Brewed basics

Home brewers use age-old knowledge to produce their own custom beers

Marc-André Blier, ArtSci ’13, has brewed over 15 batches of beer since last year.
Marc-André Blier, ArtSci ’13, has brewed over 15 batches of beer since last year.
A batch of ale can take up to three weeks to make. Each brew costs between $25 and $30, with over $100 put towards equipment.
A batch of ale can take up to three weeks to make. Each brew costs between $25 and $30, with over $100 put towards equipment.

Marc-André Blier could either be a crazy scientist, or just a guy who really likes beer.

Blier, ArtSci ’13, has been home brewing for just over a year. That is to say, he’s housed a seemingly complex setup of giant bottles and home brew kegs in his kitchen and basement for a while now.

From what I can see, it looks like the process is just a lot of measuring, mixing and waiting for the finished product. And with luck, it’ll turn into something tasty.

“[You] throw everything into a [sealed] bucket and hope for the best,” he said.

The project began with a Groupon from Homecraft Brew & Wine on Princess St., Blier said.

“They have a starter kit,” he said. “They gave me the bucket, siphon [and] a bunch of bottles.”

In addition to these basics, all still used today, Blier uses what’s called an extract kit. They cost around $25 to $30 and include malt extract, liquid or dry yeast and hops, which are the seed cones from hop plants.

After the malt extract, hops and 20 L of water are mixed in a bucket, Blier sprinkles yeast from a freeze-dried packet on top. He brings the mixture to the basement, where it will be covered by a t-shirt. This stops any sunlight exposure that could “skunk” the beer, or trigger chemical reactions that ruin the brew’s taste.

It takes Blier about three weeks for the beer to ferment but, between himself and his friends, a 20 L, or 42 pint batch can be gone in less than a month.

“It depends on how fast people drink,” he said.

Thankfully for Blier, there’s no legal limit on home brewing as long as it’s only free distribution from a generous brewer in a private residence. Blier, who’s brewed a total of around 300 L, or 634 pints, of beer, is one of these — he lets me sample several brews before the night is over.

I try four different types — a stout ale, a lemonade, a cream ale and a cranberry cider. They taste surprisingly good.

“If you want more, just help yourself,” he says.

It’s not hard to drink beer in this house. The kegs are conveniently stored in a mini fridge with two taps protruding from the top. As Blier later tells me, this makes it easy for people to get a drink while making dinner.

“There’s the novelty of people pouring it out the taps,” he said.

The novelty is part of the reason Blier began making his own beer.

Domestic brewing dates back to the Middle Ages, when beer was consumed because it was often safer to drink than water. After the Reinheitsgebot, a 1516 German beer purity law, brewing was limited to using water, barley and hops as ingredients. It was introduced to prevent use of wheat and rye needed for baking bread. Nowadays, Germany can produce non-Reinheitsgebot brews, though they’re not allowed to call it beer.

When yeast fermentation was discovered in the mid-1800s, the microorganism was added to the list of substances that could be used in a beer brew.

Most of these principles still hold today, whether in a home brew or in a big company brew.

When added in, the yeast breaks down sugar to make carbon dioxide and ethanol. The two components produce the fizziness of the drink and the alcoholic content, respectively.

“[Yeast] makes the magic happen,” Blier said.

The types of ingredients will vary depending on the type of beer being made. Along with that, some brews use additional ingredients for flavour.

Blier said a future batch, for example, will include a small amount of cocoa to make a chocolate beer.

It’s a process that Blier diligently records in a large blue notebook. He shows me his notes for each batch — 15 so far — that feature their own names, like “Blithering Idiot Red Ale,” among a series of calculations.

“It’s like a science project,” he said. “I try and change something every time and see what happens.”

The hit of the night is the lemonade, a simple combination of yeast, sugar, water and lemon concentrate — costing a total of $6 for a 20 L batch.

Blier and his housemates, however, call it “Thunderdrunk” for obvious reasons. It’s a drink that, he says, falls between 10 to 15 per cent alcoholic content.

“Someone will always underestimate the lemonade,” he said.

Other breweries have started from a similar curiosity about the process.

Steam Whistle Brewery, based in Toronto, was founded in the late 1990s by three friends who had recently been fired from a brewery after it closed down. They began selling beer in early 2000.

While other companies make several types of beer, the microbrewery only makes pilsners, producing about 88,000 bottles each day.

No matter how the beer is made, the beer-making process all comes down to a brewmaster, spokesperson Sybil Taylor said.

“Our brewmaster is like a chef ... there’s some science and chemistry but it’s a lot of artisanal [skill].”

A mix of terms

Jargon that’ll lead the way to a future in beer connoisseurship.

Ale: Beer that is fermented using the yeast strain S. cerevisiae. It ferments more effectively at warmer temperatures, making ale the preferred beer for home brewing. The finished product has a fruitier taste.

Lager: This ferments using the yeast species S. uvarum. Because the yeast performs better at cooler temperatures, brewers must refrigerate their batch for weeks at a time while the brew ferments. Lager has a crisper taste than ale.

Head: The foam that is produced at the top of a beer when poured. It can indicate carbonation, hops and malt of the brew.

Hops: An herb that adds aroma or flavour to the brew.

Malt extract: A syrup that’s made from evaporating water from wort.

Stout ale: A darker beer. It’s full-bodied and rich in flavour.

Wort: Sweet liquid that comes from mixing barley with water. It’s the basis of all beers.

Yeast: A micro-organism that triggers the brew fermentation process.;

A brew how-to

1. Sanitize equipment using a powdered cleanser like PBW, or diluted bleach. Rinse well.

2. Follow the kit’s instructions to determine when to add specific ingredients and at what temperature. At the appropriate temperatures, mix the malt extract, hops and desired amount of water (20 to 23 L) in a large bucket, called the primary. Mix.

3. Once the mixture is at room temperature, add yeast. Seal the bucket and affix an airlock to the top. Bring to a dark room and cover with a blanket to prevent sunlight exposure. The airlock should begin bubbling within
24 hours.

4. After about a week, the airlock’s movement will slow down. This means it’s time to move the brew to a
medium-sized bottle, called
a secondary.

5. Using a sanitized siphon, transfer the mixture from the primary to the secondary. Be careful in making sure that none of the waste products at the bottom of the bucket (protein and dead yeast cells) are transferred over. Move the bottle back into a dark room.

6. After about another week stored at room temperature, the beer is ready for serving.

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