Extracting Lessons from the Boil
By Jason Wells
Homebrewing is a rewarding hobby and a tremendous community to be a part of. Nearly 20 years ago, it started for me with a simple Christmas gift from my wonderfully understanding wife. After years of listening to me talk about the incredible beers I sampled during my international travels and then complaining about the limited options available stateside, she decided that if I couldn’t find it, I needed to just make it myself. Little did she know that a $120 extract starter kit was going to brew (pun intended) into a several hundred-dollar grain to glass obsession. I still try to convince her it is cheaper to make it than buy it!
A lot has changed since then, both in the quality of beers available to us here in the USA and the advancements in home brew equipment and technology. However, no matter how you start, I still believe there is a need and benefit to nailing the basics then logically progressing. Sure, we can jump into the deep end of the pool and start all grain brewing, but when I think back on those early extract days and the way I progressed from there, I realize how large it played a role into helping me become a better all grain brewer and having a better appreciation for the process.
Extract brewing is a great way to start!
Brewing is a skilled craft or trade. Like a welder that lays the proper bead, a machinist that machines a part to tight tolerances, or an electrician that intricately wires a breaker box, it is that orchestrated balance of art and science that crafts the success of the end results. There are processes, procedures, timing, fundamentals, formulas, time proven steps, comprehension, and God given ability to determine the outcome. Much like many trades, we travel a path of acquired knowledge established from those in our trade before us and seek ways to improve upon the foundation they established. It starts by applying the known practices systematically over and over again to achieve proficiency with the goal of eventual mastery. The awesome extract kits and variety available to us today, is like a brewing apprenticeship in a box if we embrace it as such.
Brewing is a craft that has been researched, honed, and developed over centuries. Can we make alcohol in a bucket or in a bathtub to fuel a frat party, for sure. However, if we truly seek to make impressive liquid that can be appreciated for the artful expression of a region, style, or season, this takes time and an evolution of sorts. For me it has been a marathon, as opposed to a sprint and just like any great distance runner, it is putting in the miles to build up to those long distances.
This is why I feel so strongly about progressing through the craft in a methodical fashion and I am grateful for all the lessons I learned from those early extract days. Many may feel this process is like cheating in a sense. Someone has already taken the base grains, carefully extracted the sugars and flavors from those grains and condensed it into either a liquid in the form of Liquid Malt Extract (LME) or a powder in the form of Dry Malt Extract (DME). From the outside it appears an extract brew day is simply adding water and voila. However, there is a lot more to it and a lot to be learned from this path. It provides an onramp with guardrails to greatly improve our chances for a successful completion.
For many others and me, success along the extract path kept us encouraged to keep progressing and dig deeper into the hobby. Just like my training wheels as a kid inspired me to explore cycling without them and eventually to build a ramp to jump my sister (she survived). However, more importantly I learned to comfortably navigate into and through the finishing side of the brewing process. The side that is probably most susceptible to infections and dumping liquid down the drain. The side of the process that determines if that Pilsner somehow becomes a sour, but not in a good way. The extract brewing process introduces us to the importance of controls, procedures, timing, and process on a scale that is not too overwhelming, expensive, or time consuming. It is the right proving ground on whether reality aligns with the fantasy of brewing. It introduces us to the anxiety of transferring liquid to various destinations within the process. It is the perfect way to test if you have the patience and work ethic required to become an all-grain brewer.
The importance of learning the boil kettle first!
The success of extract brewing, like all other forms of brewing, hinges on the creation of the correct environment for the sugary liquid called wort to transform into beer. We boil the wort to pasteurize it and to kill any of our microscopic enemies that may alter the environment in which our wort becomes beer. This process of boiling relies on high temperatures to extinguish this threat. During this boiling process we start to learn the value of controls and respect for the dangers of creating chiding hot liquid.
The extract boil must be performed in a way to ensure enough time for proper pasteurization, as well as the proper phases the liquid travels through a boil. Just as a chef needs to find the right temperature and amount of time to cook a perfect dish, the boiling process is no different. Different issues such as scorching, high rates of evaporation, boil overs, and temperature fluctuations can create off flavors, mixture imbalances, and the missing of critical process goals. So, it is not as simple as throwing flame to a pot and we have beer.
During the boiling process, we start to determine our finished flavor profiles. The extract used is often a blank canvas or a very neutral beer. From that canvas we start to learn how to layer in flavors, complexities, and the mouthfeel that will ultimately define the profile or style of the end product. This is a terrific and more predictable platform to start developing a sense and skill for recipe development. Extract brewing provides a predictable baseline to then start introducing different ingredients and truly realizing what they impart upon the finished product in sight, smell, feel, and taste.
Creating flavors without a mash!
Due to the extract providing such a basic starting point, we often steep in various grains, much like tea to water. Like various herbs and tea types will define the teas base flavors and colors, steeping in grains will help to add complexity to the flavor, color, aroma, and mouthfeel of our wort and ultimately the style of our beer. For example, we may steep in Carmel based malts to bring in a maltier sweeter flavor tone of an Amber style beer with that beautiful Amber color or dark roasted malts for more of those rich coffee-like flavors we love in a good dark Stout.
Ingredient additions do not stop at steeping grains to define our beer. During this boil process, we introduce further ingredients in the form of hops. Like the grains, there are a variety of hop options. This cousin of cannabis is bred to provide bitterness against the sweet sugary canvas created by the grain, as well as aromas, flavors, longevity, stability, and mouthfeel. These unique properties and complexities are influenced by the region of the world in which they are grown, like grapes to a wine.
There are bittering hops and aroma hops that contain essential oils and acids that contribute to the finished beer. The timing, quantity, physical properties, and form of hop certainly helps refine the style of beer. It may provide a very piney flavor, like that which we find dominant in a West Coast style IPA, while others may impart citrus notes like those found in a New England IPA.
Again we find an opportunity to really understand this unique ingredient during our extract brewing journey, whether we try hops from different regions with similar properties, hops with completely different properties, additions at different points of the process, different quantities to see how it plays against the grains, and don’t get me started on the form in which the hop is introduced, pellets, whole cone, plugs, extract, wet, etc.
The boil kettle is not a crock pot, so it is not as simple as throw in the ingredients and come back later to a finished product. There is definitely a science to timing the additions, timing the boil, and controlling the ferocity of the boil itself. These are some of our earliest introductions to the intricacies of the process and the stress of hitting targets. We seek a well-balanced methodical process that produces predictable results that is dependent upon the brewer. Much like a perfectly seasoned and prepared steak at your favorite steak joint, we want the correct temperature with just the right additions at just the right time. Otherwise, we risk an inferior end product, dangerous boil overs, and even a ruined batch.
Getting familiar with the tools of the trade!
Throughout this boiling process, we are introduced to instrumentation and quality controls to help us increase our odds of success and avoid certain dangers. This is often some of our earliest introductions to the other great thing with brewing…gadgets! We use timers, thermometers, and hydrometers to help guide us to our destination like a navigator would use a compass. Getting comfortable with using these tools during the extract process helps us home in our quality assurance skills and realize the importance it brings in guiding us to our intended targets and ultimately a finished product.
As the word’s quality control indicates, these measurements provide controls. These controls are what permit us to achieve our expectations. It tells us if we have too much or too little sugar in our wort to achieve our ABV. It guides us to controlling the rate of boil and the final quantity of liquid we may carry into the next stage of the process. It of course controls the final profile of the beer itself. I personally journal my steps like an ISO auditor so I may repeat them with consistency if I love the end product, determine what went wrong if it doesn’t turnout, figure out ways to improve or alter, and of course, develop the right habits.
As we approach the end of the boiling stage of our process, we assess the steps that got us there and the steps required for that next stage. We have taken an extract liquid or powder, added a sufficient amount of water, brought it to a controlled rolling boil, layered in a variety ingredients at various points in the process, and carefully measured to our targets throughout the process. As we are near the end of this boil, we must take into consideration the impact on the liquid that our various ingredients have had. During the process, we introduced grains and hops that contribute proteins and tannins (polyphenols) into the wort. These byproducts can create haze in a beer and for most brewers, their goal is crystal clear beer. Although not required, we can choose to add what is called finings to the wort in the last 15 minutes of the boiling process.
Finings are typically Irish Moss or Whirlfloc tablets. Both are basically seaweed. When added to the boil, the finings have a charge that attracts the proteins and tannins. This allows for them to coagulate and then precipitate out of the wort making it easier to avoid transferring them into the next stage. Often you will see this action occur on top of the wort shortly after the addition. Just another process step to experiment with and you may find it unnecessary.
Sanitizing & the importance of mastering the cold side of brewing!
Up to this point we have only prepared our wort for the final stage before it can become our beer. The journey continues and now we focus on our transition to the cold side of the process. The side where infections and bacteria can take hold despite all the work we did prior to the elusive transfer. We must now transfer this boiled liquid we call wort into another container to go through the magical process of fermentation and eventually becoming beer. This container can be just about any airtight food safe container but are often buckets or carboys for the new brewer and the proud owner of an extract brew kit.
Before we can transfer the liquid, we must bring the recently boiled liquid down dramatically in temperature. Not only to be safely transferred, but to a temperature that will accommodate the one ingredient that determines if we have grain juice or beer, yeast. This living organism must be placed in the liquid at a temperature referred to as a pitching temperature in order to avoid destroying it. The challenge is that as the temperature drops, the wort becomes increasingly vulnerable to infections. To avoid this, we must cool the wort as rapidly as possible with minimal exposure while being careful in our handling.
Sure we could let it cool naturally or place a lid on a pot then submerge the pot in an ice bath to help bring it down. However, this takes time and more time means an increased chance of something going wrong. Plus, a gallon of liquid is 8 lbs., so the average 5-gallon batch is over 40 lbs. of scolding hot liquid you are looking to manage into an ice bath if that is your choice.
For this reason, many great gadgets have been created to help expedite this process of bringing the wort to pitching temperature. There are things like cooper coils we submerge in the wort and run cold water through that cool. Plate chillers with soldered stainless-steel plates that allow hot wort to flow on one side while cool water flows across the opposite side to diffuse the heat from the wort. Counter flow chillers are essentially a hose within a hose where hot wort flows through an internal tube while cold water flows around that inner tube contained within an outer tube that houses it. All three have their pros and cons but do a great job of facilitating and expediting the chilling process of our wort production.
Of course, as mentioned earlier, as the wort cools it becomes highly susceptible to infections. For this reason, all handling and contact surfaces after the boiling process must be well cleaned and sanitized to ensure the proper environment. This is where we really get to discover what brewing is all about. It is often said that brewing is 80% cleaning/sanitizing and 20% actual brewing.
There are great cleaners and sanitizers available for the support of brewing and brewing equipment. Some multiple steps, some one step, and all requiring different levels of elbow grease. Again, the beauty of stepping your way into the full gambit of brewing, you learn which brand, process, and results you love the most through experimenting at each batch.
Some of the equipment such as chillers we can further sanitize by cycling it in the boiling wort for 15-20 minutes before we engage in the cooling process. However, proper and thorough cleaning and sanitizing protocols must be followed and honestly, there is no such thing as too clean.
As we transition to the cold side, our attention to detail becomes critical. We must not forget things like spoons, tubes, hands, and other contact surfaces that may interact with the chilled wort while acting as a bacteria or wild yeast transfer vehicle. This is very easy to do when it feels as if you have 10 things going on at the same time, while trying to act in the most expeditious manner possible. This is where you start to develop good solid repeatable practices and an appreciation for orchestrating your movement, while staging the transition into further steps in the overall process. It is where you Kaizen your brew day steps and 6S the Hell out of it.
Don't rush the proccess!
At this point you should be approaching the 2-hour mark of your brew day. You have been on our toes, taking measurements, preparing ingredients, timing additions, staging equipment for next steps, and puckering up to play with gallons of scolding hot liquid! Guess what, you have a good 45 minutes to an hour of work still ahead of you. Unfortunately, we will need to save that for another time, as it deserves a spotlight of its own. Either way, this extract to chilled wort journey we have traveled, I assure you, is a fraction of the time of an all-grain day. So I hope you can realize the value in not rushing the process of maturing to an all-grain brewer, just like the value in not rushing the brewing process itself.
Extract brewing allows you to really get in those practice reps, build your muscle memory, and develop your brewing technique in the shortest amount of time, with the lowest financial commitment, and most predictable outcome. As Bruce Lee once said, “After a long time of practicing, our work will become natural, skillful, swift, and steady.” Always remember that the lessons of any story are not built upon the destination, but rather found in the journey to get there. Oh yeah and don’t forget to enjoy a beer while you brew. This is almost mandatory to help you keep your faith and your eye on the reward awaiting you! Cheers!
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