Basic overview of the beer making process

(This articles discusses brewing with a traditional four vessel system and was written prior to the advent of the BIAC. While BREWHA's BIAC method of brewing simplifies the process into one system the individual steps outlined below and what they accomplish are the same.)

If you are new to brewing, it can seem exciting . . . and overwhelming. The purpose of this entry is to provide a brief overview to help you understand the basics of this immensely satisfying hobby.

A great source for learning the finer details of the brewing process is John Palmer's book How to Brew. And feel free to contact us using the form at the bottom of this page with questions you have.

With that said, the beer making process is relatively simple. There are four main stages to the process: 

1. Heating
Heat up water
2. Mashing
Add grain to the warm water and make a sugary tea called 'wort'.
3. Boiling 
Boil the wort for about an hour with hops. The hops add flavour to the wort, and the heat kills any microbes that will later spoil your beer.
Cool the wort.
4. Fermenting
Add yeast which consumes the sugars and produces alcohol and the gas CO2.

And at the end of this, you should have beer. 

In order to complete the above steps brewers traditionally used the following four pieces of equipment.

1. Heating

Water is heated up using a hot liquor tank (with the BIAC, this occurs in the 3-in-1 or 4-in-1 fermenter.) The tank is filled with water and the water is heated using an internal heat source like an electric heating element, or, an external heat source like a kitchen stove element or a propane burner. The coiled tube inside the tank is for heating water in the mashing stage. (If you want to save a little money, water can also be heated up using the mash tun in which case you don't absolutely need to buy the hot water tank. The hot water tank does have a few benefits though which you can read about on the Learn more page.)

Stainless steel hot water liquor tank kettle

2. Mashing

Hot water is mixed with malted grain in the vessel called the mash tun and makes a sugary tea called 'wort' (with the BIAC, the grain is held inside the Mash Colander, which sits inside the 3-in-1 or 4-in-1 fermenters during the mash period). You can learn more about this process on the Learn more page. The temperature of the water can be kept close to the necessary temperature by wrapping a towel around the mash tun, but it is more precise by using a temperature gauge and heat source to regulate it. Precise temperature regulation can be done in one of two ways.

a. by installing an electric element under the mash tun screen (this is the principle in the BIAC). As the water is warmed up by the element, a pump circulates the sugar water out from under the screen through a food-grade hose (purchase at your local beer supply store) and puts it back into the top of the mash tun through the hose barb at the top.

 

Stainless steel mash tun with electric heating element under the mash screen

 

b. by using a hot liquor tank. The wort is pumped out from the bottom of the mash tun and into the coiled steel tube in the hot water tank. As the wort rises up through the coiled steel tube it picks up heat from the warmer water in the hot water tank. The warmed wort then returns to the top of the mash tun through a food grade hose (purchase at your local beer supply store). The benefits of using a hot water tank include reduced risk of overheating your wort and having a ready supply of warm water for rinsing your grain to remove all the sugar once mashing is complete. The drawbacks are added cost and less precision in heating your wort as the transfer of heat from the warm water to wort is not as fast in a heat exchange coil. 

stainless steel hot water liquor tank kettle

3. Boiling

The sugar water or 'wort' is transferred from the mash tun to the boil kettle (with the BIAC, this also occurs in the 3-in-1 or 4-in-1 fermenter). As wort is slowly drained out the bottom of the mash tun, heated water from the hot water tank or an electric water kettle is added in the top so that the grain is rinsed of all sugars. (Another method called 'batch sparging' first transfers all the wort to the boil kettle, then fills up the mash tun with fresh water to rinse the grain. This is repeated a few times.) Typically the water rinsing the grain is added at 75C (167F). Start to boil the wort once about 52L has been collected. Hops are added into the hop basket at different points of the boil cycle to bitter the beer and add hop aroma (typically near beginning of boil for bittering and near end of boil for aroma). Wort is boiled for about 1 hour and during this time the volume should be reduced through evaporation from about 52L to about 44L. Once the boil is completed, the heat source is shut off, and a hose is connected from the cold water tap to the lower hose barb on the boil kettle jacket, and a second hose connected from the top hose barb on the jacket to the sink. This way, cold water enters the lower parts of the jacket, rises up inside the jacket, cooling the wort through the steel wall as it rises, and out the top of the jacket. (Do not let water pressure in the jacket exceed 5psi. Purchase a Water Pressure Regulator if there is any risk of this occurring.) Once the wort reaches a temperature of about 22C (this is typical for ale yeast, lager yeast needs it colder), cooling water is shut off and the wort is drained into the fermenter.

        stainless steel boil kettle with built in chilling heat exchange jacket

4. Fermenting

The cooled wort is added to your sanitized conical fermentor (the mash tun and boil kettle don't need thorough cleaning but your fermenter does as bacteria will compete with beer yeast and spoil the flavor of your beer—with the BIAC, the heat of the boil sanitizes the 3-in-1 or 4-in-1 fermenter) where yeast is added. Seal your fermenter (leaving a top valve open and connecting one end of a short hose to the valve and the other end in a glass of water for CO2 to escape). You should have vigorous bubbling in the water glass within 24 hours, showing that fermentation is underway. The bubbling will slow within 2-3 days and almost stop within 1 week. At 1 week and 2 weeks, you can carefully drain the trub (trub is mostly protein) and yeast cake from the bottom of the fermenter—remember to pull your blow off hose out of the glass of water before you do so you don't suck dirty water into your beer (it is beer at this point); you should remove 500mL-1L the first time and about 500mL the second). After two weeks the beer needs to sit for another 4-6 weeks to let the flavor improve—this is called 'conditioning'. You can condition the beer in bottles, kegs, or in the fermenter after removing the yeast and any trub that has settled. 

stainless steel conical fermenter

Once the beer has conditioned, you can transfer it to a keg and add CO2 for the bubbles. Or, if you prefer to naturally carbonate your beer, you add about 1.5 cups of sanitized sugar (dextrose) solution to 38L of beer, mix it well, then transfer to your keg or bottles.

Next step—consumption.