Let's make some beer!
Beer making is a fun and inexpensive hobby that's perfect for wintertime in Pocahontas County.
Many drink beer, but few know how it's made. Making a batch of home brew is fun and educational. Anyone who likes to cook or who played with a chemistry set as a kid will enjoy the beer-making process, and anyone who likes beer will love the finished product - a real, full-bodied beer - in a wide variety of flavors.ﾠ
Brewing beer is slightly more complicated than wine-making, but basically involves boiling ingredients, adding yeast, letting it sit for a couple months and bottling or kegging it up.
Minimum necessary equipment includes a large pot or pots to boil the ingredients, a bottle (carboy) or bucket to ferment the beer, bottles or a keg to put the finished beer in, and ancillary equipment such as an airlock, bottle caps, carbon dioxide (CO2) tank (if using a keg), siphon, tubing, thermometer and sanitizer powder.
Good Energy Foods, in Elkins, sells starter equipment kits with a glass carboy ($100) or a plastic bucket ($75), not including cook pots. Online vendors sell starter kits, minus cook pots, for as low as $75. Discount stores sell five-gallon, stainless steel cook pots for about $15.
Ingredients for a five-gallon batch will cost about $25-$50, depending on the recipe.
So, everything you need to brew your first batch of beer will cost less than $200, and you'll have all the equipment you need to make more.
Good Energy Foods stocks about a half-dozen different types of malt and hops, and can order many more. Online vendors offer hundreds of different recipe kits, ranging from light pilsener lagers to heavy, dark ales. Most brewers buy recipe kits, but some mix-and-match ingredients to make custom beers.
Beer's basic ingredients are water, malt, yeast and hops, but can include flavorings such as grain, fruit syrup or different hops.ﾠ
Malt is made from any kind of grain, but for beer - usually barley or wheat. Grain seeds are germinated until they sprout and the sprouts are dried in a kiln. The sprouts are boiled down to produce a syrup, rich in sugars, known as malt. Malt extract for beer is purchased, either in syrup or powder form.
Hops are flower buds of a climbing plant, humulus lupulus, and look like little pine cones. Hops smell like pine needles and add a bitter, tangy flavor to beer - contrasting the sweetness of the malt. Hops kill bacteria, but have little effect on yeast. Humulus lupulus is a perennial plant that grows well in West Virginia. Many online beer kit vendors sell hop rhizomes for home cultivation.
Water should not contain chlorine, which will inhibit yeast activity. Pocahontas County has several good springs, like the one near Devil's Backbone, that provide excellent beer-making water.
The mixture of beer ingredients, boiled together before fermentation, is called wort.
Yeast, a single-cell fungus, is added to ferment the wort and transform it into beer. Yeast comes with a beer kit in either dry or liquid form.
After obtaining the equipment and ingredients, the beer-making process is fairly simple.
The brewer boils five gallons of water in a large pot or pots. Malt is added to boiling water and hops are added at a specified time, depending on the recipe. If part of the recipe, crushed grains are soaked, like tea, in a mesh bag, in a separate pot.
After the wort has boiled for an hour, it must be cooled as rapidly as possible. One method is to fill a sink with ice and place the wort pot in the ice and replenish the ice as it melts. A better method is to use a wort chiller, but a chiller costs between $50 and $100. Those lucky enough to have a cold stream running on their property can simply place the wort pot in the creek, taking care to keep creek water out of the pot.
The faster the wort cools, the clearer the beer will be, but there is little effect on flavor.
When the wort cools to room temperature, it is poured into the primary container, along with grain-steeped water, if part of the recipe. Yeast is added ("pitched") and the mixture is sloshed around to oxygenate the wort, which helps the yeast. An airlock and stopper are placed on top of the container and the hard work is done.
Different kinds of yeast are used for making beer and every type has an optimum temperature range. It's important to keep the carboy or bucket at the proper temperature to ensure good fermentation.
Within 24 hours after adding yeast, the wort will begin foaming as the yeast consumes sugar and produces alcohol and CO2. The airlock uses an S-loop filled with water to prevent ambient air, oxygen and germs from entering the bottle, and bubbles steadily during fermentation. When the bubbling stops, usually within two weeks, the foam dissolves back into the wort and fermentation is complete.
After fermentation, some recipes recommend siphoning the beer into a secondary container, for conditioning, for as long as ten weeks. The advantage of a secondary container is taking the beer off of sediment, which collects in the bottom of the primary container and can give beer bad flavors.
Some brewers skip the secondary container and obtain excellent results by allowing the beer to condition in the primary container. The advantage to this method is reducing the risk of contamination while transferring the beer to a secondary container.
All that remains is the waiting and the bottling or kegging. Some recipes are ready in six weeks; some take as long as three months. Beer-making teaches patience.
Home brew can be bottled or placed in a keg.
Bottling requires more sanitizing, more work, and an extra week of waiting before you can drink beer. Many homebrewers have swithced to cornelius kegs - five-gallon, stainless steel kegs used for soft drinks - to keg their beer. Kegging requires the purchase of a cornelius keg, CO2 tank and valve, for about $125 total, but eliminates the hassle of bottling.
Whichever technique you use, if you follow the instructions carefully, your first batch of home brew will be the best beer you've ever tasted. Just like homemade food, homemade beer is simply better than the store-bought stuff.
This is not the kind of beer you want to drink by the six-pack. Homebrew is delicious, old-fashioned beer that you'll want to savor. One or two glasses after dinner, sitting by the fire, is a great way to relax after a hard day of chopping firewood. Plus, you'll feel a sense of of satisfaction and accomplishment, knowing that you made it yourself.
But is all this legal?
Dallas Staples, commissioner of the West Virginia Alcohol Beverage Control Administration (ABCA), and Anoop Bhasan, ABCA general counsel,ﾠ confirmed that home brewing is absolutely legal, under the following conditions:
-- the beer must be for home consumption only.
-- no more than 10 gallons may be brewed at one time.
-- sale of home-brewed beer is strictly prohibited.
There are many recipes that could be ready for the holidays if started soon. Enjoy responsibly.
The American Homebrewers Association operates a website at homebrewersassociation.org.