- Today's topic: An overview of the four stages of your brew day
- The Kitchn's Beer School: 20 lessons, 7 assignments to brew your first 1-gallon batch of beer.
- Sign up & see all the assignments! The Kitchn's Beer School
This week in Beer School, we're focusing on the actual brewing of a batch of beer — that is to say, how we turn a few pounds of dry grains into fresh, fermentable beer wort. This is the most hands-on part of the whole beer-making process, and it takes a full afternoon to complete. It's important to understand each step because a good brew day translates into good beer a few weeks down the road.
Today, read a quick overview of how a typical brew day plays out, and then over the next few days, we'll get into the nitty-gritty details on each step so you know exactly what to do and what to look for. This weekend, your assignment will be to put your new skills into practice and brew your very first batch of beer.
Talk Like a Brewer
Mash: This refers to the action of combining the dry grains with warm water, as well as the resulting oatmeal-like mixture.
Wort (Pronounced "whert"): The sugary liquid made from mashing the grains with warm water; this is what is eventually fermented into beer.
Sparge: The process of separating the wort from the mashed grains and then rinsing the grains with fresh warm water.
Hop Boil: The typically hour-long boiling of the wort, during which hops are added in specific amounts and at timed intervals.
The Brew Day in Four Parts
A typical brew day is broken into four parts: the mash, the sparge, the hop boil, and the cool down, after which you add the yeast to the beer and call it a day.
Each one of these steps takes roughly an hour, so you can estimate 4 to 5 hours total for your brew day — your first few brew day will probably take a bit longer, but you'll get faster as you learn the process.
The Timeline of a Typical Brew Day
- Mash: 1 hour
- Sparge: 1 hour
- Hop Boil: 1 hour
- Cool Down: 1 hour
Total time: 4 to 5 hours
(But allow a little extra time when you're first learning the process.)
Hour 1: The Mash
To kick off the brew day, combine the crushed grains with a good amount of warm water to make a mash of grains. This is literally a "mash" and will look a lot like thin oatmeal or porridge. Let this steep for about an hour, checking the temperature every so often to make sure it's staying steady.
During this hour, starches in the grains will dissolve into the warm water, and naturally occurring enzymes will break those complex starches into simpler, more fermentable sugars. The toasted grains will also add their toasty, roasted flavors to the water, along with some amber color. If you take sips of the wort over the hour, you'll notice it getting progressively sweeter and more malty-tasting.
Hour 2: The Sparge
Once we've extracted everything we can from the grains, their job is done and all we really care about is the sugary liquid we've created. This next step is all about separating that sugary liquid — now called "wort" — from the grains and also to make sure we've rinsed every last bit of sugar from the sticky surface of the grains, a process called "sparging."
For 1-gallon batches, this is easy to do using a large strainer and the fermentation bucket; just set the strainer over the bucket and pour the grains inside. The strainer will catch the grains and the sweet beer wort will collect in the bucket beneath. Pour warmed water over the top of the grains to rinse ("sparge") them and increase the total amount of wort.
The grains can be discarded or composted, and the wort continues on to the boiling step.
Hour 3: The Hop Boil
In many ways, this is the easiest and most straightforward of all the beer-brewing steps: Put your brew pot full of wort on the stove and bring it to a boil over high heat. Once boiling, you can start adding the hops according to the timeline in your recipe. The hop boil is usually 60 minutes, and you add one dose of hops at the beginning of the boil, another dose midway through, and a final dose at the very end.
I like to add a pinch of Irish moss along with the second dose of hops; this doesn't add any flavor, but it helps make your beer clearer and less hazy.
Your biggest job during this hour is to keep a timer going so you add the hops at the right times and also make sure the wort stays at a full, rolling boil, which is important for extracting the resins from the hops. Beyond that, you can chill out with a beer, catch up on email, or if you want to be very nice to your kitchen co-habitants, get a head start on cleaning the kitchen. Keep an eye on that brew pot, though, just to make sure the wort is boiling steadily and not threatening to boil over the pot.
Hour 4: The Cool Down
The second the hop boil is finished and you take the pot off the heat, the goal is to cool down the wort to about room temperature and get it into the fermentation bucket as fast as possible. This helps reduce the risk of any bacteria getting a foothold in the freshly made beer and also results in a cleaner, clearer beer. This is also when sanitation starts to become important — anything that touches the beer from this point onward needs to be sanitized first (we'll talk about exactly how to do this in a few more lessons).
This all sounds very intense, I know, but cooling down a gallon of wort is actually pretty easy to do in your kitchen sink. Fill your sink with water and add as many ice cubes as you have in the freezer (or even better, pick up a bag of party ice from the store), then set the brew pot right down inside. In an ice bath like this, the wort will cool down in 20 to 30 minutes.
Once cool, transfer the wort to the fermentation bucket, add the yeast and froth up the wort with a sanitized whisk to give it some air. Snap the lid on the bucket, insert the water-filled airlock, and your brew day is officially finished. If all is well, you should see bubbles in the airlock within the next 24 hours, the surest sign that fermentation is off to a good start.
Brew Better Beer: A Companion to Beer School
I love brewing beer so much, I wrote a book about it! Brew Better Beer (May 2015, Ten Speed Press) is a complementary guide to Beer School. Take a look for even more nerdy details about homebrewing, how to brew 5-gallon batches, and plenty of recipes for different beers.
→ Find it: Brew Better Beer by Emma Christensen
With The Kitchn's Beer School, we'll teach you how to brew your own beer at home — and brew it with confidence. In 20 lessons and 7 weekend assignments, we'll get you set up with your own home brewery, walk you through your first brew day, show you how to bottle your beer, and then toast you on your first pint. Ready to brew your first beer? Join us!