Five Reasons You Should Homebrew

Posted on December 1st, 2009

homebrew

Craft beer isn’t the only thing people are drinking more and more of in America; homebrewing is also gaining in popularity. This shouldn’t come as a surprise as craft beer and homebrewing have always been closely associated. In fact, many of America’s biggest craft brewers started out as homebrewers. With so much great beer out there, some may ask why you’d want to bother with brewing in your kitchen. Here are a few reasons why you should give homebrewing a try.

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What is Cask Ale?

Posted on August 18th, 2009

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Today we’re going to take a look at cask ale, a traditional British style of beer which dates back pretty much to the origin of beer itself. When Shakespeare went to his local pub for a beer, this is how they served it to him. A few weeks ago we explained what bottle-conditioned beer is, which is a helpful starting point as cask ale can be thought of in a lot of ways as bottle-conditioned beer in a cask, which is why it’s sometimes referred to as ‘cask-conditioned.’

The process starts after the beer has been brewed, but remains uncarbonated and unbottled. The beer is loaded into a steel barrel, or cask, similar in appearance to a keg. Additional sugar or wort is added to the cask to restart the fermentation process by the active yeast still in the beer. The yeast goes to work, eating the sugar and expelling CO2 and alcohol. The pressure builds in the cask and the CO2 dissolves into the beer, naturally carbonating it. This natural carbonation also continues to condition the beer’s flavor, smoothing out flavors and mellowing out the hops. Once he receives it from the brewery a pub owner will tap a porous peg in the cask’s hole, known as a ‘bung.’ Excess gas and foam rushes out the bunghole and fining agents are added to settle the yeast to the bottom of the cask. A few days later the bunghole is resealed and the cask-conditioned ale is ready to be served.

Cask Ale Hand Pumps

Cask Ale Hand Pumps

Now the most traditional manner of tapping and serving the cask would simply to have it placed on it’s side, tapped with a spigot and poured into your glass through the wonder of gravity. Due to space, sanitation or various other factors an alternate method was developed long ago. Casks of beer are stored in a pub’s cellar, where it can be kept at the proper temperature (54°F for cask ale) and tap lines are connected leading up to the bar. Because the beer is only naturally carbonated it’s not going to have the pressure to make it up to the bar on its own, unlike modern forced carbonated beer, or soda. To solve this problem a hand pump, akin to the water pump on your grandfather’s farm is used to siphon the beer into a glass. These beer engines, or gravity pumps as they are sometimes known, allow the beer to be poured while preserving the natural carbonation and flavor.

The advantage of cask ale over modern beer is similar to the benefits of bottle-conditioned beer. Because the beer is naturally carbonated by active yeast, it continues to age and condition, becoming more complex and smoother over time. Unlike bottle-conditioned beer though cask ale cannot be aged over a long period of time due to it being exposed to open air. Indeed, cask really should be consumed within a few days of being tapped.

Because of the short shelf life it has and attention that must be paid to it, cask ale began to go out of style in the 1960’s as the bigger brewers began to mimic American style lagers, which are much simpler and economical to store and serve than cask ales. Fortunately British beer drinkers didn’t tolerate this loss of their beer and tradition and the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) was founded in 1971 to preserve this style of beer and the history associated with it. They define ‘real ale’ as “beer brewed from traditional ingredients, matured by secondary fermentation in the container from which it is dispensed, and served without the use of extraneous carbon dioxide,” which basically means cask ale. Although cask ale still struggles in some parts of the UK, thanks to the efforts of CAMRA real ale has come back from the brink of extinction to availability throughout much of the United Kingdom.

Now days you can even find some cask ale at better beer bars and restaurants in America. Next time you see it available do yourself a favor and enjoy a pint of some traditional beer the same way Shakespeare would have. When you do be sure to let us know what you think about it by tweeting your beer and adding the ‘#mybeer’ hashtag.

What is bottle conditioned beer?

Posted on August 3rd, 2009

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Forced carbonation

If you drink craft beer chances are sooner or later you’re going to hear folks throw around the term ‘bottle conditioning’ or ‘bottle conditioned’. Chances are also pretty good that you haven’t a clue what that means. Well, fret no longer, because today we’re going to look at what it means for your beer.

On the most basic level bottle conditioning refers to how a beer is carbonated. Non-bottle conditioned beer, along with most carbonated liquids such as soda and tonic water are carbonated through a process known as forced carbonation. This involves taking carbon dioxide  (CO2) and forcefully pumping it into a sealed container of your liquid of choice. Under the right conditions the CO2 will dissolve into the beer, carbonating it. Once the container is depressurized, for example by popping the cap off a beer bottle, the CO2 rushes out of the beer, giving it that lovely fizzy quality we’ve all come to know and love.

When a beer is said to be bottle-conditioned the process works a bit differently. Instead of artificially carbonating the beer, bottle conditioned beer allows the yeast  to naturally carbonate the beer after fermentation is complete. As you’ll recall from our article on how beer is made, fermentation works by having the yeast eat the sugars in the wort and spitting out alcohol and CO2 as waste products. During fermentation the CO2 is allow to bubble off and escape, but once fermentation is complete and the yeast has magically transformed your sugary wort into alcoholic beer, bottle conditioned beer has a little bit of extra yeast or extra sugar or something else added  to restart the yeast. Once again the yeast produces alcohol and CO2. Since the beer is now bottled and capped before this happens the CO2 produced by the yeast has nowhere to go and dissolves into the beer, carbonating it.

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Because active yeast remains in a bottle-conditioned beer,  it continues to develop and age ever so slightly over time. This makes bottle conditioned beer perfect for aging, as it will continue to mature, much like a fine wine. Non-bottle conditioned beer on the other hand has all yeast removed from it before it’s bottled, ensuring the beer will change much slower and providing  a higher level of consistency than the bottle conditioned stuff. This  gives non-bottle conditioned beer a much shorter shelf life than it’s yeasty cousin.

While certain styles of bottle-conditioned beer benefits from pouring the yeast into your glass, such as hefeweizens, the majority will taste a bit off if the yeast makes it into the glass, so when pouring your beer it’s recommended you take care to avoid pouring the last bit with the yeast into your glass.

How Beer is Made

Posted on July 6th, 2009

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Beer is made from four basic ingredients: Barley, water, hops and yeast. The basic idea is to extract the sugars from grains (usually barley) so that the yeast can turn it into alcohol and CO2, creating beer.

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The brewing process starts with grains, usually barley (although sometimes wheat, rye or other such things.) The grains are harvested and processed through a process of heating, drying out and cracking. The main goal of malting is to isolate the enzymes needed for brewing so that it’s ready for the next step.

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The grains then go through a process known as mashing, in which they are steeped in hot, but not boiling, water for about an hour, sort of like making tea. This activates enzymes in the grains that cause it to break down and release its sugars. Once this is all done you drain the water from the mash which is now full of sugar from the grains. This sticky, sweet liquid is called wort. It’s basically unmade beer, sort of like how dough is unmade bread.

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The wort is boiled for about an hour while hops and other spices are added several times.
What are hops? Hops are the small, green cone-like fruit of a vine plant. They provide bitterness to balance out all the sugar in the wort and provide flavor. They also act as a natural preservative, which is what they were first used for. (For more info on hops take a look at our article on the subject.)

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Once the hour long boil is over the wort is cooled, strained and filtered. It’s then put in a fermenting vessel and yeast is added to it. At this point the brewing is complete and the fermentation begins. The beer is stored for a couple of weeks at room temperature (in the case of ales) or many many weeks at cold temperatures (in the case of lagers) while the yeast works its fermentation magic. Basically the yeast eats up all that sugar in the wort and spits out CO2 and alcohol as waste products. (For more info on the difference between ales and lagers check our article here.)

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You’ve now got alcoholic beer, however it is still flat and uncarbonated. The flat beer is bottled, at which time it is either artificially carbonated like a soda, or if it’s going to be ‘bottle conditioned’ it’s allowed to naturally carbonate via the CO2 the yeast produces. After allowing it to age for anywhere from a few weeks to a few months you drink the beer, and it’s delicious!