I got kind of tired wasting C02 to push line cleaner and sanitizer through my draft lines. I began devising a plan to use compressed air instead but then like a lightning bolt from the sky I had a vision to use simple physics and gravity instead. This vision was quickly followed by another vision of Denny Conn speaking to me, “Cheap and easy, man! Cheap and easy!”
So I sourced myself a particular SS fitting, a 1/4″ MPT to barb, and a standard 2 liter soda bottle. I drilled a hole through the cap and pushed the barbed end of the SS fitting through the top of the cap. The tighter the fit the better. Unless you have some sort of seal around the barbed end, expect a leak but it will be minimal.
Fill your 2 liter bottle with your choice of cleanser or sanitizer, depending on whatever stage of cleaning you are at.
Attach to your line. (Honestly, if you aren’t using threaded QDs by now, you are making your life more difficult) Invert, open your tap and let gravity take over.
Unless you affix some sort of air inlet, you will have to squeeze your 2 liter bottle. No biggie.
Cleanse, rinse and sanitize to your hearts content. Pour yourself a homebrew to reward your brilliance.
Sometimes we forget of all the beverages we can make at home other than beer. Whether you know it or not, you already have the equipment and most of the knowledge to expand to things like cider and wine. Soda pop is also in your tool box. The biggest motivator for making 5 gallons of soda is usually kids. If you have kids, they most likely love soda pop. If you are like me, you limit your kids soda pop intake to some degree or another. But for some reason, I take off the worried parent hat when it comes to home made soda. And I think the reason is because I know whats in it. I know whats making it sweet and my opinion is that kids are better off drinking a soda made with real sugar than high fructose corn syrup and a bunch of chemicals I can’t pronounce.
The first thing you have to decide is if you are going to go the quick and easy route, or you want to get your geek on and make soda pop from scratch. We have a recipe book at Humboldt Beer Works that has dozens of recipes for soda that have spices, fruits and roots and yes, that’s how it was done 100 years ago. But when you flip through the recipes, you quickly realize some of the ingredients may be hard to find. Go for it if you want, but I don’t. The easy route is just getting a small bottle of soda flavoring or extract. From here on out, I’m going to be talking about specifically root beer made with extract, but other sodas are all pretty much the same.
Next, you need to decide if you are going to keg your root beer or bottle it. Kegging it is the easy route. If you want to bottle your root beer, you will need bottles, caps and about 5 grams of yeast. Almost any yeast will do, but preferably you want a clean finishing yeast like US05 or champagne yeast.
Before we go any further, you need to commit to getting some extra equipment. Here is the thing. Root beer extract, and some other soda extracts, is very potent and the smell of root beer will permeate everything thats plastic or rubber. Lets just say stainless steel is the only material safe from permanent root beer smell and taste. So if you are dispensing from a keg, you need a dedicated hose line and quick disconnect. I prefer to just have a dedicated keg for root beer as well. You can go back to using a keg for beer. After all, these were soda kegs at one point, right? The issue is in the o-rings. You can clean your kegs good enough but you should be ready to swap out your o-rings if you want to use that keg for beer again. This also applies to bottling root beer. You need a dedicated bucket for mixing the root beer and bottling it.
Next, the recipe. The great thing about home made anything is that you can tweak your recipe to your liking. I use the extract, 1 tablespoon of vanilla and sugar and honey totaling 5 pounds, but you want to have a balance of a pound on either side with the honey or sugar. I have made a batch that is heavy on the honey and it came out a bit thin and lacked body. Some batches I’ve done 3 pounds of sugar and 2 pounds of honey and vice versa. With this batch, I went with 2.5 pounds each.
Right now you may be choking a bit. “Two and a half pounds of sugar? For a five gallon batch?” Yes, thats the nature of sugary soda pop. It is my belief sugar is less harmful to your body than aspartame. Especially in the long term. But as with everything else, moderation is key. Its going to take several months for my kids to finish off this 5 gallon batch of root beer. I have made a “lite” root beer. Remember the mostly honey batch I mentioned before? I ended up adding a little sugar, less than a pound, and also 8 ounces of dextrine. The dextrine fixed the problem with the thin body.
Next, get your vessel, whether bucket or keg, and get a couple gallons of hot water. Its best to have it around 150 degrees or you can use really hot tap water. I have an on-demand water heater that kicks out 120 degree water, so I just go with it.
There is no need to be super accurate about the volume of water, just try to get at least two gallons in your vessel. Now lets add your ingredients!
Next, stir the heck out of it. I actually stirred this batch prior to adding my root beer extract because I don’t want my plastic brew spoon ruined. If you have a stainless steel spoon, you have no need to worry. Get it stirred and the sugars dissolved. You can even let it sit for a while to make sure the sugar is dissolved. Next, top off your vessel with cold water.
Yep, straight from my kitchen sink sprayer. Once you have topped off to 5 gallons, you are done if you are kegging. If you are bottling, make sure the root beer is within temperature range for the yeast you are using and then mix that in as well. Bottle like you already know how to bottle and you are done. If you think about it, bottled root beer has a tiny amount of alcohol in it using this process. Most commercially bottled root beer, especially “craft” root beer is carbonated another way. By carbonating in the bottle, you are “bottle conditioning” your root beer. Similar to regular beer, most people use a little bit of corn sugar when they bottle. Some people use yeast or even dry malt extract. The point is you are trying to make another tiny fermentation inside the bottle by adding more yeast or more sugar to your homebrewed beer. Since root beer already has the sugar present, your only choice for making bubbles is adding a small amount of yeast. Although hard root beers do exist, your root beer will not have the opportunity to make any significant amount of alcohol.
At this point, if you are bottling, you are done. With kegging, there are a couple more considerations to carbonate and dispense. I’ve already drilled it into your head you need dedicated tubing, but you also need a lot of it. Like 20 feet of it. Soda is carbonated at around 4 volumes of Co2. No beer comes close to that so you aren’t used to needing 20 feet of tubing. I’m not going to get into the physics of it here, but basically if your dispensing line was only 1 foot long, your root beer will come out foamy. So would regular beer. Besides, your root beer c02 dispensing pressure is also much higher than regular beer. It doesn’t have to be high for dispensing, but if you want to set your regulator and forget it, your PSI will most likely be 20 or more. It depends on your system balance. You need the long length of tubing because the root beer needs the distance to travel to come out fizzy but not all foam. Also, your dispensing tubing has thicker walls compared to racking tubing. Its a mix of restriction, pressure and distance traveled that needs balance.
Making root beer may sound difficult but compared to beer but its not. And the first time you make a root beer float with your home made root beer, you know you have done something worth while. Of course, the next step to making that perfect root beer float is making your own ice cream……
“How hard is it to brew?” That’s a question I’ve been asked I don’t know how many times. My canned answer is “Its like making soup. You follow a recipe.” Of course, there is more to it than that. Much of it is what you do after the brewing is done. Sanitation and fermentation are the other areas to really focus on and don’t need a whole lot of instruction, but I will touch upon them.
Brewing and the art of beer making can be very intensive and ever-evolving. You can go nuts if you want to. Below is a jumping off point to give you an idea on what it takes to start. Nobody starts out with a “Pliny The Elder” quality beer on their first batch. Like anything, you have to learn to crawl before you can walk.
To start out, you will need equipment. The easiest way to get this is through an “equipment kit” that has all the gadgets and fermenters and a few supplies to get you off the ground. Most kits come with (but vary):
7.8 Gallon Primary Fermenting Bucket
6 Gallon Glass Carboy with Rubber Stopper
3-Piece Airlock (for Fermenting Bucket)
Adhesive Thermometer (for Fermenting Bucket)
Twin Lever Capper
Beer Bottle Brush
You will also need a stainless steel kettle that is at least 7-7.5 gallons. Some people start out with smaller kettles. Its good to start out with this size from the beginning if you can. You will probably eventually upgrade anyway. You want a bigger pot so you don’t have to make a condensed wort. Homebrewed beer recipes are usually made to 5 gallons. Most equipment, especially starter equipment is scaled for 5 gallon batches. So why not start with a 5 gallon kettle? Well, you can, but its better to do a full volume boil rather than a partial boil and topping it off with water in the fermenter. Often times, you will see beginner instructions teach this method. You need a bigger kettle so you can boil a full 6-6.5 gallons of wort. After evaporation and trub loss, you should land around 5 gallons. Doing it the other way, you often end up with 3-3.5 gallons of wort and you are “topping off” with clean water in your fermenter. In doing this, you will have a caramelized flavor (extract twang) and your hop utilization will be off.
Beer has four basic ingredients: malt, hops, water and yeast. “Malt” for beginners is going to come in the form of malt extract, either liquid or dry. When you graduate to intermediate and advanced brewing, this malt will be in the form of grain. The extract has taken the step of mashing out of the equation. Most extract recipes also include “steeping grains”, which are usually crystal or roasted grains. This gives the extract brew some extra dimension in the form of body, color and flavor. Now lets look at each ingredient separately:
Malt: This will be providing all the fermentable sugars that the yeast is going to feed upon. All alcohol gets its fermentable sugar from some source or another. Beer just happens to come from malted barley.
Hops: These are actually flowers from a vine and provide the bitterness and some aroma in the beer. Adding hops to the boiling wort (and sometimes before and after the wort is boiled) at different times imparts bitterness, flavor and aroma.
Water: Beer is mostly water and can often be a signature to a beer. It is often the reason why styles emerge out of certain geographic areas. For example, the soft water of the Pilzen region in the Czech Republic is ideal for pale lagers and that is what the region is known for. But it wouldn’t do well for English bitters, who’s water tends to be harder and the beer styles that have emerged from there are tailored to that type of water.
Yeast: These are the critters that eat the sugar. The by-product of this is C02 and alcohol. When the yeast gets to work, they warm things up a bit and multiply.
Now that we have everything in place, we can brew. Keep in mind, lots of step by step instructions very just a little bit and this will be no different. Most follow a basic process so don’t let the different nuances bother you.
Collect your 6.5 gallons of water and heat it to about 160 degrees. Then add your steeping grains in the steeping bag and hold that temperature for about 10-15 minutes. At the end of that time, remove the steeping bag and let it drain. Resist the urge to squeeze it. This will just extract some unwanted tannins.
Turn up your heat and bring the water close to a boil. Turn off the flame then add your malt extract. If you add the extract with the flame on, it could scorch on the bottom of the kettle. Turn your flame back on and bring to a boil. Once you are at a boil, that begins your 60 minute countdown timer. Your recipe most likely has hop additions with times noted beside it. If your recipe has a 60 minute addition, add them now. These hops will be providing the bitterness. Hops added later will be geared more towards aroma. Some beers like stouts and wheats have a bitterness addition only. These beers aren’t known for hop aroma.
An hour has passed, and you have added all the hops according to your recipe. Time to chill the beer down as fast as you can. The moment you turn off the flame, everything that touches the wort needs to be sanitized. Most beginners start out with an ice bath to chill the beer down. That method can take a few hours. Its ok, but you want to get the wort down to 65 degrees as soon as you can so you can add the yeast. Its important to get the fermenting process happening as soon as possible. The quicker alcohol is present, the less chance of infection. Don’t let that scare you. Basically, get the good bugs going before the bad bugs take hold. Chilling can be done by using a copper immersion chiller that you run cold water through. And sanitizing the chiller is as easy as dropping it in the wort with about 15 minutes left in the boil. Pause the timer until it comes back to a boil.
Now that the wort is chilled to about 65 degrees, you can transfer the wort to a sanitized fermenter. Making this process as vigorous as possible is good. Aerating the wort is important for shorter lag times (time between pitching the yeast and fermentation starting). If you put the wort in a glass fermenter, this may actually knock off a couple of more degrees.
Add your yeast, affix a stopper and airlock and you have just made beer.
Most ales will need to ferment for about 10 days. In the correct environment, most of the fermentation is going to be done in the first few days but you really want it to sit undisturbed for about 10-14 days. But disclaimer here: Fermentation doesn’t have a timer. Let your hydrometer tell you when its done. Lagers have a much more intensive fermentation schedule and I won’t even get into that in a beginner focused blog post.
Of course, there are a tons of variations in processes, methods, ingredients etc., and it does get much more advanced if you want it to be. This is a basic rundown of what you can expect on your first brew day. Everyone evolves their own style and that’s the great thing about homebrew. If you want a good example of the wonderful variety of the world of homebrew, you should consider attending the 2013 Humboldt Homebrewers Festival, April 6th at the Arcata Community Center.