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Personal Beer Brewery (1998 - 2003)

Me and Stephan in front of our beer tab. Looking at the smiles, the beer seems to be awright! :-)

A lot of people like beer, but only few of them know what exactely they are drinking. Seriously - do you know what ingredients beer is made of? Water, malt, hops, yeast? Great, but what exactely is hops or malt? To really understand what we're drinking my brother Stephan and me decided to brew our own beer. But we didn't just want to buy a "home brewers kit" where you only have to mix things together and wait until it's ready. No, we wanted to do it from scratch. Really from scratch, as we decided to produce our own malt also. In a home brewers guide it said "Malt production is not feasible for home brewers". Well then, just watch!

My brother Stephan and I started our first beer brewing experiment in 1998 in a rather naive attempt with food - barley, hop tea and baking yeast. From there it got more and more sophisticated. We didn't realize though, how far we would have to go to reach our goal! Still, a few years later we really mastered the whole process, both the beer brewing as well as the malt production. The next few paragraphs provide some more detail. There is also a dedicated page with more detail on the malt making process itself.

How is Beer being made?

Just as a very condensed introduction: From water and malt a thick, sweet and tasty mash is made by letting the mixure rest for several hours at different temperatures. The liquid part then is taken and cooked with the hops for the bitter taste and to separate the proteins. Then the hops is filtered out and the sterile soup is put into the fermentation tank together with the yeast to ferment. After a few weeks the sugar is converted to alcohol and carbon dioxide yielding naturally sparkling beer.

During the first step it is important to use malt with enough enzymes to convert all the starch into sugar and to neutralize most of the proteins. Temperatures and resting times are essential for the outcome. The consistency of the mash must allow for the liquid to be drained at the end. The soup in the fermentation tank must be sterile, otherwise the beer gets infected with bacteria and starts to taste funnily. So good malt, correct temperature and time settings and cleanness is vital for the outcome.

The first phase

The first few brewing attempts didn't work out at all. The mash got only semi sweet and didn't taste very well. The liquid hardly could be separated from the mash and the resulting beer needed to rest for about 6 month until it was half way drinkable. On the bottom of the bottle there was a lot of slimy deposit.

We optimized a lot of things. With better temperature and time parameters the beer got better, but the parameters where far from what was considered standard in home brewers literature. A special separation tub was built for better separating the soup from the mash. And we converted an old oven into a computer controlled oast for malt drying which produced malt with a more constant, reproducible quality. But still, the result was not satisfactory.

Are you are brewing beer and it looks like that? Full breaks! Stop dead! Something is worng. Probably even multiple things :-)

The second phase

Our conclusion was, that our malt quality still wasn't good enough. We didn't have a clue why, though. But to investigate this theory and to finally get a really drinkable beer we decided to use commercially available malt.

Suddenly the beer was much better, clearer, ready for drinking within a few weeks and the time and temperature parameters were similar to those suggested in the literature. We further optimized our beer making process and experimented with different beer recipes. A second computer controlled gadget was built, this time for the beer making process: the mash was constantly mixed in the tub by a power drill and two immersion heaters was turned on and off by the controller to get the right temperatures (a PID control loop doing PWM). Later we switched to a hot plate, because stuff kept on scorching on the heaters, no matter how much we stirred.

We also changed the bottle fermentation to kegs after we bought a couple of 30 liter beer kegs from a brewery liquidation sale. This enhanced quality again and the carbon dioxide level was now easily adjustable through the pressure valve of the gas tank. Finally we had good, drinkable beer and we were able to adjust the taste according to our liking. A 30 liter keg is a good amount of beer for a party and a lot less work than bottling our beers.

The mesh being stirred by the power drill. The red thingies with the cables are the two immersion heaters. A PT-100 temperature sensor mesures the temperature.

The third phase

The ultimate goal still wasn't met, we haven't produced a good beer with our own malt. Reading through more professional literature and university papers Stephan found out that protein levels are an important factor in malt, something we haven't focused at all. And that's what was wrong with our malt! We had been taking barley that was easily available here in Switzerland, which is commonly used for cattle feeding. Cattle need a lot of protein for increasing muscle mass, but for malt only very few protein is tolerable. We then organized special brewing barley from Germany.

Together with the third automation gadget, the barley germinating machine, we got malt that finally produced good beer! Roland Michl, the brewer from a micro brewery in the area offered to analyze our malt chemically. His results confirmed our findings.

We also gave up the automated beer brewing process, because it saved us little time but we had to clean a whole lot more equipment. Instead we bought a simple 50 liter pan. The factors, that finally produced good results where:

Our tab is built from an old fridge with a hole cut on top. This way the beer is good for about two months.

  • Automating malt production: letting the barley germinate and dry is so care intensive you would need a 24h shift operation when doing it manually.
  • Only well defined tasks, doing one change at a time and documenting them well finally yielded reproducible results.
  • Use the right equipment: CO2 tank, beer kegs, beer tab and cooler and a lot of small stuff cost money but is simply necessary.

Conclusion

We still brew several times per year, usually for special occasions. We do draft and amber beers, wheat beers, ales and special stuff, because sometimes it's fun to have a beer with a personal touch! We don't produce our own malt anymore though, because it is too labor intensive (we were able to produce about 2kg of malt per week, sufficient for only about 10 liters of beer). Most of the machinery has been disassembled in the mean time to make room for other projects. Building machinery that really saves you time with all the mainenance and cleaning included is more complex than what we had. Sounds like an interesting project, doesn't it? ;-) In the mean time we brew strictly manually, on the stove with a large pan, a separating pot, a fermenting tank and some beer kegs.

The whole project was quite a challange so far and it was a lot of fun. Sometimes people ask me: "but why do you do that, you can buy beer in the grocery store!" - And upon my answer, that I wanted to know what I am drinking they claim: "but then you must make your own wine as well!". My answer: "Well, I do". :-)

Brewing can be fun. What is wrong here? Hint: look at the glasses, the foam and the red faces :-) Bieridee?