers using dextrose and honey. While honey is fermentable and adds a nice aroma to the drink, it results in a more "watery" feel to the beer. I also tried hand-picked fruit (apples and pears). While the result was alcoholic it was watery and very cloudy, and did not carbonate properly.

Extra equipment

The above method will generally yield an alcoholic level of about 4.5% (usually between 4% and 5%, depending on temperatures, sugars, amount of wort, etc). But to get a more exact measurement of alcohol it's worth buying a hydrometer. This will measure the specific gravity of the liquid. You make a measurement before adding yeast (no alcohol) and a measurement when you bottle the beer (after first fermentation, with alcohol). By comparing the two values you can work out the alcohol level.

Recipes

Metheglin Mead

This mead is known as metheglin (spiced mead). It is brewed using a method taken from a 13th Century English text called "Tractatus de Magnete et Operationibus Eius", and this is where the three days and three nights method comes from, as well as the airing period of one night. The tract also calls for dregs from a previous brew to be used instead of yeast, but the recipe below uses yeast.

Ingredients:

  • 4 litres of good quality still water
  • 3 strips of lemon rind
  • 3 strips of orange rind
  • 2 broken cinnamon sticks
  • 3 whole cloves
  • 1/4 teaspoon of ground ginger
  • 2 lb of honey
  • 2 teaspoons of Allinson's Active Yeast


Method:

1. Bring 1 litre of water to simmering point.

2. Add spices (lemon, orange, cloves, cinnamon, ginger, cloves) to the water and allow to boil gently for about 10 minutes.

3. Take off the boil and strain the liquid to remove the spices.

4. Mix the honey into the hot (not boiling) water.

5. Heat the must (liquid with spices and honey) and bring it to a gentle boil. A white scum will begin to form on the surface. This scum is made of wax and turpines from the honey. It MUST be completely removed. Failure to do so will cause hangovers so bad that the Vikings believed they were only fit for the gods.

6. Pour the must into a keg and mix in the remaining water. Make an initial gravity reading at this point.

7. Allow the must to cool to a temperature for effective yeast activation, then sprinle the yeast onto the must.

8. Seal and airlock the keg.

9. Leave in the keg for three days and three nights.

10. After the third night, pour the mead into open containers and cover with a clean cloth to stop dust getting in. Leave for one more night.

11. Bottle the mead.

The mead is now ready to drink, but further aging of the mead is recommended to allow it to develop its flavour.