Adventures in homebrewing: mashing in/out, sparging, the boil and fermentation

Plenty of people homebrew in London, proving that it’s possible to produce your own beer in a cramped kitchen of a teeny flat. A stove and a sink – that’s apparently all you need for all-grain brewing. Sounds pretty straightforward, right? Well, I discovered that if ingenuity isn’t your strongest skill, perhaps you’re not destined to pursue a career as a brewmaster. But don't let that prohibit you from dabbling with a homebrew kit and making a small batch of a beer style. Home Brew Depot sells such kits and I received one at Christmas; naturally, I was chomping at the bit to make a questionable attempt at an IPA.

For beginners, the IPA is a reliable style of beer to recreate, mostly because it relies on a dry-hopping at day seven of fermentation to give it lasting bold flavour. In other words: it’s easy to disguise any mistakes made in the initial preparation of the beer. The Home Brew Depot IPA kit comes with most of the tools required for a brew, including ingredients and a step-by-step instruction sheet. A glass demijohn, a glass thermometer, no-rinse sanitiser, a siphon/flow tap and a bubble airlock are also included. However, unless you have a sieve and a funnel handy, you’ll have to make a quick trip to Wilko’s. A large stockpot is also crucial to the process.

Although I wanted to get stuck-in, the first and most tantamount rule of brewing is sanitising absolutely everything. Impatient people take heed – this can be a lengthy and dull chore. Mixing water with non-rinse sanitiser in a washing basin, it was difficult to submerge everything in the solution at once, meaning that a thorough wiping down with a clean cloth was necessary. Already I was anxious about not adequately scrubbing everything and the effect of this on the final product. All was left for fifteen minutes to bob away in the basin and then dried.

With the first critical stage complete, I merrily moved on to filling the stockpot (actually a pasta pot) with 2.5L of water and bringing this to that sweet spot temperature, 72 degrees Celsius. Don’t underestimate how long it can take to heat up water – brewing naturally demands patience in spades. And homebrewing at this level, without the luxury of built-in thermometers or such gadgets, also calls for a locked gaze on that glass thermometer, tracking the mercury as it soars or falls.

Water heated, in went a bag of Maris Otter malt, which was occasionally stirred and left to steep in the warm water to convert starch molecules into fermentable sugars – this is called mashing in. Like making a mammoth portion of porridge, the grains stew in the water and require intermittent agitation. The mash has to be kept between 63 and 68 degrees Celsius at all times. Although the water was at 72 degrees when the grains went in, that plummeted quickly and required more fiddling with the heat to get it up again. Once there, I found it difficult to maintain a consistent temperature at first, but eventually turned the heat down and kept a close eye on it for 60 minutes.

During this pause, I realised that I would need two additional large vessels to sparge the grains. I panicked. We didn’t have two more stockpots, pasta pots, or anything immediately equivalent. This type of unanticipated blockade is where that ingenuity helps. I hastily sanitised as many pots and pans possible to accommodate soggy malts and more water. Sparging is the process where the sugars are separated from the grains, accomplished by running water through the malt. With a second pair of hands, we had to so some juggling here, transferring our grains from our stockpot to a metal bowl and rinsing out our only large pot. Placing the sieve over the clean pot, we transferred the malt over, finding that our sieve was too small for purpose. We had to rotate our malts throughout the process – again, not ideal, but accomplished.

Using three saucepans, we heated up the water needed to filter through the grains and into the pot below to collect our wort, the sweet water from the sugars flushed out from the grains.

We somehow repeated this recirculation cycle three times. The chaos subsided and the wort could be brought to a boil, when the bittering hops, Cascade, could be added. The wort bubbled away for another 45 minutes before the aroma hops, Cascade and Citra, were thrown in, then a further fifteen minutes to allow the hop pellets to dissolve and impart their aromatic properties to the wort. Then wort is then taken off heat and plunged into a bucket filled with ice to cool down. We achieved a lower temperature than we desired very quickly (the optimum temperature to pitch your yeast is 21 degrees Celcius as it will allow it to eat away at the sugars most happily). 

The cooled wort was then transferred to our glass demijohn over the sink – this was very much another two person endeavour that required pouring the heavy pot through a funnel into the jar. Once transferred, the dried yeast was added, immediately reacting to the sweet liquid within, fizzing away as it began to convert sugars into alcohol and carbon dioxide. The bung cap was wedged in and the bubbles airlock put in place. The demijohn was placed in a corner of our living room to ferment due to lack of dark corners in our flat.

The roadblocks encountered and some temperature issues might mean that my IPA isn’t the most accurate or palatable rendition of the style, but it was great insight into the brewing process on a microscopic scale. I now see how it would be easily scaled up and simplified, but our restricted space means that the pipe dream of a 20L brew will have to wait. But the beer is looking good – and very active – bubbling away.

On the seventh day, last Sunday, the fermenting beer was dry-hopped with more Cascade hops for flavour. Bottling happens at day ten - tomorrow - and will undoubtedly be an equally as messy and dizzying process.

But if you saw the photograph of me bottling my dad's homebrewed stout in my last post, you know that I'm already an expert with a bottling wand, so it might just be smooth sailing from here.