Brewing Beer: Why I Started With Grain
The programmers here at PaperCut all write print management software for a day job, but have varied and often somewhat eccentric hobbies out of hours. I’d like to share with you one of my recent discoveries: all-grain brewing. I’d hazard a guess that home brewers are disproportionately represented amongst all you techies and readers of this blog, so hopefully you’ll find this interesting.
As an engineer and lover of beer it was inevitable that one day I would pose myself the question, “how does this beer stuff work and how can I make it?”. I’d been put off for many years because the only home-brew I’d heard about was to brew from extract. In summary, extract brewing means:
- Buy a kit from the supermarket. A kit usually has malt extract, hops and dry yeast.
- Boil the malt extract with water and the hops.
- Put the result into a fermentor with the yeast.
- Put the result into bottles with some sugar.
Well that’s easy enough, but it’s not exactly an art form. How can you change the flavour of the beer? By choosing a different kit, and maybe by varying the boil or amount of hops used. That’s why extract brewing was completely disinteresting to me. The value proposition seems to be that you can make beer cheaper than you can buy it, which is really only because you don’t have to pay alcohol tax to drink your own home-brew. To me it was like trying to be a handyman by building Ikea flatpacks.
Then I discovered all-grain brewing. Not only is all-grain brewing possible to do at home, it’s actually quite easy and doesn’t require much additional equipment. Rather than using malt extract all-grain brewing involves starting with malted grains (a sack of grain, available at brew shops) and extracting the sugars yourself. This is “real brewing”, and allows you to take on any style of beer you can think of by varying the malts, water, hops, yeast, sugars and other additions.
One site that was a fantastic guide for me while learning about brewing was the aptly named howtobrew.com. This covers a lot of the theory behind brewing, as well as guides for building some of the specialised equipment.
For the first batch my brewing partner and I decided to start with a beer that would require as little “modification” as possible. When extracting sugars from malt the water quality is a big factor. Basically: the harder the water, the darker the beer. This is why Dublin, with its very hard water, is known for its dark stouts, and Pilsen, with its very pure/soft water, is known for light coloured beers (and the Pilsner style). Melbourne’s water is about as pure as it is in Pilsen, so we settled on a Pilsner.
The one thing we didn’t count on was fermentation temperature. A Pilsner beer calls for a lager yeast, which ferments best at around 9°C (48°F). This might not be a problem in Pilsen, but in Melbourne that’s almost impossible without refrigeration (unless you want to leave it outside in the winter, in which case you’d risk freezing it). Ale yeasts on the other hand call for a temperature of around 20°C (68°F), which is much more achievable. So the result was a “Pilsner ale”. Not exactly a recognised style, but that’s part of the fun.
We couldn’t have been happier with our first all-grain batch. It’s encouraged us to learn more about the details (and there is a lot to learn) and to try other styles of beer. Fermenting now: a strong Scottish ale.
If you’ve got some brewing experiences to share I’d love to hear about them in the comments!
editor’s note: The development team has given Tom 10/10 for his beer and has asked him to bring some more in for us all to enjoy!