“Relax, don’t worry—have a homebrew!” –Charlie Papazian, author of The Complete Joy of Homebrewing
Most local fermented beverage imbibers appreciate that Corvallis is chock-full of exceptional breweries, including Oregon Trail, McMenamins, Flat Tail, Block 15, and the new Sky High Brew Pub. Given that Oregon is the second-largest hop-producing state in the United States, most of which is cultivated in the Willamette Valley, it’s no wonder that Oregon is also the second-largest producer of craft beer in the nation.
Having long-enjoyed Corvallis’ plentiful craft beer supply, maybe you’ve decided to take the next step—inspired by mouth-watering local brews, you’re ready to brew your first batch. Purchasing and setting up brewing equipment may seem daunting and will cost $100 minimum, but it’s well worth the effort when each subsequent five-gallon batch of beer costs only $25 to $35. And really, it’s not that daunting.
Joel Rea has been brewing beer since the 1990s and his University of Oregon college days. Since founding Corvallis Brewing Supply in 1997, he has passionately assisted Corvallisites in the creation of their own unique homebrews. Located at 4th and Madison, his shop provides all the equipment needed for veteran homebrewers and newbies alike. You’ll also find wine- and cheese-making supplies, distillation gear, and vinegar kits. Many brewing websites offer pre-assembled homebrew kits, but selecting your own equipment allows you to avoid expensive shipping costs and gets you thinking in advance about the brewing process.
And Corvallis Brew Supply offers more than just equipment—purchasing your first brew set-up and ingredients comes with an enlightening (and entertaining) multi-page instruction guide complete with example recipes, and Rea’s employees are incredibly well-informed and enthusiastic about their beer. There’s no best beer to start with (except the Best Brown Ale, obviously), so pick something you love and go for it. And don’t worry too much about mistakes the first time—homebrewing is mercifully forgiving. Feel free to bring any sub-par (or phenomenal) batches to Joel, who is more than willing to help diagnose the problem (or enjoy your amazing beer).
The Language of Beer
In the process of brewing beer you will learn to speak a new language. The term “wort” refers to the beer during the initial preparation stage, which generally takes less than a few hours. You’ll be racking your beer between fermentation steps, which means siphoning the beer either into a secondary fermentation container or into bottles (or a keg). Your wort will experience a “hot break” stage during heating and a “cold break” stage during rapid cool-down to pitching temperature. Proteins in the wort will coagulate during these important phases, and will sink to the bottom of the pot. Successful completion of both of these phases will lead to clearer, less-hazy beer. At the end of the process, you’ll pitch the yeast, or add it to the cooled wort in the primary fermenter.
During several steps in the preparation process, you’ll use a hydrometer to test the specific gravity, or the relative density compared to water, of your wort. Decreases in sugar content due to consumption by yeast along with the presence of ethanol lower the specific gravity of the wort. The difference in the original gravity (OG) of the wort and the specific gravity (SG) can be used to determine the alcohol content of the beer at various stages. The health and progress of the fermentation process can be monitored using OG versus SG readings, and fermentation is finished when the gravity stops changing.
In selecting your homebrewing equipment, the following items are necessary:
- Glass primary carboy (or plastic bucket) – usually 5 gallons
- Glass secondary carboy – usually 5 gallons
- Large funnel if using glass carboys
- Bottle capper
- Approximately 48 beer bottles (or a keg)
- Bottle caps
- Air lock and stopper
- Siphon assembly and filter
- Bottle brush
- Carboy brush
- Sterilization chemicals (Iodophore)
- 5 gallon stainless steel boil pot
- Mesh grain steeping bag
- Thermometer (floating is helpful)
- Hydrometer (not necessary but extremely useful)
Since you’re probably already a beer drinker, start saving those pop-top bottles, but forget the twist-offs (they don’t cap as tightly). You’ll need to sanitize your bottles before the bottling step, but removing the labels is entirely optional. Of course you can also purchase bottles, but it won’t be necessary with some diligent stockpiling. You’ll also need to decide whether to use a glass or plastic primary fermenter, and whether or not to use secondary fermentation or proceed straight to bottling. Glass carboys are more expensive, but will last longer—unless dropped, of course—and will not scratch like a plastic bucket. However, glass can be heavy, and their small necks can prove difficult when working with bulkier ingredients such as fruit. Plastic buckets are lighter and make late ingredient additions easier. However, plastic can be scratched and can harbor bacteria when not thoroughly cleaned. And while they’re a cheaper option, they definitely won’t last forever. It’s also just plain fascinating to watch your beer roiling as it ferments in a glass carboy.
If you decide to condition your beer in a secondary fermenter, you’ll need a second carboy. Filled glass carboys contain less head space, and exposing your beer to as little air as possible is important during secondary fermentation. While secondary fermentation has been deemed unnecessary by many experienced brewers, it can aid greatly in the clarification of your beer. Your primary fermenter will contain yeast cells and other particulates that settle to the bottom of the carboy or bucket. Carefully racking the beer into a second carboy will remove most of those particulates that make beer cloudy and that produce residue at the bottom of your finished bottles (remember to siphon at least a tablespoon of the bottom gunk since yeast is still important).
Brewing Your First Batch
Once you’ve got your homebrew supplies in order, it’s time to pick your ingredients. This highly depends on the type of beer you’d like to make, but generally includes yeast, malt (grains), malt extract, and hops. There is a huge variety of each of these ingredients available, and different combinations, along with other ingredients such as oatmeal, barley, fruit, or even oysters, produce the wide variety of beers we know and love. Corvallis Brewing Supply provides free recipes, sells brewing books, and will help you choose the proper ingredients for your first (or third, or thirtieth) homebrew.
Corvallis Brewing Supply’s Best Brown Ale is described as “nutty, not wacky”:
6 lbs. Pale Malt Extract
½ lb. Crystal Malt
¼ lb. Chocolate Malt
¼ lb. Victory Malt
1 ½ oz. Willamette, Fuggles, or Goldings Hops (1 oz. 60 min. boil, ½ oz. for last 10 min.)
White Labs Yeast – British, California, or Edinburgh
1 tsp. Irish Moss 30 min. into boil
3 tsp. Gypsum 30 min. into boil
¼ cup dry malt extract as priming sugar
The general steps of the homebrew process read essentially like a recipe:
- Add the grains to the mesh steeping bag in 3 gallons of cold water, and heat the wort to 170 degrees F. Turn off the heat and steep 10 minutes longer.
- Pour in the malt extract and dissolve it completely while stirring.
- Boil the wort for 60 to 75 minutes. Longer boiling times can generate a better “hot break.”
- Add hops for an appropriate amount of time. Longer hops boiling times produce bitterness, while shorter boiling times results in flavor and aroma.
- Add Irish moss. Irish moss is seaweed that aids in the coagulation of wort proteins and therefore increases beer clarity.
- Add gypsum (brewing salts) to increase water hardness and beer clarity in areas with softer water, such as the Willamette Valley.
- Sanitize the primary fermenter, air lock, stopper, and siphon assembly while the wort is boiling.
- Cool the wort as quickly as possible to 70 to 75 degrees F. This will produce the “cold break” stage.
- Pour the wort into primary fermenter through a strainer and the funnel if using a glass carboy, and add more water to a final volume of 5 gallons. Rock the fermenter for a few minutes for aeration. Take your OG reading with your hydrometer here, and taste the beer at its current stage.
- Pitch the yeast into the wort in the primary fermenter.
- Stopper the top of the fermenter and add the airlock. Add a small amount of water to the airlock trap.
- Ferment at 60 to 75 degrees F out of direct light (you can cover the primary fermenter with a towel or t-shirt). You will begin to see bubbles in the airlock in about a day after beginning fermentation.
- Rack into the secondary fermenter after 7 to 10 days. At this point the airlock will be releasing less than one bubble per minute. Take a second specific gravity reading with the hydrometer, and again taste your beer. Avoid as much aeration as possible during this step.
- Bottle at the appropriate time for your beer (approximately 3 to 4 weeks for the Best Brown Ale). Boil the priming sugar in 2 pints of water for 5 to 10 minutes before adding it to the beer. Siphon the beer into sanitized bottles or a keg, and seal with sanitized caps. Take a third specific gravity reading with the hydrometer and taste your beer.
- Let the beer carbonate for 3 to 4 weeks, tasting a beer after each week until you’re satisfied with the level of carbonation.
- Enjoy your delicious homebrew!
By Genevieve Weber
– Oregon Brewer’s Guild
– USA Hops
– Corvallis Brewing Supply