First off, let’s get one thing straight: homebrewing and moonshine are not synonymous.
One is legal, one is not, and you can probably guess which is which, but award-winning homebrewer Angus Munro has found people often confuse the two. Homebrewing is simply using a brewer’s method of choice to brew quality beer at home—and yes, it’s possible to brew up a concoction that rivals, and even trumps, commercial beer.
To learn just how this feat can be accomplished, we enlisted the help of Munro, Sonu Sahi and Kurtis Jensen of the Edmonton Homebrewer’s Guild to walk us through the process, which in this case involved crafting a batch of raspberry wheat ale using Munro’s custom three-vessel brewing system, housed in a room in his basement dedicated to all things brewing. The hobby is much more accessible than one might think, and once the grain had been crushed and the brew of the day was set to mash—read on to learn more about that—we headed to Munro’s backyard to discuss the process and what it takes to be a homebrewer.
Vue Weekly: What sparked your interest in home brewing?
Sonu Sahi: A friend of mine had a father that used to homebrew in the guild probably 30, 35 years ago and he actually got me started. I was at his place one day and he was brewing a small batch in his kitchen and I thought it sounded awesome to be able to make your own beer, so that got me in. And then I met these guys in the club.
Kurits Jensen: I was actually watching Breaking Bad and there’s the DEA brother-in-law who’s homebrewing and I was like, “If that idiot can do it, I can do it.” I liked beer so it just kind of sparked from there.
Angus Munro: I liked beer and I thought it would be a challenge to make it from grain. Somebody gave me a couple of pounds of grain and I attacked it with a blender and made some equipment and went to town.
VW: The start-up costs must be steep.
KJ: It depends which way you go. You can go pretty cheap if you just have some big pots at home and do it on your stove. I started off bashing my grain with a rolling pin. There’s a lot of online shops that will mill your own grain so you can get it all pre-done and ready to go.
SS: There’s several different types of brewing systems. You can go with the brew-in-a-bag system, which is probably the cheapest to get set up. You can probably do 150 bucks to get in. What might restrict you doing it on your stove is how big you want to go—you can probably get away with a two-and-a-half gallon batch no problem. A typical home brewer batch is probably closer to five—you can do five with a couple of pots on your stove.
VW: Which system do you prefer?
SS: I prefer Angus’s system.
AM: This is my third system. I started off with a cooler and a turkey cooker and an extra pot and that worked well for a little bit. Then I built a three-tier thing with two burners and then I decided I wanted a larger system, so I built the one downstairs with three pots—10-gallon system.
SS: The nice thing about his system is it’s automated for temperature control. We can sit out here while the mash is happening without having to babysit it like you might have to on the stove-top system.
VW: What steps do you need to take to get started in homebrewing?
AM: The first thing you’d have to do is visit the homebrew shop. South side Winning Wines Plus is one of our sponsors, and buy some grain or extract and a book, maybe.
SS: I would say if you want to start on your first batch, start simpler and do an extract brew just to get used to the process. So instead of buying raw grains and crushing them like we did, a really common way for beginners to get started—and how I got started—was buying malt extract. A factory has already done the crushing of the mill and extracting the sugars from it into a concentrated solution, so really you’re just adding water and adding hops and tweaking the recipe a little bit. It’s a little bit easier to get started that way.
KJ: A brew-in-a-bag system would be a good starting system, too.
SS: A lot of people just get intimidated by all grain for their first batch for some reason. All grain is what we’re doing, so what that means is that all the ingredients going into the mash are barley that we crushed, so there’s no extract in there, whether it’s liquid extract or dry malt extract powder. With beginning brewers it’s pretty common to go 100-percent extract for your first batch and then as you get used to your system and you get used to the process, you elevate into what’s called a partial mash, which is kind of a hybrid of both. You used some grain and some extract. Most brewers pretty quickly fluctuate to all grain. You get more control over the quality, over the ingredients, the recipe with all grain.
VW: How did you build your system, Angus?
AM: I saved up stuff that I found for about a year and then I put it all together. My job is a plumber-gasfitter, so I go to a lot of job sites and there’s a lot of restaurant equipment that gets tossed in renovations, which is what I saved up to build my system.
VW: You get more control with all grain, but are there any other advantages to it?
SS: Flavour. With all grain I’ve noticed you get a fresher-tasting beer at the end. Your end results are higher-quality, in my opinion—not to knock extract, because it also produces great beer, but if you’re looking for the difference between really good beer and excellent beer, I think all grain gives you a little bit of a boost.
VW: Is it more difficult to learn?
KJ: You need the extra equipment. So you need a barley crusher, but there’s a lot more control, so you’ve got a lot more options. You can do way more different styles of beer because you can buy the grain and make whatever you want, rather than being limited by the malt extract that’s available.
VW: Do you remember what your first batches were like?
SS: They were drinkable. I wouldn’t go much past that, now that I know what I’m doing.
KJ: I started off with a kit beer and those were good because they were quality kits. Then my first all-grain batch, I think I was brewing a brown [ale] and it ended up being more like an English bitter, so it was just completely wrong. It was drinkable; for a first batch by myself, it wasn’t bad. It was a steep learning curve.
AM: It was beer but it didn’t taste like any real style. It tweaked enough interest to start all over again and the snowball [effect] happened and it was the next batch and another batch and another batch. Then I figured out how to keg things and worked from there.
VW: What are some common mistakes people make when they’re first learning to brew?
SS: Temperature was probably the one I was making most frequently when I was starting out. I think it’s what led to higher-quality beer quickly.
KJ: Usually the biggest mistake you see from new and older brewers is cleaning and sanitizing. It’s a food product, so it has to be clean. If you’re using plastics you can’t use abrasive cleaners, otherwise mould and other bacteria can get in there and kill your beer … and older guys do that too and it just happens. Sometimes it just happens and it doesn’t matter how great a brewer you are.
AM: Cleaning and sanitation is probably the biggest thing. If you don’t like doing dishes, don’t be a homebrewer.
VW: Are there any types of beer that are easier to brew at home?
SS: If you go high level, ales over lagers for sure.
KJ: Ales tend to be easier if you simplify your recipe, so if you’re using one or two malts, one or two hops, one or two additions of hops.
SS: A simple blond ale would be pretty easy at home.
VW: What makes an ale easier to brew?
KJ: The difference between an ale and a lager is the yeast. Lager yeast has to be fermented at cooler temperatures, so around one degree Celsius to 10 degrees Celsius, whereas an ale is usually around 15 to 20 degrees. You can just let it sit out in a room at room temperature and it will ferment and give you the classic ale characters, whereas the lagers, you’ll get a lot of weird characters if you just let it sit out, so that’s what makes it easier. You don’t need temperature control on your fermentation, so you just brew it and put it in your fermentor and let it sit for a couple of weeks.
VW: Are there any that are particularly difficult to brew at home?
AM: Lagers would be. The classic American lager, I think, is the most difficult one to brew. There’s hardly any ingredients and it’s supposed to be clean and light, and it’s just hard to get your temperatures correct and not get too much malt into the beer.
SS: Because it’s such a delicate flavour, the smallest mistake on an American lager will show up right away, whereas a complex stout you can kind of hide it behind chocolate flavour, coffee flavour or something.
VW: How long does a typical batch of beer take?
KJ: Brew day is about four to eight hours, depending, and then you’ve got to let it ferment for a week to three weeks—a week at least.
AM: Simple ales, start to finish, would be about two weeks because you’d take a day to brew it, a week to ferment it and then you’d rack it over for a secondary week to clarify and then you bottle it or keg it.
VW: What steps are involved in the beer we’re making today?
SS: We measured out our recipe we’re making today, which is a raspberry wheat ale, so we’ve got our base malts plus our specialty malts. We ran them through the grain mill to crush them and release the starch inside. Now we’re doing a process called mashing, where we’re letting the grains steep at a particular temperature to allow starch conversion, which is where enzymes in the barley will take the sugars and reduce them to simple sugars, which is what the yeast can consume to produce alcohol.
KJ: You’re doing mashing and then what you’d do is a lauder or sparge, so you basically remove all the liquid from the mash kettle and rinse the grains to get as much sugar and starch out as you can. You put that in the brew kettle and then you start your brew, so when you start your brew you bring it to a boil. You boil your beer to sanitize it and it there’ll be some starches left so it converts the rest of the starches.
You add hops, so you usually do a battering charge (addition of hops) and then you do a flavour and aroma charge as well to get different flavours out of the hops. But then you’re also fortifying your sugars to get more sugar out of it and changing your flavours so you get some caramelization and stuff like that.
Once you’re finished your boil, you need to chill your beer. The highest you want is 35 degrees Celsius, otherwise yeast can’t live in it. Then you pitch your yeast and ferment. Then once fermentation’s finished, you package in bottles, kegs, and you need to carbonate as well.
SS: Thirty-five degrees would be the maximum high end. Usually what we aim for is what we call yeast-pitching temperature, which would closer to 20 or lower.
VW: What’s involved in developing your own recipe?
SS: I find a lot of beginner brewers tend to make really complex recipes when they’re starting out—a chocolate cherry vanilla stout, for example, where there’s too many things in it and you’re still learning the process. What you want to do is pick a style —and pick a relatively simple style—and design your recipe to hit those numbers and hit that type of style, if it’s a certain percentage of base malts versus a certain percentage of speciality malts.
KJ: A good way to get into it is, there’s a lot of brewing recipe development applications out there or software, and they’re great.
SS: It’s part art and part science. The software is where the science part comes in and eliminates all the manual math that you would have to do, but the art part is obviously you’re free to create your own recipe and do whatever you want. It’s your beer.
AM: If you like to cook, it becomes remarkably easier too, to create recipes because you taste the grain and then you just think in your head, ‘Do you want this flavour in there, or that flavour?’ You get a picture in your mind of what it should taste like and go from there.