Or, What I did on my Saturday.
For a person who has sometimes written fantasy stories involving beer, the chance to see this done, start to finish, was a real treat. I’m exhausted, of course, but here’s how it went.
First, we made the mash. This means we heated some water to about 155º, then added the barley, and kept the temp at around 145. The aroma of this warm grain was very nice. After about half an hour, we raised the temperature another ten degrees. I remembered that peasants used to eat a porridge not unlike this. We tasted the brown liquid twice during this process, as it became progressively sweeter–something I hadn’t expected.
After the mash was done, we drained the liquid into a second pot, with a steady drip of very hot water above. The result was a hot coffee-colored liquid called “wort” that felt almost thick with sugar. This we boiled down about a quarter of the way, adding hops in at three stages of the boil. This took about an hour. We had to take care that the stuff didn’t boil over–and we’d lose just quite a bit.
Some of the grain left in the barrel after we’d drained off the fluid we set aside for adding to bread; it would add a nice wholegrain component to our next batch. The rest we dumped out for the deer to eat. If we’d had pigs, they would have loved it, too.
We cooled the liquid down to 100º (this took another good bit of time). Now we could put it into a sterilized glass jar with the yeast, leaving plenty of room for the yeast to do its work. Stop it up, and let it ferment for about ten days. Then bottle it for another week or so. I haven’t done that part, so I can’t comment much on it.
A couple of things of interest, to me. One, the malty smell of the brewing grain. Two, how the fruity hops cut the sweetness and then more or less melted into something like split pea soup. And last of all, the precision temperatures and fairly precise timing of each step. For instance, how do you make a mash when you don’t have a thermometer? How do you know how hot it is for the two steps? How do you brew without glass jars and stainless steel pots? (You could use copper, of course. But without metal? Ceramic, presumably.) Without propane tanks or electricity? (Skill with wood and coals!)
The obvious answer is “know-how.” Before all that technology, it was a craft that required significant skill to produce a clean, good-tasting brew.
One more thing: Not knowing how it’ll taste. You have to wait a good three weeks to sample your efforts. How’s that for faith?
If you’re curious to know more, check out this thread on pre-modern brewing techniques.