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Three Pint Stance - First-time home brewer questions: Part 1

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Last week, Maine Edge publisher Mike Fern – the Big Cheese - called me and said “I have a few questions for you…” in that vaguely threatening yet oddly friendly way that only someone from Philadelphia can pull off. My mind raced – had he finally found out about all of the money I embezzled? The statute of limitations is up in less than a year!

When he followed up with, “I received a Mr. Beer kit for Christmas…” I was instantly relieved! I’m not made for life on the run.

It turns out that my old boss has decided to take the plunge and make some homemade suds. As I do with all friends, I offered to help in any way possible. To that end, Mike sent me a few questions that he had as a beginner in the process and asked if I would answer them – not only for him, but for you all as well! So for the next few weeks – it’s Q&A with 3PS!

MF: I got a home brewing kit for Christmas and just finished my first batch. I used the hop malt extract that came with the kit but want to try to make my own. Can I do that?

3PS: Starting out, I always recommend curious brewers start with a product called Malt Extract. When you learn what Malt Extract it and what it takes the place of in the brewing process, it becomes easier to understand both the advantages and limitations to using malt extract.

Malt Extract is just a stand-in for the liquid that brewers produce after mashing grains with hot water (around 160°F), and letting them sit for about an hour. This allows the naturally occurring enzymes in the barley to break down the complex sugars into simpler, more readily fermentable sugars. The resulting sugary liquid is called wort and when you add water to Malt Extract according to the instructions of your recipe, you are just reconstituting the Malt Extract into your own ready-to-boil wort!

For brevity’s sake, I’ll introduce the two types of Malt Extract and their acronyms so I can stop typing Malt Extract. Liquid Male Extract (LME) and Dry Malt Extract (DME) are the two types most commonly found in home brew shops (and some commercial breweries). Both are essentially the same thing, wort that has been cooled and partially (LME) dried to a syrup or completely (DME) dried into a powder. Both have their place, but I have always found LME easier to work with. Your mileage may vary.

ONE more thing on malt extract and then I’ll move on. Mike mentioned "Hop Malt Extract" and I wanted to make one quick distinction. There are some LMEs on the market that are in fact pre-hopped. Normally LME only contains barley sugars and water, but some also have a pre-measured amount of hop oil added so that you don't even have to add hops to your beer. This is definitely something for ultra-beginners; hopping beer is so simple that I would usually tell people to avoid hopped LME altogether. But if it is what you have/what came with your kit, try it out!

However, if you only remember one thing about hopped LME, let it be this; DO NOT BOIL your wort for more than a couple of minutes, otherwise the hop oils in the LME will become very bitter and will make your beer taste bad.

Your best bet is always to buy hop pellets in the varietal and amount that your recipe calls for. If you are working without a recipe, MacGyver, be sure to use an appropriate hop as some are better for boiling/bittering than others. Your home brew shop expert (such as local legend Josh Parda!) will be able to help you with this.

Long story short, DME and LME are like using a bouillon cube in your soup. Yeah, you could make homemade chicken stock, but that takes forever and who has the time? If you aren’t ready to invest in a Mash Tun and all the other equipment needed to make All-Grain beers, stick with the extract for a while!

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