Categorized under: Education, Home brewing

Beer Brewing 101 – provided by Stanford Students

Let there be beer
Students in EBF explore the art of homebrewing
April 15, 2008
By Christopher P. Anderson

The search for a tasty brew has consumed the nightlife of college students for eons. Sean Arenson ‘08 and Carolyn Mansfield ‘08, residents in the Enchanted Broccoli Forest (EBF), have an unusually direct approach to acquiring good beer. They make it themselves.

The EBF brewing adventure began when Mansfield, whose father is a homebrewer, gave her boyfriend, Johnny DuPont ‘09, a homebrewing kit for Christmas. Five brews later, it’s a regular part of their lives and something Arenson says is “easier to do than someone who’s never done it before might think.”

Both students find the activity a perfect fit for the EBF ethos. “Co-ops are a culture of beer appreciation,” says Mansfield, citing brewing activity in other co-op houses, as well. Arenson adds that the co-op culture of “go smaller” and consumption of fresh and non-commercial products dovetails nicely with EBF’s earthy reputation.

Homebrewing, the private production of beer for personal enjoyment as opposed to commercial gain, has taken off in the United States in the last 30 years, reviving a tradition that waned as beer went from a farmhouse craft to a factory operation. It draws devotees from all walks of life — college students, blue-collar laborers, urban professionals, environmental stewards and those with a do-it-yourself attitude.


Thought to be the oldest manufactured beverage in human history, beer is, by definition, a fermented alcoholic substance made by mixing malted grain, hops, water and yeast. Barley is the most popular grain and the easiest to work with, although wheat and rye can also be use.

“Brewing” technically refers to the boiling of ingredients before fermentation, but the art of homebrewing is understood to include choosing a recipe, managing the boil, pitching the yeast and bottling and carbonating the beer.

Most agricultural peoples have produced a beer-like beverage, using many types of plants to balance the sweet malt flavor. The use of the hop flower as a flavoring and bittering agent became standardized in beer in the 16th and 17th centuries and was codified in the German Beer Purity Law of 1516.

Homebrewing in the United States was fully legalized by Congress in 1978, eliminating a holdover from Prohibition-era laws. Some states, such as Utah and Alabama, still prohibit brewing without a license.


The first EBF beer was brewed in January — a porter, an English dark ale, that consumed not just the standard ingredients but also a cell phone. After Arenson insisted on compulsive sanitation at every step, duPont mistakenly dropped his phone into the brew just prior to bottling. duPont further threatened to contaminate the brew by sticking his arm in the bucket to retrieve the phone.

The brew turned out unharmed, and thus was born the distinctive name “Cingular Porter.” Mansfield said the cell phone store had never before heard such an explanation for a broken phone.

Arenson was impressed with their first product, and with duPont studying abroad in Berlin this quarter, Arenson has been promoted to unofficial EBF brewmaster. He promises to do his mentor proud. “This quarter is going to be a very prolific one.”


The most basic brewing kit, designed for a five-gallon batch, includes a large stove pot, an airlocked fermentation bucket and a bottle capper. Homebrew ingredients can be bought from several sources. Arenson and Mansfield buy their stock from a homebrew store in Los Altos, but several Bay Area shops and multiple online vendors are available for ingredients and equipment, as well as valuable advice from those with experience.

The basic process of homebrewing begins with bringing a pot of water to boil. Water is a critical element in a beer style; the famously hard water of English rivers contributes to British ale styles, while Pilsner Urquell uses soft water from world-renowned Czech wells.

Most homebrewers cannot control their local water sources, but chemical supplements are available to approximate some desired mineral profiles.

Malt extract, either powered or syrup, is added to the boiling water. The extract provides the sugars that will, in turn, be fermented into alcohol.

An advanced technique called all-grain brewing involves mashing the malted grain itself into a porridge, activating the malting enzymes that break down the starch into fermentable sugars. This process duplicates the one used by commercial breweries, but it isn’t necessary for producing great-tasting beer. Many homebrewers, including the EBF crew, get tasty results from extract brewing.

Hops are added at the beginning and end of the approximately hour-long boil.

The hop oils are chemically changed by the boiling process, causing the first batch of hops to add a bitter flavor. Hops added at the end of the boil provide flavor and aroma.

After the liquid, called wort, is cooled, it is placed in an airlocked bucket or glass carboy; the yeast is added (or “pitched”), and the fermentation process begins. In an anaerobic (oxygen-free) process, the yeast consumes sugars and produces carbon dioxide, ethyl alcohol and a slew of flavor products. The temperature at which fermentation occurs, and whether the yeast strain ferments on top of the brew or at the bottom, has a strong effect on the beer flavor.

Primary fermentation completes after about two days. The beer is normally then transferred to another vessel and left to settle and clarify for up to a month. Hops and spice flavorings are sometimes added in this phase (“dry-hopped”) for an extra kick. In addition to taste and smell, hops provide an anti-bacterial effect, favoring yeast growth and acting as a preservative in the final product.

Finally, the beer is bottled. Carbonation is accomplished by adding sugar to the brew before bottling, which re-activates the yeast. With the bottles capped, carbon dioxide goes into solution, giving the brew its distinctive fizz. The beer is drinkable within two weeks, although aging for up to a year depending on style can improve its flavor.

Meticulous sanitation is required at every step to ensure the yeast does not compete with other microbes in the fermenter — the sort of attention to detail that Arenson followed until duPont dropped his phone in the beer. An infected batch is not usually dangerous to the drinker, it just tastes bad; in almost all cases, multiplying yeast “crowd out” other species, and contamination is rare.

As used glass bottles from store-bought beers can be reused, homebrewers tend to become inveterate scroungers; according to Arenson, “you find yourself asking someone drinking a beer, ‘Can I have that bottle when you’re finished?’”


The explosion in American homebrewing in the 1980s was a factor in the rise of microbrewing and craft brewing (similar terms for the commercial production of moderate quantities of quality-focused beer), exposing Americans to a slew of styles then unavailable in mass-produced products. California and Portland have become particularly remarkable in the microbrew industry.

A variant of craft brewing is the brewpub, where beer is made on the premises and served in conjunction with a restaurant. Gordon Biersch Brewery Restaurant, originating in Palo Alto, is an example of a brewpub.

“California is such a fertile ground for homebrewing and craftbrewing,” Arenson said. “There’s such a variation of styles…beer blows wine out of the water with regard to diversity of styles.” With all of this high-quality beer around, Sean has not missed the opportunity to evangelize. He often purchases a collection of beers and holds tasting events for fellow students.

College kids who have swilled down Natural Light for years are usually in for a pleasant surprise. Arenson says that after presenting a range of styles, even his beer-averse subjects normally find one or two beers they enjoy.

While the exact ingredients used in commercial beers are trade secrets, “clone brew” recipes allow brewers to emulate popular products. But homebrewing also provides the freedom to tinker with classic styles and recipes, adjusting the grain, hops and yeast to the brewer’s taste and creating entirely new flavors with the addition of fruit or spices.


An ingredient kit for a five-gallon batch — about 40 twelve-ounce bottles — typically costs between $30 and $50, making homebrew costs competitive with store prices for microbrewed six-packs.

The prices, however, are on the rise. The brewing industry has been rocked by a massive world hop shortage stemming from a destructive European winter, a decline in farmland used for hops, and a selling out of hop reserves. Some varieties are simply not available, and others have seen fivefold price increases.

Microbreweries and homebrewers, masters of highly hopped styles and lacking guaranteed contracts with hop distributors, have been hit the hardest. The cost has been passed on to consumers, who have already seen price increases and will likely feel the squeeze for at least another year.


Even as a biology major, Arenson sees his hobby as a fuzzy enterprise. “I view brewing as more of an art than a science, which is interesting because,” despite being a jazz musician, “I have no artistic talent.”

He did compare it to his alternate life: “There are parallels between jazz and brewing — there’s a lot of improvisation, in each batch you do something different, and the mood you are in is reflected in the brew.”

The hobby can also have health benefits. Homebrewed beer is made with a handful of ingredients without the preservatives of mass-produced beer. Age, handling and freshness can be controlled by the brewers themselves, something not possible with mass-produced beers shipped across the country. Because of the presence of yeast normally filtered out by commercial breweries, which provide B vitamins, homebrewed beer is one of the most beneficial alcoholic beverages one can drink — particularly when it comes to keeping away a hangover.

Between brewing and tastings, Arenson and Mansfield are driven by the appreciation of fine beer that motivates many homebrewers. Arenson encourages the curious to give it a try.

“People assume it requires smokestacks and everything. It’s just like any food product: you can do it in your own kitchen…they should really dive in instead of being intimidated.”

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