Warning: This post will be all about brewing beer, probably way more than anybody actually wants to read. Continue at your own risk.

I've been brewing for perhaps a year and a half now, and I've made some pretty amazingly good beers in the process. I thought it was time to share with my blog audience. My latest is by far the most ambitious, a lambic, a clone of Rodenbach Grand Cru, which is just a fantastic beer. Truthfully, though, for the uninitiated, it is in many ways a whole different kind of alcoholic drink. As you can read if you follow the link to wikipedia, lambics are made traditionally by exposing them to wild yeasts and bacteria--sometimes (in the case of my attempted clone), the bacteria take over to an extent. The yeast do their normal job and make alcohol and beer flavors, but the bacteria make acetic acid, the same stuff in vinegar, and the product will have a decidedly sour flavor. I'm guessing not everyone likes such a flavor in their beer. I find it outstanding. In the case of the Rodenbach, it is spontaneously fermented, and then aged for two years in oak barrels, giving it fantastic woody flavor, mixed with cherry and vanilla, all on top of that sourness. it's terrific, and I've probably gone beyond my means to try and recreate this one. All the same, I brewed this at the end of May, racked it to secondary June 8th, and bottled it last night with Alli's help. This prompted my post. I figured while I was at it I'd share some of the technical information. It's really pretty simple, though it does take time and would be easier with a larger kitchen.

Beer is quite simple as a concept. It's some kind of grain (barley to be traditional) that is allowed to malt (wet and sort of sprout), which releases enzymes that can break down its complex sugars into simpler ones yeast can chew on. The grain sugars are diluted in water and fed to yeast. Pretty much every beer you've ever heard of also contains hops. This adds bitter flavor and also has some antibacterial properties that are quite handy. Yeast take the sugar and ferment it to alcohol, carbon dioxide (fizz) and other flavorful by-products. It's pretty much as simple as bread, although sterility becomes much more important.

Below are some photos from a brew I made about a year ago, but the concepts for the one I'm making now are the same.

I start by purchasing malted grain (I don't mess with the malting process myself) and putting it in a big muslin "teabag", throwing it in water and heating it to 150-160 degrees Fahrenheit. Then I let it hang out there for a while. With darker grains, the water quickly turns dark brown, and if you taste it you'll notice it getting sweeter. The enzymes in the grain are breaking those complex carbohydrates down to simple sugars. After about 30 minutes, you take that grain bag out and toss it (making some effort to extract as much sugary liquid as you can first). Technically you have a wort at this point, but as I've described it, it's a pretty watered-down wort. Real brewers would vastly increase the quantity of grain and water, then boil it way down until the sugar is fairly concentrated-- but that requires several modifications including different equipment and techniques, and I'm not there yet. What I'm describing can be called a mini-mash, whereas using all grain would be called a full mash. So what I do at this step is I add in some malt extract. Basically somebody's done that work for me, boiled the grain-sugar-water down into a thick syrup, and sold it. This way I save a lot of boiling time, but using fresh grain in the "teabag" adds a lot of fresh flavor and gives you more control over your product (as opposed to the other extreme of simplicity, a complete extract brew). Once malt extract is added, I boil. That starts out okay, but it sometimes takes a while before you reach a good controlled boil. Sometimes this happens:
During the boil, hops are added, in different quantities and at different times depending on the beer you're trying to make. The more you put early on, the more bitter flavor. The stuff you add at the end adds a wonderful grassy floral aroma that I love. You boil for about an hour, this is pretty much about sterilizing the beer and getting the hops oils into your wort. After that, you cool it off, add yeast, and throw it in some kind of sterilized vessel, like a glass carboy as seen here:Now a key differentiating factor between the traditional brew and my lambic is the yeast. As I said, lambics are traditionally made by spontaneous fermentation. To me, that sounds like insanity, since you just don't know what you're going to get, but for the monks making this stuff 500 years ago, it's pretty much all they had to go on (well, actually they could have found one they liked and then just spiked in a little bit of the good stuff and allowed it to amplify... I'm not sure why they didn't do that). Anyway, these days you just buy a little packet that's the same as the yeast packet you'd normally buy, but this one is made to contain a nice blend of "wild" yeasts and bacteria. So for my lambic, I add that. The catch to doing this is that these things are bugs people don't want to get in their regular old traditional ale brews. And they're apparently hard to get rid of. Apparently the "experts" never use the same equipment for brewing lambics and any other style of beer.

The other big difference with this beer comes from trying to recreate that 2 years of oak barrel aging. I'm not doing that. What I did do was steam some oak chips (to sterilize) and toss them in with everything else after the boil. As you can see in the photograph, the vessel used for fermentation needs some means of releasing pressure. However, you don't want to just leave it open, or then who knows what might get in. So you use an airlock, the bubbles of CO2 travel up, then down through water, then out the top. CO2 out, nothing else in. You just let this go for a week or longer, until most of the fermentation has stopped. A thick yeasty head builds after about a day, lasts a few, then dies back down, leaving some crusty stuff behind. For some beer styles, you use one vessel, wait until it's done fermenting, and then put it in bottles. The beer tends to be better, however, if you move (called racking) it to a second vessel, getting it away from any dead or dying yeasties and hop junk collecting in the bottom of the first vessel. Here's what racking looks like (though in this case I'm racking to my bottling vessel).Then you just allow it to sit for a while again, anywhere from 1 or 2 weeks, or in the case of my lambic attempt, about a month. Finally you rack it to a bottling bucket. At this time you add just a little bit more sugar. Up to this point we've been letting all that CO2 go, but we like our beer carbonated, and to get it this way, we just add a little bit of sugar before we bottle. The yeast will wake back up, have a meal and make for a nice fizzy beer. Once again, it is necessary to keep the bottles and all equipment sterile (I use this stuff called one-step-- you basically get it in and on all the equipment you use and it kills everything by making hydrogen peroxide, but then you just pour it out, the remants break down to water and don't leave any weird chemicals or flavors. You can also use bleach, but it requires lots of rinsing or the bleach flavor will ruin your beer).

The bottling bucket I have has a nice spigot-- you just fill up the bottles (which are just cleaned and reused old beer bottles), put a bottle cap on them, and use a tool to tighten the cap down. This is where Alli's assistance is required to keep the assembly line moving:And then, for the last time, you wait. The beer will be carbonated within a week, but the flavor will probably not be optimal for at least a couple weeks. In some cases, I've noticed substantially improved flavor as the beer ages, up to probably 3 months. I tend to run out about then, so I have not tested longer periods.

Finally, you open your home-made one-of-a-kind beer, pour it into a nice beer glass (preferably fancy ones your wife bought for your birthday), and enjoy all of the hard work, whilst considering what you will make next time. Note: the first picture of this post is actually of me enjoying my first ever home-made beer. It was winter, which explains the sweater. It does not explain the shorts. The shorts defy explanation.

And just to show I'm a geek conscientious scientist, here's a photo of my brewing notebook.