Making Your Own Beer

Sometimes -- especially here in the Midwest -- winters can be long; sometimes they can be extra cold; sometimes they can be super-snowy; sometimes they can be downright obnoxious. On rare occasion, they can be all of the above. Even for those of us who thoroughly enjoy winter sports like snowmobiling, ice fishing, skiing, etc., some winters can be just a tad exasperating...

Mr. Beer Kit

This particular winter (2013-2014) was in fact one that fell into the category of "all of the above" and, toward the end of February, I needed a distraction. I think Heidi sensed that, as suddenly what appeared was a "Mr. Beer" kit to make home brew. I had always wanted to try making my own beer but always thought that the process was too difficult. I couldn't have been more wrong.  

Certainly this whole topic had become far more interesting after visits to numerous breweries, like the Capital Brewery in Madison, WI, the Leinenkugel Brewery in Chippewa Falls, WI, or a craft brewery -- Leech Lake Brewing Company -- in Walker, MN. But it wasn't until I got my own kit that my interest was really piqued.

Pouring the wort

In any case, the four basic ingredients in beer are water, barley, hops and yeast; brewers combine these four simple ingredients to make beer.  And the very bottom line is this: With a kit like "Mr. Beer" (which includes all the basic ingredients -- except the water, of course), the whole process of making your own very tasty brew is not only easy, it's fun!  My particular kit was for making the Classic American Light beer.  An easy-to-follow DVD is also included with the kit, making the whole process pretty much fool-proof.  For me, it was at least as fun as making my own tomato juice or pickling my own garden beans.  And, after all, if it's not fun, why bother?

Admittedly, the full process to make beer is fairly long and, although not immensely complex, requires a higher degree of patience than many of us possess (except those of us who fish for walleye... we have more patience than most saints), equipment that most of us don't normally possess either, and certainly a decent knowledge of chemistry. The good news here is that, using the Mr. Beer kit, the entire process is highly simplified and quite easy. The results I achieved on my first batch were not only surprising, they were very tasty!

The bottling process

The kit yields about eight liters of finished product; I opened the first bottle after about ten days of fermentation, followed by bottling and then another eleven days to produce the alcohol and carbonation (allowing the yeast to act on the added sugar required by the recipe).  The Classic American Light version was excellent, but had a slight hint of yeast, so I waited another three days.  There was a noticeable difference and now I understand the "recommended" two-week time frame for a fully-finished beer.

Cheers to your first batch (even if you haven't made it yet) and cheers to whatever batch you might be brewing or want to brew. It's lots of fun to make your own... and the whole process -- especially the finished product -- certainly helped assuage my winter blues! Now I'm looking forward to ordering other refill flavors so I can brew them and share with friends! Additional good news is that your home brew is really not much different in price than the average case of beer purchased at the store.

By the way, I have no vested interest in Mr. Beer or any other beer-making product; I just thought I'd like to pass along the idea. Good luck, happy brewing and, I'll see you On the Lake! Enjoy!  

R. Karl

Note: For those of you interested in the "finer points" (stuff like chemistry...) of making beer, please continue reading the additional information below. It is not really necessary, but certainly interesting and adds a bit of of fascinating information that may lead to a better understanding when visiting/taking tours at breweries.

Beer - The Basics

People have been brewing beer for thousands of years. This beverage in particular became a staple in the Middle Ages, when people began to live in places where close quarters and poor sanitation made clean water difficult to obtain. The alcohol in beer made it safer to drink than water.

In the 1400s in Germany, a special style of beer was made that was fermented in the winter months with a different type of yeast, results in a "cleaner" flavor. (Yeast strains, by the way, are often a most jealously-guarded secret ingredient of brewers.) This particular German beer was called a lager and, in part due to Prohibition in the U.S., a variation of this type of beer is dominant in the United States today. Lagers are fermented and served at lower temperatures.

For those of you – perhaps not unlike me – who had a bad experience with high school chemistry; relax… There is hope! At least if you understand that chemistry plays a major role in the production of the majority of food you eat and the liquids you drink, you are, at the very least, well on your way to at least appreciating chemistry. And if, by chance, you perhaps enjoy an occasional glass of beer, you are certainly on your way to enjoying chemistry (and maybe biology as well…)  – certainly the chemistry of making beer!

My apologies for oversimplifying here (there is a lot of detail and much chemistry involved) but basically, once the ingredients are mixed, cooked and cooled, the results are something called wort -- it is essentially what you might call beer starter. Adding yeast to the wort starts the magic that gets us to the finished product.

For those who may be curious, here are some specifics

  •  Malting Barley: This is where we get the enzymes for sugar production; color & flavor depend on drying temperature. (There are two different types of enzymes present in the malted barley.)
  • Hops: These are the flowers of the hop vine; interestingly, they are a member of the hemp family and are related to marijuana (that should help in maintaining your attention). In the US, hops are mostly grown in the state of Washington.
  • Yeast:: Single-celled microorganisms; they eat sugar to produce alcohol and CO2; different types of yeast lead to different flavors (main types: ale and lager).
  • Water: “It’s the water… and a lot more!” It's an old saying from a beer commercial advertising a particular beer (Olympia); the point is that the quality and purity of water has a great deal to do with the flavor imparted to the beer.
  • Making the Mash: This is a process that converts the starches in the malted barley into fermentable sugars; ; monitoring the temp of the mash is very important.
  • Wort: An important step in the beer brewing process is called the boil. At the end of the boil, the result is called a finished wort (pronounced wert). This is the stage at which the hops are added (using both boiling hops and finishing hops). The solids are separated and the wort is cooled quickly.
  • Fermentation: This is the process by which yeast converts the glucose (basically sugar) in the wort to ethyl alcohol and carbon dioxide gas -- giving the beer both its alcohol content and its carbonation.

How Yeast Makes Alcohol and Carbon Dioxide

Sorry... some chemistry is necessary here. When the yeast first hits the wort, concentrations of glucose (C6H12O6 -- i.e., sugar) are very high. Through the process of diffusion, glucose enters the yeast cells (in fact, it will continue entering the yeast cells as long as there is glucose in the solution).

As each glucose molecule enters the yeast cell, it is broken down in a 10-step process called glycolysis. The product of glycolysis is a pair of three-carbon sugars, called pyruvates, and some ATP (adenosine triphosphate), which supply energy to the yeast and allow it to multiply. The two pyruvates are then converted by the yeast into carbon dioxide (CO2), which is the carbonation) and ethanol (CH3CH2OH), which is the alcohol in beer).  

Want to learn more? Check out the following sites: