Frequently Asked Questions

Malting Grains

Can I malt my own grain?
Malting grain is accomplished by soaking raw grains in water until they germinate (i.e., a little root grows out of the grain). The grains are then dried and kilned at a constant temperature. The longer the germinated grain is kilned, the darker the colour of the malt.

Few craft brewers and fewer brew pubs malt their own grains. The malts from the commercial maltsters are convenient and, more importantly, consistent. For both large and small commercial brewers, consistency is critical.

You may want to try malting a small amount of grain sometime, but it is not very realistic to do enough for an entire batch of beer. You can find instructions for how to do this on the web. We would rather use our time drinking the beer we made!

What Pete Says About Malting
It is hard enough getting high quality malted grains, never mind the raw grains. Stick to the malted grains you can buy.

What Doug Says About Malting
It is possible to take a crack at malting small amounts of grain if you like. You can roast the grains in your oven. I have to confess that I haven’t tried it, but I may get around to it one of these days. If you ever get a chance to tour a commercial malting operation it is really worth doing.

 

Grinding Malts

What are the benefits of grinding my own malt?
You can save a little bit of money.

In a sense grinding is a misnomer. Actually you just want to crack the grains into a few pieces; in a small brewery our equipment is designed to do just that. If the malts are ground too finely we can run into a variety of problems ranging from clogging the equipment to inconsistent flavours in the beer.

What Pete Says About Grinding Malts
Normally you can save some money by grinding your own grains; that is, many retailers will charge slightly more for ground malt as opposed to the whole grain malts. If you are going to grind using a hand grinder, like a Boy Scout – be prepared; it can be a long and messy process. Remember the amount you may save by grinding your own is offset by the cost of the grinder and the cost of a good weigh scale to accurately measure your grains.

However, if you can buy and store your grains in bulk and you can get a good quality power grinder it may be worth your while to grind your own. By keeping a variety of basic malts (pale, crystal) and some ‘specialty’ malts (wheat, black patent) you have the flexibility of making the beer you want when you want – you don’t have to wait for Beer Guy to open to get your supplies.

What Doug Says About Grinding Malts
The most important thing about grinding malt, whether you do it yourself or you get Beer Guy to do it, is not to grind it too fine. You definitely don’t want to grind the malt into a powder.

I find that if the grain splits into about four to six pieces, I get a good mash with lots of sugar extraction and no stuck sparges.

 

Mashing

Why is the mashing temperature 65°C for ales?
Because it is the right temperature to extract the optimal combination of fermentable sugars and other stuff.

The big difference between mashing in a small brewery and mashing at home is control. A small brewery has mash tuns which have automatic temperature control to ensure the mash is always at the optimal temperature.

What Pete Says About Mashing
Next to thoroughly cleaning your equipment (and of course drinking the fruit of your labour), mashing is the most critical step. Remember, mashing is the process that, among other things, converts the sugars in the malts into fermentables; a poor mash may mean you miss your target gravity.

Do not be surprised or upset if your first few attempts result in a lower than expected starting gravity. If you carefully monitor your mashing temperature you should end up at the target gravity. However, if your starting gravities are consistently lower than expected there are a few things you can do.

First, and simplest, add some malt extract or corn sugar to the wort after the boil. This will bring your wort to the target gravity, but it may change the flavour slightly unless the contents of the malt extract exactly match the contents of your malts.

Second, do an iodine test to be sure the mash is complete. Since iodine is a poison, always discard the sample used in the test. To test, put a small amount of clear wort in a white saucer and add a drop or two of iodine. If there are still unconverted starches in your wort the sample will turn a dark blue or black.

Third, increase the amounts of the malts you use. That is, if you are normally low by about 10% (say target gravity is 1.050 and you normally hit 1.045) then add about 10% more malts. The converse of this is to make a smaller volume.

Fourth, double check the weights of the malts you buy to be sure you have the amounts you need. It could be the scales at your supplier are not accurate.

Fifth, get better quality malts.

A lower gravity does not bother me since I prefer a lower alcohol beer.

What Doug Says About Mashing
I find that I get the best results if I heat the mash liquor up to about 10 degrees F above the mash temperature given in the recipe (e.g., 76 degree mash liquor for a 66 degree mash). This way, as long as I am using my insulated mash tun, the mash temperature stays constant at the recommended temperature for the entire mash time, and I never need to add hot water. You may need experiment a little with your own equipment – practice makes perfect!

 

Sparging

What do I do if the sparge water is not going through my mash?
Either the grains have clogged the holes in your mash tun, or, your mash has set. Try lifting the lauter tun 3-5 inches out of the mash bucket, and set it back down – hopefully the upward pressure of the water will blow the grains forcing the clog out of the mash tun.

Ahh, the convenience of the spray arm.

What Pete Says About Sparging
Since I mash in the same stainless pot I use for boiling, I need to transfer the mash from the mash pot to the mash tun. To do this I use one of my stainless steel kitchen pots and ladle the mash into the tun. In the first few pots I try to get a thick grain mix so I can build a good grain base over the sparge holes, then I slowly fill the bucket with the remainder of the mash being careful not to disturb the base too much.

I find a simple garden type watering can works well for sprinkling the sparge water over the grains. I also find that no matter how much sparge water I have prepared it seems it is about 3 pints short of what I need. Be careful with the hot water while sparging. I always wear rubber gloves to prevent burns.

 

What Doug Says About Sparging
I seem to get my best results when I am careful not to disturb the grain bed once I start sparging – that means don’t stir the grains while sparging. If I stir, I get unpleasant off flavours. But, if the mash gets “stuck” (the water doesn’t run through the grain bed) you sometimes have no choice but to stir.

 

Boiling

Why is the wort boiled?
Boiling sterilizes and clarifies the wort (and encourages a number of other neat chemical functions), or as brewers say, “stabilizes” the wort. Boiling usually lasts for 90 minutes to two hours.

At the beginning of the boiling process, hops are added (referred to, not surprisingly as boiling or bittering hops) that give beer that “bitter” flavour. With about 10 - 15 minutes left in the boil, a small amount of hops are added to give the beer a nice hop aroma, but without adding any further bitterness.

What Pete Says About Boiling
The bigger the boil the better. By bigger I mean both the volume to be boiled and the vigour of the boil. I use a large (36 or 48 litre – about 9.5 – 12.5 U.S. gallons ) stainless steel pot so I can boil the full volume.

I prefer to use flower hops and I just throw them into the pot during the boil. As a result at the end of the boil I need to run the hot wort through my mash tun and sparge through the hops. If you put the hops into a hop bag this sparging is not necessary. Hops get added at different times during the boil, so be sure you set your alarm.

What Doug Says About Boiling
Even though most recipes call for a 1 1/2 to 2 hour boil, I find that I can get away with 75 minutes of a good rolling boil. This short boil has the features of speeding up the process, and it doesn’t steam up the basement as much!

 

Cooling the Wort

Why should the wort be cooled quickly?
As soon as the boil is finished, you are left with hot sweet wort. And, as it turns out, hot sweet wort is what bacteria love best. It is important to get the wort cooled down as quickly as possible to the temperature recommended for pitching the yeast. This greatly reduces the possibility that bacteria or wild yeasts will get into your wort and ruin your beer.

Commercial and craft breweries have heat exchangers that cool the wort as it is pumped from the boiler to the primary fermenter; when the fermenter is full it is at the temperature for the yeast to be pitched. There are two major benefits to this process. First, and foremost, the wort is not sitting around before the yeast is pitched so the likelihood of contamination is minimized. Second, the heat captured from the heat exchanger can be used in other processes which is a real economic benefit.

What Pete Says About Cooling Wort
Cool man, cool. The quicker the better. In colder weather I let the wort cool outside and in warmer weather I put the boil pot in a wash tub full of cold water. There are immersion coil cooling units that are easy to make.

What Doug Says About Cooling Wort
Cooling the wort quickly means that you can pitch the yeast as soon as possible, and reduce the chance that your beer will get infected with bacteria, wild yeasts, or the cat! I use the method of immersing the filled bucket in a laundry tub full of cold water. I replace the water in the tub when it gets warm. You will find that if you stir the wort occasionally while it is cooling, you will speed the cooling process a lot.

 

Primary Fermentation

What is primary fermentation?
Primary fermentation is the first stage of a two-stage fermentation process (primary and secondary fermentation) when the yeast is first added to the wort. Once the yeast hits the wort, you have, in theory, beer. In primary fermentation, the bulk of the sugar in the wort is turned into alcohol (hooray!) and carbon dioxide (also hooray!). In the primary fermentation phase, the yeast is extremely active and multiplies like crazy. The yeast forms a thick “yeast head” on the top of the fermenting wort.

What Pete Says About Primary Fermentation
After the boil, I pull about 4 litres (1 gallon) of wort into a glass jar that I quickly cool and use for my yeast starter. I also pull an additional 2 to 4 litres (1/2/ to 1 gallon) that I add back in before kegging/bottling. By the time the main wort is cooled the yeast in the starter is in the game and ready to be pitched. Make sure you give the wort a good stir as you add the yeast to help oxygenate it and give the yeast an extra boost. Don’t forget to take a gravity reading before you pitch the yeast.

I ferment in one of my stainless pots. During the fermentation I simply tie a piece of clear plastic over the pot and replace the lid. When I lift the lid I can quickly see how the fermentation is proceeding.

For some ales and bitters I add hop flowers to the fermentation (dry hopping). I add these hops at the same time I toss the yeast starter and stir them thoroughly into the wort. The period between the end of the boil and the pitching of the yeast is the time when your beer is most vulnerable to contamination – the culprit being wild air-borne yeast. The contamination will not be from my equipment since I always clean before and after use.

 

What Doug Says About Primary Fermentation
I used to leave my beer in the primary fermenter only 3 or 4 days. But I found that it was still very active, and caused a mess spewing through the airlock in the first couple of days in the secondary fermenter. Now I leave the beer in the primary for 5 to 7 days, and have no more problems.

 

Secondary Fermentation

What is secondary fermentation?
Secondary fermentation occurs after the primary fermentation stage. In secondary fermentation, there is less remaining sugar in the beer, and the yeast works more slowly. For secondary fermentation, the beer is transferred to a carboy and an airlock is usually attached to keep outside air from coming in contact with the beer.

In secondary fermentation, the beer becomes clearer as suspended yeast and other particles in the beer tend to drop out to the bottom of the fermenter. Some brewers help the clarification process along by adding “finings” to the secondary fermenter.

What Pete Says About Secondary Fermentation
Even when I plan to cask condition my ales, I still use a secondary fermenter. It is most important when I dry hop in the primary.

First, I rack from the primary to the secondary while the yeast is still a bit active. I do this to get the beer off the yeast and other ‘debris’ in the primary. If I plan to cask condition I leave it in the secondary for another 2 or 3 days then rack it into the keg. If I plan to bottle I leave it in the secondary for about a week and rack to yet another secondary – once again to get the beer off the yeast.

What Doug Says About Secondary Fermentation
Five to seven in the secondary fermenter is usually about enough. I keep it to the low end of that range if I’m going to be putting the beer into a keg (as opposed to bottling).

 

Bottling

What are some options for bottling beer?
There are many options for bottling beer. Glass bottles with crown caps; plastic bottles with twist off caps; kegs and many others. The one you choose depends on considerations like how much you hate bottling, your budget and whether you want your beer to be easily portable.

 

What Pete Says About Bottling
Bottling is the least fun part of making beer. Thoroughly cleaning all the bottles and then siphoning into each is very time consuming and tedious. As a result, I tend to put most of the beer into a keg and bottle just a small amount. Lately I have started putting all of the beer into kegs and then as I want a bottle to take away, I simply fill it from the keg. So far I am happy with the results.

Before kegging or bottling I add some yeast to the wort I put aside after the boil as if I were making another yeast starter. Once this batch is active I mix it with the beer from the secondary – both are added to the boil pot – and then keg and/or bottle. This live wort addition will give your beer some effervescence and help to produce a nice head in the glass. An alternative is to add a small amount of corn sugar (about 1/2 cup, but not more or your beer will be too bubbly) to the beer from the secondary before bottling/kegging.

If you do bottle, remember to clean and double clean your bottles. And as you finish quaffing a bottle, be sure to carefully rinse it right away.

What Doug Says About Bottling
I hate bottling beer, so I invested in a few 25 litre (5 U.S. gallon) soda kegs, and a CO2 tank. It is not too expensive if you can find used equipment (a fraction of the price of new), pretty portable, time saving, and fun at parties. Also, I think the beer tastes better when it is dispensed from a keg.

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