Complicated simplicity: an illustrated all grain brew day

So much of my day-to-day life amounts to human complications layered atop the simple processes of nature. Many of those complications are good things. I'm glad that we've learned to cook our meat, because e. coli and parasites and such really suck. Less disgustingly, I'm happy to have this handy dandy computing machine to use in creating this missive for the interwebs, but computers and the internet and blogs and social media sure have added a lot of complexity to human existence. I enjoy my current homebrewing hobby because of the way it dances on the line of complexity and simplicity. At the base of it all, beer is simple to make. Grain contains sugars, especially if you malt it first. Hot water will leach that sugar out of the grain. Yeast will turn the sugar into alcohol if given half a chance. None of that, not even malting the grain, really, is a human invention; it just is. With grain, water, and time, making some manner of beer can happen almost by accident, and that is a beautiful thing. By layering a bit of complexity onto the simple natural processes, the result can be an even more beautiful thing.

Saturday afternoon I brewed with the simple process, along with a smidgen of complexity. I started with a few bags of grain, one of which made an appearance here before. The grain came to me malted--I'm not quite ready to add that layer of complexity just yet. For best results, though, I still needed to lightly mill my grain into 'grist' before brewing. For reasons both good and bad, I was stuck doing that the hard way. Fortunately, I had help.


Since my mill was mostly Tom-powered (with an assist from my offspring), I wasn't too interested in layering complexity onto the process and making sure it was all perfect. The result of our labors was something that at least kind of looked like pictures I had found on the internet, so I figured it was a go.


Next up, it was time to add the grain to hot water. I payed attention to the complexities here: I used a thermometer to be sure the water was at 158 degrees. It looked like I was making the largest pot of hot cereal my kitchen had ever seen, but I kind of was.


I layered a bit more complexity onto my day and monitored both temperature and time while my grain steeped (technically, it mashed). When the time was over, I removed my grain. I'd put the grain into a pasta insert lined with a paint straining bag, so other than having to hold a pasta insert containing several pounds of hot, dripping grain over the steaming pot of proto-beer, removing my grain was easy. In other words, I'm looking for a better solution for my next batch (but those exist).

Speaking of proto-beer (otherwise known as wort), mine looked pretty good.


One of the delightful complexities of beer is hops. I'm not the kind of hophead who chases after the craziest IPAs I can find, but beer does need a bit of bittering to be delicious. I weighed out multiple doses of hops to add to my wort while it boiled.


Turns out, tossing hops into the pot adds the complexity of making your boiling wort foam like mad. I almost had the added complexity of having to tell my wife that I'd boiled my wort over on top of the stove. That was a complexity I didn't need. Happily, I stopped the boil-over just in time and snapped another picture. The hops had tinged the foam green in spots.


I boiled for an hour, at which point I had something that yeast could turn into beer. It only vaguely tasted like beer, though.


Once my wort was well-boiled, I discovered that the complexity of chilling my wort was greater than I had anticipated. Because I wanted to re-use old equipment I had on hand, I was only trying to make about 2.5 to 3.0 gallons of beer instead of the typical homebrew 5 gallon batch. Cooling even just 3.0 gallons of liquid from boiling to room temperature rapidly turns out to be tricky enough that companies can sell home brewers things called 'wort chillers.' I wished I had one of those, but I eventually got there--even though it used up every ice cube in the house.

I strained the finally chilled wort into a sterile bucket with a lid, tossed in some ale yeast, and put the bucket in the basement. I snuck a peak tonight, and the foam on the top tells me the yeast is working hard to turn the wort into a brown ale.

It's a simple process now. I just have to wait.