Worts and all: a novice’s foray into all-grain brewing

Worts and all: a novice’s foray into all-grain brewing

Before last week, my only experience brewing beer was in childhood. I spent quality time with my dad- who occasionally knocked up a batch of stout- when he needed an extra pair of dexterous hands. But even then, my responsibility was limited to bottling. Nearly twenty years on, I’m united with most of my generation in proclaiming that I’m a beer aficionado- but I’d never dream of calling myself an expert.

To bolster my knowledge of the brewing process, I enrolled on UBrew’s all-grain brewing course. I received a gift voucher after threatening to delve into the realm of home brewing- while easily said, I was honestly convinced that I lacked the precision, patience and even scientific understanding to run a domestic operation. But suddenly there were no excuses and- realistically- the worst case scenario was that our batch would be unpalatable. Even then, I’d still choke it down as a matter of pride.

The course ran on a Saturday afternoon from 12:30, winding up just after 17:00. We were presented with three beer tokens upon arrival and introduced to our brewer and tutor, Stuart. He revealed that we would be brewing an American-style IPA using four hops: Columbus, Cascade, Mosaic and Simcoe. There were 12 in our group and we were stationed in the heart of the bustling, fully-functional brewery. Using the same professional kit as UBrew members, we were provided with a recipe card that meant zilch to us at first glance.

Beginning with dried out barley, identified as Maris Otter, Stuart explained that this was a neutral malted grain that would showcase the flavour profile of the all-important hops. Acting as the backbone to our IPA, the Maris Otter would also lend a clear colour to the finished glorious product.

We were introduced to the four varieties of hops in either whole leaf or pellet form. Stuart talked us through each one: Columbus was aggressive, bitter and used to balance the sweetness of the malt; Cascade and Mosaic were fruity and would provide juicy citrus flavours; and Simcoe was highly aromatic.

After heating our water in a HLT pot, the barley was added to the mash tun container one heaping bowlful at a time. Working on a single batch as a group, we collaborated on each step. I scooped the barley as my cohorts added water and stirred the resulting porridge-like mash. Stuart supervised, ensuring that we maintained a temperature of 67 degrees Celsius throughout the process. Once Stuart was happy with the mash, it was left to sit for 40 minutes. The introduction of water and heat activates the barley, causing the sugars in the grain to break down- yes, some science is involved, but only in small doses.

After grabbing a quick beer in the adjacent taproom, we were ready to sparge. Stuart explained that sparging involved rinsing out the sugars and compacting the grain by recirculating the wort. This involved one volunteer pouring water over the grain while another caught the drained water, the barley acting as a natural filtration system. The jugs were then exchanged to repeat the process. It took a good fifteen minutes before the water was running clear- with each circulation, we could see that the amount of sediment present lessened and clarity was improved.

The wort was then transferred to a boiling kettle and left to boil for an hour, providing another welcome opportunity to visit the taproom and reward our hard work.

Upon reconvening, the bitter Columbus hops were added to the pot for a 60 minute boil to counterbalance the sugars stripped from the grain. Then in went the Cascade and Mosaic for 10 minutes for flavour, followed by the Simcoe for five minutes for aroma. The boiling process helped eliminate undesirable flavours that develop from the breakdown of acids and proteins- Stewart likened these to baked beans. Definitely not part of the typical IPA flavour profile.

We aerated the wort and cooled it down before introducing the activated yeast. This is where fermentation begins- and in approximately two weeks, we’ll be ready to rock up to UBrew and pick up our share: six bottles each. Stuart would see to further hops being added, a process known as dry-hopping, about three days before it’s bottled for an extra kick of bold, bursting flavour. When prompted to name our brew, the moniker ‘Arch Nemesis’ was proposed in homage to the arches that we were brewing under.

The full day all-grain brewing course is essential for anyone curious about home brewing. Running as a collective tutored session, it’s convivial and communal- everybody got their hands dirty (though some needed more encouragement than others). It provides an excellent basis for understanding the entire brewing process from grain to glass.

Not being particularly scientifically-minded, I was anxious that my understanding would be murky at best, but the process was remarkably accessible. Everyone asked pertinent questions and Stuart was both patient and erudite. The afternoon flew by with ample time for beer breaks between the various sitting and boiling stages. The atmosphere was casual and sociable as well, making me feel that I was among friends- the kind of friends who appreciate a good pint, no less. Good friends.

I’m confident that I left the all-grain course with the ability and know-how to launch into some home brewing experimentation. I’ve already looked into the more intensive Brew Academy courses offered by UBrew, which are more hands-on, focused on more challenging styles and where batches are brewed in smaller groups.

In the meanwhile, I’m putting my home brewing ambitions on hold until I’ve sampled our Arch Nemesis IPA. Not that I’ll tell you that it’s anything but aggressive, hop-forward and a prime iteration of a classic American style IPA, of course.

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