The Art of Steeping Grains for Home Brewing

You steep tea and climb steep hills, but what does it mean to steep grains for home brewing? The most basic answer to the question is that steeping really is similar to steeping tea in that a natural food item is soaked in hot water to draw out flavors and color. However, steeping grains for home brewing involves more than just dipping a bag filled with leaves in a cup. To get the perfect home-brewed beer that suits your personal tastes, you have to consider the temperature of the water and the specialty grains that will produce the beer characteristics desired.

All in the Timing

In the business world they say that timing is everything. That’s true in the home-brewed beer world too. For those who are beginners, beer is the end result of yeast producing alcoholic fermentation of malted barley or malted barley extracts.

If you choose to be a hard core home brewer who is a purist at heart, you will do your own malting. Malting is the process of steeping barley in hot water that is at a temperature of 57 to 64 degrees Fahrenheit. The moisture content of the barley should reach between 42 to 46 percent. When the right moisture content is reached, the barley will begin to germinate. Germination means amylase enzymes begin to break down barley cell walls, which is where starch is stored in the grain cell walls. The grain is then kilned or dried to about 5 percent moisture, and that stops germination. Voila! You now have malted barley.

Malted barley is then milled to fine particles in preparation for the next step called mashing. Mashing is a process that converts complex starches in barley to simple sugars, so the sugars will more easily ferment. The milled barley is combined with very hot water to further breakdown the barley so enzymes can act once again.

At this point the adjuncts can be added. Adjuncts are other grains like rice or corn or other ingredients like spices or herbs. Home brewers who get a little beer making under their belts (pun intended) will want to experiment with adjuncts eventually. The amylase enzymes will breakdown or hydrolyze the starch into sugars that can be fermented. After approximately an hour of mashing, the wort is filtered and boiled and is now ready for the hops.

So what does this have to do with steeping? We have steeped the barley a few times during the malting process to get the fermentable grain sugars out of the grain and into the water. However, in the beer brew making world, steeping grains usually means more than just soaking or cooking barley.

World Class Beer at Home

Steeping the grains refers to extracting flavor and color from specialty grains in water. It is almost always done by brewers making world-class beer. As a home brewer, your beer world is at home, so you might as well make it classy. The wort made from steeped specialty grains becomes an ingredient in your malt extract based beer recipe. If you are a cook, it’s similar to adding a new spice to a recipe just to see how differently it tastes, looks and smells. Each specialty grain contains compounds that give it unique qualities. Specialty malt grains have been roasted to the point that the enzymes no longer work on the starch in the grain, and that is why the steeping process only intends on extracting flavor and color. There is a variety of specialty grains to choose from, but you want to use the ones that have the lowest starch amounts. They include:

• Caramel malt
• Chocolate malt
• Black malt
• Roasted wheat malt (or roasted wheat)
• Dry roasted barley
• Roasted rye

Work of Art

The steeping process is not difficult, but success relies on the amount and quality of water used during the process. Soft water is best for steeping. Thin steep is desirable also, and especially if it will be added to malt extract. Steeping involves adding the specialty grains to a minimum of 1.5 gallons of water and a maximum of 2 gallons. Heat the water to between 150 degrees and 170 degrees Fahrenheit. Place the grains in a special grain bag and add the bag to the water. Let the bag float in water held at a constant temperature for a minimum of 20 minutes but no more than 30 minutes. Remove the bag and the wort is ready for brewing with the malt extract.

Steeping specialty grains does not add to fermentation, but it does add body to the beer since unfermentable proteins are added to the home brewed beer.

Home brewing is an art form and not just a hobby. Don’t let anyone tell you differently either. As you begin to experiment with steeping specialty grains, you’ll eventually discover which ones produce the beer characteristics you most appreciate. You can’t sculpt or paint a beer, but you can still create an aromatic, flavored and full-bodied work of art.