Home Brewing, Part IV: Primary and Secondary Fermentation

>> Friday, June 25, 2010

For those of you following our home brewing series: We've covered a basic list of the things you need to get started . . . how to build your very own wort chiller, saving you a ton of cash . . . and -- the biggie -- how to actually BREW YOUR OWN BEER.

Now, for the final steps of last week’s post (How to Brew Beer) you poured five gallons of wort into the 6.5 gallon bucket, sprinkled in and stirred the yeast, closed the lid, secured the air lock, and placed the bucket on your cool basement floor. So, what do you do next? Absolutely nothing . . . for at least 7-10 days. Time to begin the most difficult step, the waiting game.

At this point, you might have some questions:

Q: How does the wort actually become beer?

A: Over the next 7-10 days, primary fermentation, the yeast will react with the wort by fermenting the malt sugar into alcohol. Yum!

Q: How do I know if it’s working?

A: The byproduct of sugar turning into alcohol is carbon dioxide, CO2, so for the first 5 (or so) days of primary fermentation, you’ll notice CO2 bubbles escaping from the airlock - about 1 bubble every 4-6 seconds. As you approach 7-10 days, the bubbling should taper to about 1 bubble per 30-45 seconds, or no bubbles at all.

Once you’ve been patient for 7-10 days, you can finally open the lid and take a hydrometer reading. Keep in mind, what you will see is not pretty. Frothy foam, or krausen, will be clinging to the sides of the bucket. Don’t worry! This foamy head naturally forms in these initial stages of fermentation and has no harmful effects.

Q: How do I take a hydrometer reading and what is the purpose?

A: A hydrometer measures the relative density, or specific gravity, of a substance in relation to water. As the yeast consumes the wort sugar, ethanol is produced. Since alcohol is less dense than water, the gravity will lower. My oatmeal stout, for example, had a starting gravity of 1.04 and finishing gravity of 1.01. And since it’s difficult to create and recreate same conditions on such a small scale, 5 gallons, the gravity and finished product may vary by batch. In other words, you’re always in for a surprise!

Carefully place the hydrometer in the wort and record where on the scale the wort reads. If the reading is within a few measurements of what’s printed on the kit instructions, you can move on. If you are reading too high, you should close the lid, wait a few days, and take another reading; the yeast may still be active.

Now it’s time to transfer the wort into your secondary fermenter, the 5-gallon glass carboy. The objective here is to clarify and purify the beer by separating it from the sediment and “dead” byproducts. Fermenting in the glass carboy also gives the flavors a chance to develop and mature.

  1. Carefully position the two containers so that the 6.5 gallon bucket is higher than the 5-gallon carboy.
  2. Prepare the auto siphon by snaking the exit tube into the glass carboy and submerging the siphon head into the wort.
  3. Gently pump the siphon and let gravity do its work.
  4. As you approach the bottom of the bucket, be careful not to disturb the cloudy sediment. It’s okay if you leave an inch or two of liquid behind.
  5. Secure the rubber stopper into the glass carboy, fill a plastic airlock halfway with water, and firmly and snugly fit it into the stopper hole.
  6. Carefully place the container on the floor and let rest for another 7-10 days.
  7. You should observe air bubbles releasing anywhere from 1 per minute to 1 per 30 seconds. for a few days.

How long you keep your beer in secondary fermentation is really up to you. Because of my anticipation and excitement, I followed the minimum requirements for my first two batches. When I brew my next batch in a few weeks, I will definitely be patient and let the flavors fully develop.

Be sure to check back next week for Part V: How to Build a Kegerator! And if you're just joining us, here's a list of what you need to get started . . . instructions on how to build a wort chiller . . . and how to brew beer.

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