Brewing Challenge: The Grocery Store Brew

Home Malting Quinoa
L-R: Raw white quinoa, partly malted, dried & roasted.

One of the more enjoyable aspects of belonging the London Homebrewers Guild are the group ‘group brews’; events where multiple brewers brew the same (or similar) recipe, and then have a sampling afterwards to compare results.  Its a great chance to see the effect of various brewing setups, methods, and fermentation conditions on a beer.  Its also a chance to try some things that as an individual brewer you may  not have the courage to try.

The first “group brew” of 2013 is more a challenge than a brew – the goal is to produce the best beer you can sourcing as many ingredients from the grocery store as you can.  The official rule is that a minimum of 50% of ingredients should be from the grocery store.  But many of us – myself included – are shooting for a higher percentage than that.  In my case, I’m going for broke and sourcing 100% of ingredients from the grocery store.

Since barley & hops are not normally found in grocery stores, I am adapting via a mix of historical and modern approaches – namely, replacing hops with a herb mixture used prior to the widespread adoption of hops, combined with a modern health-food craze – quinoa (pronounced “keen-wa”) – malted, dried and toasted by myself, to replace the barley that normally comprises the base malt of beer.
This post is being assembled over several days, and will be fairly extensive, so all of the details can be found below the fold.

The issues to overcome:
The biggest issue with forgoing the brew shop entirely is the lack of diastatic power – that is, grains with the enzymes required to convert starch into sugar. While the various forms of barley malt found in homebrew shops has more than sufficient enzymes to convert the starches of a lot of adjunct grains, grains with similar diastatic power cannot be found on the shelves of a grocery store.  One could easily use 6-row malt to convert a mash containing 50-60% of a common grocery-store grain (e.g. rice). But that wouldn’t be an all-grocery store beer.

What the grocery store has a lot of is easily fermented sugars – fruits, honey, juices, soda, plain-ol sugar, even tang – all of which could be used as a sugar source for fermentation. The problem is that fermenting them either produces wine (fruits/juices) or something that you would find in a toilet in a prison. So how do we make BEER?

First, you need a liberal definition of beer – throw out the  Reinheitsgebot (only barely, hops & water are allowed), and instead declare beer a fermented beverage based on malted grains and flavoured with herbs. This gets us away from the yoke of barely & hops, and opens up a lot of options.

Finding a maltable grain:
Nearly any grain can be malted to form malt – indeed, wheat, rice, wild yeast, and pearl barley are derived from maltable grains.  The problem is, the forms in the grocery store cannot be malted – they are often processed to remove the bits that contain the diastatic enzymes (rice, pearl barley), are grains that lack sufficient diastatic enzymes to convert their own starches (oats), have been processed into an unmaltable form (flour, starches, cereal, canned corn), or is a form which cannot be processed easily by the home brewer (pop corn).

But – at least in the “health” food section – there are a few options.  Unmalted spalt (an ancient form of wheat), buckwheat, amaranth, millet and quinoa can often be found.  Some of these are not suitable as a base grain (buckwheat, due to its strong taste), but if available, they can be malted and used like barley.  My grocer carried quinoa, so that is where the brew starts.  Since I was unable to find any numbers for the diastatic power of quinoa, this will be a 100% malted quinoa beer. My research found that people had success malting/mashing quinoa – i.e. it can self-convert – but it is unclear if there is residual diastatic power to convert adjunct grains like oats.

Finding a hop alternative:
Hops are the other issue.  Most, if not all modern beer reply on hops for flavour, aroma & bitterness. But this wasn’t always the case – mixtures of herbs were the norm for much of beers history. Indeed, some brewers are working at recreating these beers, and recipes for many traditional herb mixtures such as Gruit, have been published. Many of the traditional gruit mixtures use herbs not often found in Canadian grocery stores (yarrow, mugwort, myrtle). However, some spices – star anise, sage, rosemary, lemons – are easily found.

The final hurdle is a useable yeast.  The beer-brewing community is full of horror stories of attempts to make beer using bread yeast. But strangely, the mead, cider and wine communities are full of success stories (indeed, my first mead used bread yeast, and was passably good). But there is a glimmer of hope – it appears the issue with beer is the amount of yeast used. People using small amounts (0.25g/L) have reported success.  Indeed, the gentlemen over at Basic Brewing made a great beer using bread yeast (Sept 28, 2007 entry).  Amazingly, bread yeast is alcohol tolerant and highly attenuative (80%); unexpectedly good traits for a yeast not developed for alcohol production.

The Final Concept:
It took a while to get here, but the conception is simple – use a commonly available “grain” – quinoa – malted at home as a base grain, a bit of honey for flavour & added punch, sage and star anise in place of hops, and a carefully measured amount of bread yeast for fermentation.

Quinoa, before malting

Malting Quinoa:
Obviously, for this to work, I first need to malt the quinoa.  Malting, for those who are unfamiliar with the process, partially germinates the grain. During germination the seed generates the enzymes that convert the stored starches into sugars. The grain is dried mid-germination, killing the germinating plant and locking these enzymes in place before starch conversion occurs.  These enzymes can be re-activated by adding water at 60-70C, thereby converting the starches into fermentable sugars.

There are almost as may malting methods as there are people who use quinoa in beer. I’ve chosen to follow the instructions at the blog “Life’s a Garden“, whose author has made an effort to assess the  characteristics of the malted quinoa (and other alternative grains) over two separate postings (one, two).

Malting comprises four steps: germination, drying, roasting & milling.

28 hour soak – quinoa has swollen ~3X

Germination is both the easiest and hardest part of the process. Seeds germinate when they get wet, so in the simplest terms, germination is achieved by soaking the grain in water. Of course, life isn’t that simple and we have to take care of a few other things – namely, we need some oxygen and we need to avoid the growth of bacteria.

This is achieved by soaking the grain to start the process, then keeping the grain moist and clean by regular washings with clean water – carefully balancing out air exposure, bacterial growth, and the moisture requirements of the grain . . . or we can wing it.

Qunioa on day 2 – rootlets need to be
~2x this length before drying

My process:

  1. Soak quinoa in water for ~28 hours
  2. Transfer to a wire colander and rinse
  3. Rinse every 6-12 hours (depending on work, sleep, etc) until rootlets are ~2X the length of the quinoa seeds.
  4. Dry (see next section)
As it turns out, I did not rinse nearly enough, an issue which didn’t become apparent until drying time.

Commercial malters have highly specialized equipment for drying their malt – specialized ovens which use forced air to rapidly and evenly dry the grain with minimal heat (and thus, minimal impact on the enzymes created during germination). Serious home-malters build wire racks on which they can thinly spread out the wet grain to dry in the sun.  I don’t have any of those doo-hickies, but I do have an oven.

My Process:
  1. Pre-warm the oven to its lowest temperature – in my case, 60C/150F.
  2. Spread quinoa evenly on as many cookies sheets as will fit on the shelves in the oven.
  3. Dry in the oven, mixing the malt and rotating the trays on the shelf every 30 minutes, to allow for even drying and to avoid burning the malt on the bottom shelf.
  4. If doing anything more than a handful if grain this will take a few days – inevitably, you will need to go to work, or to bed, or somewhere else.  During these times turn off the oven, but leave on the oven light – it’ll keep the oven at a comfortable temp; in my case ~45C.  Enough to keep the drying process going.
  5. When complete, the quinoa will be golden-brown in colour, the rootlets detached, it will be dry to the touch, and will not crush easily.
Dried Quinoa

It was during this process that I found my rinsing error  – as I dried the house was filled with a strong lactic-acid smell, meaning that we had some bacterial growth during germination. I’ve tasted a bit of the malt – its not bad, but there will probably be some additional sourness to the beer.  I guess its a sour-mash beer!

In all likelihood this malt is unevenly malted and undermodified  so a decoction mash will be required to maximize its potential.  The malt also lost some mass – about 20%; some through me dropping grain, the rest through the loss of the rootlets during drying.

Roasted Quinoa


The malt prepared above is not overly flavourful – it has been produced in a way which maximizes the preservation of the enzymes.  To develop additional flavour and some colour we need to roast the malt. Depending on the temperature and duration or roasting, we can produce anything from a bit of toastiness through to a robust roasted flavour. If we wanted to put in the extra effort we could mash the malt in its hull creating a sugar-filled grain, re-dry it, and then heat it to carmelize the sugars (aka crystal malt).  I’m lazy, so I simply aimed for a moderate degree of toastiness. I  took ~100g of the 980g of quinoa remaining after malting and subjected it to a 10min roast at 175C (350F), producing a medium-toasted malt.  The remainder I left untoasted to maximize diastatic potential.

Milling refers to the crushing of the malt, with the goal of crushing the inner part into a small number of larger fragments and leaving the hull intact. Quinoa is too small to run through a barley mill, and despite my best efforts with first a rolling pin, then a hammer, it was totally resilient to milling.  So I’ll have to mush it a little during mashing…

The Recipe:
~830 g malted quinoa
~100 g malted/roasted quinoa
100g brown sugar
200 g clover honey
1 oz fresh sage
3 ‘stars’ of star anise
2 g bread yeast

  1. Decoct mash quinoa using brew-in-a-bag:
    • Dough-in 4.06L, 40C, 30min
    • Decoct 1.6L, hold at 60C for 30min
    • Decoct 1.4L, hold at 71C until conversion is complete (this took 2.5 hours!).
  2. Sparge with 9L water, bring to a boil.
  3. Add sugar, 2 star anise and the fresh sage.  Boil 60 minutes.
  4. At flame out add honey & remaining star anise, cool, and transfer to fermenter.
  5. Add yeast, ferment 7 days at 16-18C.
  6. Transfer to a keg, crash-cool over night.
  7. Add gelatin and carbonate to 2.7 volumes CO2.

The OG ended up being 1.042; 4 points higher than the expected 1.038.  And too my surprise, the wort doesn’t taste half-bad!  It is sweet, with noticeable aroma and flavour of anise, and hints of sage in the aroma.  I’m quite curious how this will change with fermentation and age.

Brewing & Fermentation:
This was not a fun brew.  It took forever for the conversion to occur – 2.5hrs after mash temps were hit. The quinoa is gummy, making sparging difficult.  To make matters worse, the amount of hot break was unprecedented; nearly 1/3rd of the pot was hot break.  So most of it was poured into the fermented, leading to a lot of sludge at the bottom of the fermenter.  Fermentation was done at 16-18C to minimize off-flavours.  The yeast didn’t raise a lot of krausen, leaving little sign of fermentation aside from a skin of bubbles.

Left: lots of hot break.  Right: thin layer of yeast on top of brew


6 thoughts on “Brewing Challenge: The Grocery Store Brew

  • May 17, 2016 at 5:37 PM

    Sitting here in Saudi and wondering how I can brew a light beer – so this is interesting. Easy to make wine/cider, but a beer.. I'm considering using cornflakes, but this article also makes sense. I'm not looking to make much, I have time to fill..

  • May 17, 2016 at 5:31 PM

    Sitting here in Saudi and wondering how I can brew a light beer – so this is interesting. Easy to make wine/cider, but a beer.. I'm considering using cornflakes, but this article also makes sense. I'm not looking to make much, I have time to fill..

  • January 14, 2014 at 11:31 PM

    How did the beer end up? What was the final ABV and flavor profile? I'm very curious!


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