I’ve always wanted to grow my own beer ingredients. I tried hops and various grains and corn since I moved out of my apartment and started renting a house with a yard. It’s taken a few years of soil remediation, but there have finally been some results. Unfortunately, the hop seeds never germinated. After some researching I found out they need to be cold-stratified. I tried it last year by wetting the seeds and putting them in the refrigerator, but they still didn’t sprout. This year I plan on stratifying them naturally by putting them outside all winter. This attempt will be the last of my seeds so if it doesn’t work, I’ll either have to buy more hop seeds or try another plant. I’ve found out an herb called mugwort was used before hops were popularized so I might try growing those instead. I’ve bought some dried mugwort at the beer supply store before and it yielded good results.
The crops that did perform this season were the grains and corn. Specifically, I planted spelt grain and two kinds of heirloom corn: Jimmy red and blue clarage. I figured planting heirloom seeds would push me to take extra special care of them. It worked, and by the end of summer the 24 plants returned over a pound of new seeds.
The spelt didn’t provide as high of a harvest. There was less than a pound of grains once they were removed from their husks. Usually, malt is sold in 1 or 3 pound bags so I cheated a little and bought some more spelt grains to make the total of weight of corn and grains 3 pounds.
I’ve read about the principles of malting, but this is my first time trying it. It seems the process is a lot like making veal: you’re supposed to provide the conditions for growth and then kill the subjects at a young age. In this case, the seeds need to germinate, and then be heated to halt that process. The purpose of germination is so the seeds develop sugars which can later be converted by yeast. I saved as many seeds as I felt comfortable sparing to plant next summer. The rest were soaked overnight. For the following few days, I stirred them and ran more water over them when it felt like they were drying out. I wasn’t sure how long to let them grow but in a week the shoots were pretty long, so I went on to the next step.
The research I’ve done indicates cooking at low temperature, somewhere around 180 to 200 degrees Fahrenheit. However, the duration depends on the altitude and type of seeds being malted so there is room for experimentation. I started at 180 degrees, and every 30 minutes I took them out of the oven to turn them with a spatula. It was taking a while for them to dry so after an hour I increased the temperature to 200 degrees. In about 2.5 hours they were dry and brittle, so I let them cool and stored them in mason jars until I had time to process them more.
I spent two days contemplating if crushing was necessary. The malt I buy comes in liquid or powder form, so I decided to give it a shot. I put the grains into a food processor, in small batches since I didn’t know if my machine was strong enough to turn them into fine powder. In the end I was pleased with how the spelt turned out. It smelled like malt I buy and had the same texture. The corn was a bit coarser but I didn’t want to risk damaging the blade in the processor, so I left well enough alone.
Finally, the weekend arrived, and I was ready to cook. I brought 1 gallon of water to boil and added the powdered spelt first. The results were exactly what I expected. They foamed up nicely and smelled exactly like the store-bought powdered malt.
Adding the corn damaged my confidence. It didn’t bring the same foam or smell as the spelt. In fact, it absorbed the moisture more than I expected and I ended up with more of a thick stew than classic wort. I tried adding more water, but it didn’t help, and I didn’t want to risk overflow. I decided to let it boil and wait to see what happens.
It was difficult adding the store-bought hops to the thick wort and I’m not sure how well they were incorporated. I stirred as best I could and let it simmer for 90 minutes. I collected 5 gallons of filtered water and transferred the wort into it once it cooled to room temperature. Due to the thickness, it was difficult to disperse it evenly through the water, but eventually all the chunks broke up. I added the yeast, stirred it some more, sealed the bucket, and took the initial gravity reading, finding it to be almost exactly at 1. A week passed and the airlock didn’t bubble. It’s been cold lately, which I thought might be slowing down the yeast activity.
Today I opened the fermenter and the results weren’t too good. The color of the beer is fine, but it has a slightly sour smell. Since the airlock didn’t bubble, the oxygen wasn’t pushed out and some of the yeast formed vinegar instead of alcohol. The fact that the conversion to vinegar occurred at least means the yeast is active, so there might be some alcohol forming as well. It can’t be that much, because when I measured the gravity again there wasn’t much change. However, the most important thing is the taste test. I pulled a sample and it was passable. It is slightly sour due to the vinegar but it also has an earthy taste, like an IPA. It’s in the second fermenter now and I’m going to let it sit another week.
Even if the beer has its problems, homebrewing is never a waste. Once the liquid is filtered into the secondary fermenter, the solids at the bottom can be collected and used for other purposes. I usually add it to my sourdough starter. The beer slag has been keeping that starter alive and highly active for years. This time, since the corn grounds were so much larger than the malt I’m used to, I had a much larger volume left over than usual and it wasn’t the consistency I like to use in breadmaking. Instead of putting it in the starter, I just saved it in Tupperware and decided to use it as a waffle mix. At least, I would have if I had a waffle iron. With the materials I have available, the best I can do is make square pancakes with deep indentations. It’s still worth doing. Fermented hot cakes from heirloom corn have a unique taste that can’t be reproduced in any restaurant.
I’m going to bottle soon and hope for the best once it’s time to open them. I’m also going to try again next year. There are plenty of things I’ll do differently, like increase the amount of spelt and decrease the amount of corn. I’m already planning my garden space for next summer and will be dedicating a lot more space to growing the grains. I also might increase the germination time when malting because the seeds might not have had enough time to develop enough sugars to feed the yeast. Perhaps I’ll need to find an additional source of sugar to kickstart the process and get the airlock bubbling sooner. Ultimately, this is still a work in progress, and I feel it was a good first attempt.