Brewing for beginners – Part III

It’s been two weeks.

Our fermentation vessel has been sitting at room temperature (~ 20°C or 68F) for two weeks.

It’s time to move some things around. Or move some liquid into some bottles, to be more precise.

Thermometer on the thermometer showing 20 degrees Celsius.

In the bottles, we want some final fermentation to happen. This won’t really add any alcohol, but CO2. Perfect to create a bubbly beer! But there is one problem: all the sugar we put in the wort has been eaten up by the yeast in the fermentor.

So we have to add just enough sugar for the yeasts to convert to CO2 gas, but not too much (we don’t want the bottles to explode). We made up a sugar-water solution by boiling 2 cups (473 mL) and dissolving 4 oz (113 g) of sugar, which we mixed into the fermented almost-beer. We also needed to move the almost-beer into our bottling bucket – carefully, as to not add too much oxygen or contaminants!

Beer being siphoned from the fermentation vessel into the bottling bucket.
From bottle to bucket

Next step was to set up a bottling assembly line. Part one: filling the bottles up, leaving about an inch (2.5 cm) at the top.

Bottle being filled with beer
From bucket to bottle

Part 2: capping the bottle.

Looks easy enough…
a hand showing three broken red bottle caps
Okay, not that easy.

And there we are: a bottle of our very own, home-made beer!

hand holding up a bottle of beer

About 40 bottles, actually.


Okay, we’re not quite ready. We need to give the yeast another week or two for the final fermentation. After a quick taste of the almost-beer, I kind of hope those two weeks will change the taste (and the bubbliness), because for now it tasted quite bland.

In addition, our special gravity measurement – which gives an indication of sugar content and can be used to estimate the alcohol content by comparing with the original value – wasn’t very promising. Our beer seems to be less than 3%.

But we’re not giving up hope yet! In two weeks, we’ll see what the final product is. I’ve also read that a few weeks of extra “ripening” can help with the taste as well. And we can always give brewing another go, keeping in mind what we’ve learned so far.


Brewing for beginners – Part II

Fermentation for beginners

While we’re waiting for the yeast to do its thing, it may be useful to learn about what exactly fermentation is. Fermentation. You’ve heard it before, in the context of beer or kimchi or sourdough bread (or in a biochemistry class). But what does it mean? And why isn’t yogurt alcoholic?

Briefly, fermentation is a biochemical process where tiny organisms break down a complex molecule, such as starches or sugars, into a simpler molecule, an acid or an alcohol, while making some energy. This happens in an anaerobic environment – meaning it does not require oxygen. This contrary to aerobic processes, like what we humans do most of the time when we want to convert sugars into energy.*

Yeasts and bacteria are the two types of organisms that do this sugar breakdown. There are three different types of fermentation, depending on the end product.

  1. In a lot of cooking, we use lactic acid fermentation. In this case, the yeast or bacteria convert starches or sugars into lactic acid. Think kimchi, sauerkraut or pickles, but also yoghurt and sourdough bread.
  2. To make alcohol, however, you want to be aiming for ethyl alcohol fermentation. The sugars get converted into ethanol (the alcohol part) and CO2 (the bubbly part). Bakers yeast is also an ethyl alcohol fermenter: there is no real ethanol left in your final bread, but the CO2 production is what helped your dough to rise.
  3. Finally, there is acetic acid fermentation. In this type of fermentation, sugars from grains or fruit are converted into acids. This is what makes vinegar.

Certain microorganisms are better at certain types of fermentation. That is way it is very crucial that the wort does not get contaminated by outside yeasts or bacteria: you only want the alcohol-making types, not the acid-making types. Unless you want to make a sour, that is.

It is also why, to make a sourdough starter, you just leave some sugars (starches actually to be more precise, in the form of some flower in water) out on the counter. The bacteria and yeasts floating around in the air are the ones you want for lactic acid fermentation – and to start up a sour dough culture.

Controlling the rate of fermentation and end products is a balance between making sure you have the right microorganisms (not all yeasts like being in alcohol – let alone making alcohol), balancing the water and sugars (is there enough food?), controlling the temperature (we prefer certain temperature, so to microorganisms) and waiting the right amount of time. That’s why fermentation is a bit of a science and also a bit of cooking. Though science and cooking are actually very similar to start with.

So to recap, fermentation is a process where yeasts and bacteria convert starches and sugars into alcohol and/or acids, with some by products. And yogurt isn’t alcoholic because the milk-loving bacteria are lactic acid fermenters, not alcohol fermenters.

Beer update: checking in one day later

Disaster has struck. We left the fermenter for one day and came back to this mess:

The fermentor with the stop off, the top is covered by dried foam and it doesn't look great.
Kind of gross and gunky

We had filled up the container too much, so once the yeast started munching away at the sugars, the extra build-up of foam caused the stop to come off. Oh no.

So we needed to clean up. We also siphoned out some of the liquid to avoid this from happening again. Hopefully, we did not expose the beer to external oxygen and yeasts and all during this process…

We put the S-stop back on the fermenter. This ensures that no gasses can come in, while gasses can go out. During fermentation, glucose (which is sugar) gets converted into alcohol and CO2. The latter is a gas and needs to go somewhere, so we let it go out.

The fermentor with the S-stop on top, all cleaned up now!
All set up again, looking healthy
A gif of the CO2 flowing out of the S-stop. Gas bubbles out about once a second.
Bloop bloop bloop

This was last Monday. Since then, there seems to have been very little activity in the fermenter. The good news is that everything smells quite nice and beer-ferment-like, not sour, so we will move to STEP 7 sometime in the next few days: bottling!


We’re making a Northern Brown according to this recipe:

Recommended reading: How to Brew

*I say most of the time because when we get muscle cramps, this is because we’ve been working too hard without providing our cells with enough oxygen to do aerobic respiration (the oxygen-needing-kind). In that case, our cells go into anaerobic respiration, which is very similar to fermentation actually. The result of anaerobic respiration is lactic acid (hey – go back and read about how that’s one type of end product for fermentation!) and some quick energy for your cells to use in the form of ATP. Anaerobic respiration is less efficient than the aerobic kind, but it can get us some quick energy in a pinch.

Source for little factoid is that one episode of the Magic School Bus that I remember where Ms Frizzle was doing a triathlon and her muscles started producing lactic acid so the students – who were obviously in a mini school bus inside Ms Frizzle (where else?) – let out the air of the tires so her muscles would have oxygen.

Brewing for beginners – Part I

Last weekend, we started brewing. Not ideas (though we have a ton of those), but beer. As this is a first for me, I decided to document the process so I can learn from the likely many mistakes we’ll very definitely be making. And learning some beer science along the way. There are worse things.

Step 1: The Prep

I cheated a little bit here… My brewing partner-in-crime had done most of the preparation beforehand – like buying the grains and all the kit for home-brewing. We biked out to a home brew shop to get the grain milled and buy the last bits of supply, most notably the yeast.

Grain, grain, mill away – we’ll ferment you later today.

With our newly ground grain (apparently this is called grist and it smelled deliciously sweet), we biked back home and started cleaning everything. Beer is a product of fermentation: yeasts break down the sugars in the grain and turn them into alcohol. To get good tasting beer, you want to make sure that only the beer-making-yeast is doing the fermenting and that all other types of yeast and bacteria are far, far away from your beer.

Hence, we cleaned and sanitized all the equipment. Thoroughly. And then again.

Step 2: Making the mash

Did you know that beer is basically just fermented grain-tea? Not that different from Kombucha tea actually – just not associated with a current health craze. The first step to making bear is soaking the grist in hot water to extract all the sugars that will be later fermented. This is called mashing.

We set up the boiling pot outside, ready for curious onlookers to wonder what we were cooking up.

A big boiling pot on a gas burner - the set up for making mash.
We’ve come a long way from smouldering cauldrons in witches’ lairs.

We filled the pot with about 30 L (7.3 gal) of water, and heated it up to ~ 75°C (~ 170F). We didn’t want the water to boil, like with green tea, if the water is too hot you get a lot of bitter tastes and we want all the sweet sugars to seep out. In this pot we then dunked a giant teabag filled with the grist (~ 4 kg/ 9.25 lb of the stuff).

A bag of grain dunked into the pot of water.
Dunk dunk dunk

After an hour, our tea was ready. A little taste confirmed that it we had made grain tea – more correctly known as wort. A little squeeze of the bag, and out it went. We added a little bit of brown sugar (170 g / 0.375 lb), just to make sure there’d be enough sweet stuff for the yeast to eat. [I initially wrote “yeat to yeat”. Help.]

We then measured the specific gravity of the wort. This would give us an indication of how much sugar (more sugar = higher specific gravity) we were starting out with, important to figure out how alcoholic the end result will be.

We were ready for the next step.

Step 3: Hopping the wort

On paper, beer is quite simple. You have water, grain, yeast and hops. Mix them together in the right way, and you get beer!

The next step in our process was adding the hops – without a bit of a hoppy flavor, no beer! We heated up our water to a boil (> 100°C / 212 F) reused the tea-bag-thing, filled it with our first type of hop (12.5 g / 0.44 oz of Northern Brewer). After 45 minutes of simmering, we added the second type of hop (28 g or 1 oz of Fuggles – who names these things?) and Whirlfloc, which is a tablet containing Irish Moss and Kappa Carrageenan and makes sure your beer doesn’t get too hazy.

A bag of hops dunked into boiling water, froth has formed on the top.
Boiling the frothy goodness

15 minutes more of boil and we removed the bag, and got ready for cooling. A quick taste of the liquid proved that it already sort of tastes like beer. There’s some sweetness, some hoppiness, some bitterness but it’s also flat and lukewarm. British Ale much?

Step 4: Cooling

Yeast works best at a certain temperature. Too cold and the metabolism slows down, leading to less efficient sugar-to-alcohol conversion. Too hot and the yeast just sort of dies.

To cool the wort to a yeastly comfortable temperature of 25°C (or 77F), we put an immersion chiller into the pot. An immersion chiller is a coil of copper tubes, through which we ran cold water. It took a while (and I was making bagels in the meantime, to be honest, because brewing is a lot of waiting), but we made it. We then transferred the now cool wort – which needs to have as little contact with air as possible because like the good yeast, the bad stuff also really likes this temperature – to the fermentation container. I can tell you that it already smelled like a brewery in the kitchen – which totally makes sense because we were doing just that: brewing.

Swish swish

Step 5: Adding the yeast

We had already prepped the yeast by adding it to some lukewarm water, now it was ready to be added to the wort. Which we evidently did.

A hand pouring a measuring cup with yeast into the fermentator.
Carefully pouring yeast into the fermentation bottle – the final step to prep!
A view of the fermentation bottle with wort and flocks of yeast

Step 6: Now we wait

We’re trying to keep the fermentation vessel at a constant temperature and keep any extra oxygen out. But other than that, there is nothing to do but wait. Updates will come soon, likely to tell you how it all went wrong. Maybe not.

Yeast on the bottom of me, wort on the top; here I am, ready to brew…

Disclaimer: as with many things, I have no idea what I’m doing. This is not meant as an extensive guide to home brewing, but just as a general walk-through of my first attempt at brewing.

Our recipe:

Recommended reading: How to Brew

Je parle très bien français quand je suis bourée (1)

An article popped up on my radar recently that caught my attention about some researchers in the UK that had performed a study looking at the foreign language skills of people after a drink or two. This interested me for a number of reasons. First of all, it’s a scientific publication about alcohol and I have to admit that always spikes my interest (but not my drink). Second of all, after spending almost a year in France (2) on an exchange program, I have experienced firsthand how my (self-perceived) language skills improve after increasing my blood alcohol percentage. However, these experiences were not only anecdotal, but also purely subjective, so I was naturally buzzed when I read that there could be a scientific basis to my observations.

And now we start the selection of general stock pictures of beer.

What’s this scientific basis you’re talking about?

In the study, the researchers measured the self-rated and observer-rated verbal skills of native German speakers who had recently started learning Dutch (3) after drinking a little bit of alcohol (or none for the control group). Basically, they recorded a number of conversations between the Dutch-speaking Germans and a blinded experimenter before and after having a drink: vodka-lemonade for the test subjects and water for the control. These recordings were then rated by native Dutch speakers. The participants were also asked to rate their own verbal skills.

Participants who had had a glass of Russian Water were rated significantly higher by the Dutch native speakers, specifically with regards to their pronunciation. Surprisingly, and against the whole principle of Dutch courage – strength or confidence gained from drinking alcohol, – there was no effect on the self-rating.

This means that the improved pronunciation cannot really be an effect of improved self-confidence, as the self-rating would change in that case. I should remember this next time I have a science stand-up comedy thing. Usually, I adhere to the rule of “no drinking before a gig” because I’ve been told that drinks make you think you’re funnier, while in reality, you are probably less funny. But perhaps my fear of becoming overconfident is completely unsubstantiated? (4)

Anyway, a possible explanation for the results is decreased language anxiety, which is the feeling of nervousness felt by someone using a second or foreign language (also known by the name xenoglossophobia, a word that already just makes me anxious as it is). Basically, when speaking a foreign language, a lot of people are scared of making mistakes or sounding stupid, making them overthink everything they want to say and eventually resulting in a strained conversation. With a bit of alcohol, there is less overthinking et voilà, better pronunciation and more fluid speaking.

Oh, I obviously have to point out that this study was conducted with low amounts of alcohol consumption. Don’t try downing half a bottle of vodka before speaking a foreign language because that will most likely result in slurred speech and a headache the day after, at the least.

Oh look another generic beer stock photo.

This almost sounds too good to be true…

As with a lot of scientific research, there are a few caveats in the study, because that’s how science works… For one, it was conducted on native German speakers who learned Dutch as a second language which means that – if we also disregard the sample size issues – the results might only be valid for German speakers who have learned Dutch, and unvalid for any other combination of native-foreign language speakers. The researchers also didn’t look at whether the subjects suddenly became better at speaking their own language after a drink; perhaps a little bit of alcohol just improves verbal skills in any language?

Also, there is some proof that people of alcohol having a placibo effect, for example, people drinking non-alcoholic beer thinking they are getting drunk without actually consuming alcohol (5). This alcohol expectancy effect could have biased the study because the difference between vodka-lemonade and water is pretty obvious, which makes me (and the researchers, who to their credit have pointed out the limitations of their study) wonder what the results would have been if the study participants had been blinded to whether there was alcohol in their drink or not (6).

And yet another foamy beer stock photo.

Final thoughts?

Well, there you go, having a little bit of alcohol might actually make you better at speaking a foreign language. Maybe it actually helps you in the learning process. But for now, I just feel like grabbing a beer. And then maybe speak some French.


(1) This translates to – pardon my French if I may misuse that phrase – “I speak French really well when I’m drunk.” I’ve also just experienced how much a pain it is to type French on a qwerty keyboard and will refrain from doing so from now on.

(2) #HumbleBrag. Well, more like a #NotSoHumbleBrag.

(3) They titled their paper “Dutch courage? Effects of acute alcohol consumption on self-ratings and observer ratings of foreign language skills” which is pretty punny.

(4) I haven’t tested this and don’t plan to. Drink responsibly people. 

(5) I definitely do not just know this from a Freaks and Geeks episode *ahem*

(6) I don’t know how hard this is to do; I for one would like to think that I’d be able to tell if a drink is alcoholic or not but on the other hand, I have had hard cider.


Let’s talk bubbles…

Calm down there, buddy.

Over the summer, I have tapped quite a few beers. Some of those beers were Guinness. The first few times I went through the Guinness-tapping-process (who am I kidding, all the times), I would marvel at the fact that the bubbles were going down.

So, Guinness is an easy but slightly time-consuming beer to tap. First, you need to fill the glass about 4/5ths and let the bubbles settle. When you get that nice black/white beer/foam divide, you top it off by pushing on the tap (which is a slower flow). So that all takes a while. But that means you can stare at these sinking bubbles for quite some time.

Guinness bubbles going down down down.

But wait. Bubbles aren’t supposed to sink? Aren’t bubbles gaseous and therefore lighter than liquid? Hence, shouldn’t they rise as bubbles do in normal bubbly beverages? What’s going on?

From a uni class some time ago, I remembered that Guinness bubbles sink, so at least I wasn’t hallucinating. But why I forgot why exactly. (Com’on, the class was years ago and who remembers anything anyway. There’s the internet for that.)

Of course, there is science about this. I mean. Scientists are basically fueled by coffee and beer. And Guinness is sort of both.

It seems that there are a few factors that contribute to the sinking bubbles: the type of bubbles, the size of the bubbles, and the shape of a Guinness glass.

First of all, not all bubbles in Guinness sink, just the ones you can see. When the beer starts to settle, larger bubbles start to rise (as bubbles do). Because of the shape of the glass, you can’t really see this happening: the bubbles originate in the bottom of the glass, which is narrower than the top, and they form a central column of rising bubbles. This causes an upward liquid movement. As a result (because the liquid doesn’t magiacally fountain out of the glass), a downwards liquid flow occurs along the walls of the glass. If all the Guinness bubbles were large (> 50 µm), as it is with lighter beers, the buyancy would counteract the liquid flow (they’d be superlight and not care about what the liquid is doing) and rise. However, Guinness has teeny tiny bubbles (< 50 µm) that just get dragged along with the flow. And therefore, along the walls of the glass, they appear to be sinking.

Flow pathlines in a glass of Guinness. Image c/o Fluent Inc.
Psychadellic flow lines in a Guinness glass. (Image © Fluent Inc.)

So the second factor is the small bubbles. Guinness taps have fine holes that cause these small bubbles to form*. Moreover, Guinness bubbles are nitrogen and not carbon dioxide, which is more easily dissolvable in liquid. Most bubbly beverages, including lager beers and soft drinks, contain carbon dioxide to create the fizz. In these cases, gas bubbles appear from tiny defects in the glass surface and continue to grow as more carbon dioxide undissolves**. But nitrogen gas doesn’t dissolve in liquid as well as carbon dioxide, so the bubbles that do appear don’t grow in size. In other words, bubbles stay small enough to be dragged along with the downward liquid flow.

Finally, add the fact that Guinness is very dark, causing a high contrast with the light coloured bubbles, and you see these nice sinking bubbles.

Now, if you are in a place where the drinking time is acceptable (pm), go get yourself a Guinness. Otherwise, just stick to coffee.
Reverse yellow bubble fish looks even more insane.


* In a can of Guinness can there is a small ball that, as far as I can tell, serves the same purpose. Edit: it’s confirmed that this small ball – also called a “widget” (thanks to my uncle Tim for this factoid) – indeed causes the slow release of nitrogen after the can is open.

** What, that’s not a word? What’s the opposite of dissolving then? *googles* Condensing? That doesn’t sound right?

Sources: Bubbles the fish is from Pixar and most of the info is from:

And of course, there is more beer physics if that’s your thing (read it while drinking some beer responsibly):