While I was researching the first 30 Days article on home brewing I took Richard Sigesmund up on an offer to observe one of his brewing sessions. The plan was to brew an all-grain (basically that means from scratch, more on that soon, though) Belgian Blond— a complex but balanced style of pale ale with moderate hops and hints of spice and sweetness.
Much like making a meal there's some preparation involved before the action can start. It begins by deciding on a recipe and then getting the necessary ingredients. Although home brewing needs to be precise with measurements and timing, it isn't quite as confining as baking. It falls somewhere in between baking a good of loaf bread and making a all-skill dish like a soufflé. Home brewers consult online brewing calculators, plugging everything into one helps predict how the finished beer will turn out in terms of final alcohol, bitterness, colour, etc. They also help brewers tweak aspects of the brewing process like timing for hop additions. Armed with that information the real brewing process begins by measuring out water. The video clip below picks-up after that and documents the afternoon session of all-grain brewing.
As Sigesmund explained the flavour profile of Belgian-style beers is very yeast driven. He went about sourcing special yeast from his home brewing supplier and even went through the process of splitting the batch into two so he could try two different Belgian Trappist yeasts strains. The yeasts provide a slightly different character in each batch with one showing a bit of earthy forest floor edge to it, while the other exhibits an intriguing tart undertone. This kind of experimentation not only helps with the learning process of brewing, but it also has the benefit of keeping things fresh, minimising boredom.
One of the limiting factors of home brewing for passionate beer lovers like Sigesmund is that there's only so much of one beer you can drink before you become a little tired of it. This is why Sigesmund also split his batches with friend and fellow beer lover Dave Begleiter. It also helps to have a friend around to pass the time.
One of the things Sigsmund warned me about–I quickly came to realise it anyway–is that brewing involves quite a bit of waiting. There's waiting for water to boil, waiting for grains to soak and waiting for hops to release their flavour to name a few. Doing things concurrently where possible, like grinding grains while waiting for water to boil, helps reduce that. But the waiting is also inherent to the activity and should be embraced. Done at a relaxed pace, it's well suited for a chill afternoon where you can also chat with friends and do some liquid research (drinking).
Commercial boxed brewing kits can help cut down the time commitment, but they usually aim for simplicity and make for a brew by-the-numbers experience and mediocre results. Sigesmund thinks the extra time and effort of all-grain brewing is well worth it. “If you're going to spend an afternoon brewing, then why settle for something that will just taste alright?” If I had to make a cooking analogy all-grain brewing might be roughly equivalent to making pasta from scratch. In between a boxed kit and all-grain brewing is malt-extract brewing, which is like using dried pasta. There's some debate amongst home brewers as to whether grain brewing always makes for a better beer than malt extract. But just like with fresh pasta, all grain brewing isn't inherently better, it's more involved though and allows you more control. Ultimately the quality of the beer comes down to using top-quality ingredients and then doing everything else right during the brewing process.
Aside from the extra time commitment all grain brewing also requires some more equipment, like a grinder. Sigesmund and Begleiter, who is an automotive engineer, built their own hand powered grinding rig. They're already planning improvements like motorising it and making it taller to minimise bending and better accommodate the bucket to catch the cracked grains. They retrofitted a cooler turning it into a mash tun, which is needed in all grain brewing to steep the grains and bring out the starches and fermentable sugars. They also made an immersion chiller (pictured above), which gets submerged into the wort (the name for the beer before fermentation) and has cold water run through it. This faster chilling allows the yeast to be added sooner and helps reduce cloudy chill haze from suspended proteins in the beer. One of their key purchases was a propane element designed for frying turkeys. They're relatively cheap, can handle larger volumes than a stove and they have a lot of power, which also helps for a faster cleaner boil in the wort and ultimately a clearer beer. So if you're planning to do all-grain brewing it does help to be handy, but it isn't necessary as things can be purchased.
The big lessons I took away from the home brewing session was the importance of sanitation. If it touches the beer it should be clean, sanitised and sterilised. While being lax with your cleaning regime isn't likely to make you sick, it does put you at increased risk for funky unpleasant aromas and flavours in your beer, potentially undoing all that hard work put into the process. This is especially critical when cooling the freshly boiled wort down to a temperature where you can add the yeast without killing it. At that point the wart is sugary and warm which is pretty much an all-you-can-drink house party for bacteria.
Overall the afternoon session gave me a good perspective on the all-grain home brewing process. Equal parts passion, perspiration and patience, it's a hobby that can grow with you and rewards you with the effort you put into it. And if you love beer, there are few better ways to spend a lazy Sunday afternoon.
Written by Mike Di Caro
Michael Di Caro covers all things vinous at Spotlight. His lover affair with Ontario wine began over a decade ago and he’s been in front of tasting bars trying to sweet talk staff into pouring a taste of a library wine or the latest unreleased bottle ever since. Since good wine can’t be made without great grapes, you can also catch him amongst the vines trying to persuade the winemaker into revealing his/her next big thing for you on Spotlight. His epicurean tendencies don’t just stop in the glass either. During the rest of his free time you can find him searching for the perfect bowl of Dan Dan noodles, exploring the city’s best tasting menus or baking cookies and mucking about in the kitchen.