Ready to try home brewing? Here is some home brewing 101 to help you get started!
If you are reading this magazine, you are probably someone who enjoys variety in your selection of beer. You may love the bitterness and flavor of the hops in IPAs, but also admire the malty sweetness in a doppelbock. But, did you know that you could create beer at home that is just as good or even better than many craft breweries?
Home brewing as a hobby has been catching fire lately. Finding and buying brewing equipment and ingredients has never been easier, and the Internet is helping to spread brewing information at a rapid pace. If there was ever a time to start home brewing, it would be now. Brewing beer at home can be very easy. The beauty of the hobby is that it can grow with you. While most people start with plastic buckets and some used Dogfish Head bottles, many brewers grow into complex brewing setups and draft beer systems to serve their homemade brew. Many of these systems are built piece-by-piece and batch-by-batch. While having a fancy system is nice, award winning beer can still be produced on a minimal budget and with basic equipment.
This article will guide you through some of the initial decisions when taking up the hobby and walk you through the first brew day.
First Things First
While this article is intended to inspire and help guide you through brewing your first batch, it’s limited in information due to the nature of a magazine article. As mentioned above, home brewing can be as simple or complex as you want to make it. Before you start, do some reading and research. I personally recommend buying the book “How to Brew” by John Palmer. Even after my 100th batch of home brewed beer, I still refer to this book and always learn something new. It covers all of the basics, but then, transforms into a reference manual as you grow into a well-rounded brewer. Another thing that I recommend is to watch someone else brew a batch of beer. Though brewing is not rocket science, it is a great time to ask questions and get familiar with the equipment.
Basic Brewing Equipment Needed
Before you start brewing, you will need some basic equipment. Some of this equipment you may have already and others you can buy as a kit at your local home brew shop.
Things You May Already Have at Home
• Sink with running water
• Boil kettle (stockpot)
• Cooking spoon
• Can opener
• Measuring cups
• Small bowl
Boil Kettle (Stockpot):
Seems obvious, this is for boiling the wort (unfermented beer). As a rule of thumb, bigger is usually better. Most brewers start in the kitchen using about a 16qt (4 gallon) stockpot. Sizes and shapes may differ. The goal is to boil at least half of the batch of beer (2.5 gallons). So, you need a pot that can at least handle that comfortably.
Basic Equipment You’ll Buy From the Home Brew Shop
The local home brew store will have pre-made packages of equipment for people starting to brew. These packages range from around $60 – $150, depending on the amount of equipment in the kit. Whether or not you purchase low end or high end kits, your kits should at least contain the following:
Fermenter This is commonly a plastic bucket made out of food grade plastics that do not leach any off flavors. The fermenter will have a lid that seals tight to avoid any leakage.
Air Lock This gets inserted into the top of the fermenter and allows the CO2 from fermentation to escape while not allowing the outside air back into the vessel.
Thermometer There are usually two types of thermometers used in brewing. First, there is a floating thermometer that is used to take the temperature of the beer before adding the yeast. The second is the sticker type LCD thermometer that will stick on the outside of the fermenter to take the temperature of the fermenting beer.
Bottle Filler It’s named by what it does; it is used to fill the bottles.
Bottling Bucket A plastic bucket, much like the fermenter, but is used to transfer the finished beer into right before bottling.
Racking Cane and Siphon Tubing This is used in the transferring of the beer from fermenter into a bottling bucket and into bottles.
Hydrometer While this isn’t 100% necessary to start brewing, it is an important piece of equipment. The hydrometer measures the levels of sugars in the beer before, during, and after fermentation. With this data, it is possible to know exactly when and if a beer is finished. It also helps determine the ABV of the beer.
Bottles, Caps, Capper You need bottles to fill with the beer. It is acceptable to use used bottles as long as they are not screw top. Make sure to thoroughly clean the bottles using a bottle brush and to soak in a cleaning solution such as OxiClean Free.
Sanitizer There are several types of food grade sanitizers on the market. The beginner kits will usually add either a One Step style sanitizer or an Iodine based sanitizer. Even though it is possible to use bleach as a sanitizer, I would recommend against using it. If bleach is not rinsed thoroughly, it could cause off flavors in your beer.
Cleanliness is Next to Godliness
Many beer lovers look at commercial brewers as rock stars. But, when you talk to a professional brewer, they liken their job to a janitor. Recipe creation and brewing is only a fraction of what a professional brewer does. The majority of the time they are cleaning, and for good reason. The nutrients and conditions brewers create for the brewer’s yeast to make beer are also perfect for beer spoilers, such as bacteria. If a brewery would have an outbreak from a contaminated piece of equipment, it could cost thousands of dollars in bad beer. Even worse, that beer could make it to the market and it could tarnish the brewery’s reputation. Though on a much smaller scale, this is the same reason cleaning and sanitizing is so important in home brewing. If this article has one lasting impression, I hope it is that cleaning and sanitizing is always at the forefront of your mind. This is not to scare anyone away. It is easy to do when you pay attention to it.
The most important time to sanitize during the process is after the main boil. Boiling sanitizes everything it is in touch with. When the boil is over and the chilling process begins is when your inner germaphobe should come out. I usually make up a 5 gallon batch of sanitizer and keep it in a bucket. I use this to dip my hands and equipment into before and after using them. I also keep sanitizer in a spray bottle to spray everything else. A sanitizer such as the product Star San is colorless, odorless, food grade, and no-rinse. It makes sanitizing very easy.
Beer Ingredients and Kits
Basically, there are four main ingredients in beer. These are: malted grains (mostly barley), hops, yeast, and water. These four ingredients make a plethora of beer styles. Of course, there are also spices, fruits, and other flavorings that could be added, but we focus on the fab four.
In short, malt is sugar. This is the food source that the yeast eats and turns into alcohol. The traditional way to get malt sugars (maltose) into your boil kettle is to convert and extract the sugars from crushed barley grain. In home brewing, this method is called all-grain brewing. This article will focus on a simpler process known as extract brewing. In extract brewing, the extraction of the sugars is already done. Malt extract companies convert and extract the sugars from the grain and offer them in two condensed forms; liquid malt extract (LME) and dried malt extract (DME).
Hops are the flowers of the Humulus Lupulus plant. Hops add several properties to a beer. First and foremost, they add balance through bitterness. The bitterness offsets the sweetness of the sugars and alcohols to make a beer more palatable. Hops also add flavor and aroma. If you ever had a pale ale or IPA, these styles use a more aggressive hopping schedule. This sometimes swings the flavor to an unbalanced bitter side. Hops add one more property to beer and that is preservation. Hops have an antibiotic effect that drives down the production of bacteria and other microbiological spoilers.
There is a saying; brewers make sweet wort, yeast makes beer. Brewers yeast is a single-celled organism and member of the fungi family. Depending on the type of beer kit purchased, the kit will either come with freeze-dried yeast or liquid yeast. Dry yeast comes in a powder form that is rehydrated and woken up right before using. Liquid yeast is alive in the package and must be kept under refrigeration until used.
Though water seems easy enough to comprehend, it is one of the hardest elements to control. Unless a brewer runs their water through a reverse osmosis (RO) filter, they are usually stuck with the water they have. This usually becomes a trademark of a beer or style. The soft, low mineral waters in the Czech Republic (Pilsen area) make great light lagers and pilsners. The hard alkaline waters in Ireland are great for making stouts. I wouldn’t worry too much about your water when first starting out in brewing.
Beer kits will come with all the ingredients (besides water) to brew a particular style of beer. Large vendors such as a company called “Brewers Best” sell some of these recipe kits, but your local homebrew shop also puts kits together. I prefer the kits put together by the local shops. They tend to be fresher and use better ingredients. I also prefer kits that come with live liquid yeast. There is more of a variety in liquid yeast, so there are more styles of beer that can be brewed.
Let’s Get Started With Brewing Your First Batch of Beer
Once you have all of your equipment and ingredients, you are ready to brew your first batch of beer. A first brew day can be stressful. For a first timer, there may seem to be a lot of steps. Before long, it all comes natural. One tip I have for your first brew is to be organized. Set everything up in an area where it is all easy to see. This way, you are not digging through boxes looking for your hydrometer or hops while your wort boils over on the stove.
The Boiling Process
All the recipe kits will come with instructions. Follow the instructions for timing and amounts as close as possible. If the recipe kit you are using calls for steeping some crushed grains for extra flavor, make sure the grains are secured in a mesh grain bag. Depending on the size of your pot, add 1-2 gallons of water. If you are steeping grains, bring the water up to 150F degrees. Add the grain bag and wait about 30 minutes. After 30 minutes, remove the grain bag and bring the pot up to boiling.
If the recipe only calls for malt extract, ignore the above grain directions and just begin bringing the water up to a boil. Note: If using liquid malt extract, be sure to soak the cans of LME in hot water to help loosen up the thick syrup inside. When the water in the pot gets boiling, remove the pot from the heat source and add the malt extract. Stir until the malt is all mixed in, add the pot back on to the heat source, and bring the wort back up to a soft, rolling boil. This helps prevent scorching or burning of the sugars. Boil with the lid off.
At the time(s) the recipe states to add the hops or other ingredients, just dump them in. Be careful of boil-overs. Boiling wort can jump up in a second and spit some liquid over the sides. Boil-overs happen to every home brewer in the beginning. In many cases, this is when a home brewer gets kicked out of the kitchen and banished to the garage by their spouse.
Chilling The Boil Down
If you read any brewing magazines or browse the home brew supply sites, you will notice there are dozens of gizmos to chill boiling wort down to a temperature the yeast can thrive at (around 70F). Many of these work great, but most brewers start with an ice bath. For an ice bath, plug up your kitchen sink and fill the sink with as much ice as you can. You may need to buy a couple bags from a local convenience store.
Place the lid onto the stockpot and place the stockpot into the ice. Fill the sink up with water as tall as the pot. It may help to stir the ice bath from time to time to help pull the heat from the stockpot. It will also help chill the wort if you take the lid off once in a while and stir with a sanitized spoon.
Once the wort reaches about 80F degrees, it is time to pour it into the fermenter. Pour the wort through a screen strainer to prevent the used hops, and anything extra that may have been added to the boil, from getting into the fermenter. Once the whole stockpot is emptied, add enough cold, de-chlorinated water to the fermenter to bring the total volume to 5 gallons. The ending temperature of the liquid should be close to 68-70F degrees.
Once all the liquid wort is in the fermenter and at the proper temperatures, it is time to add the yeast. In case of dry yeast, just sprinkle it on top of the unfermented beer for your first couple batches. There are processes to wake the yeast up first, but for your initial few batches, just do it the simplest way. If you are using liquid yeast, just pour it in. Place the lid on tightly and securely. It is important to get some oxygen (O2) into the beer at this time. The most common way is to shake the bucket vigorously for a couple minutes. Oxygen infusion devices are also available at your local home brew shop.
Once O2 is added to the fermenter, place the airlock on top of the bucket to prevent anything from getting into the beer. Place the fermenter bucket somewhere in your house that stays the most consistently around 68-70F for about 5-10 days. A lot goes on during this time, so you will see the airlock bubbles going crazy. Once the bubbles slow down to about 1 every 30-40 seconds, the beer is pretty much done. The only true way to know is to use a hydrometer.
Once the beer is done fermenting, it is time to bottle. Since we are not using a forced carbonation method to infuse the beer with CO2, we will use a natural carbonation method. With natural carbonation, sugar is added into the bottles with beer and the left-over yeast in suspension will re-ferment those sugars. The off product will be CO2. Since the bottles are capped, the CO2 will dissolve into solution and self carbonate the beer.
To naturally carbonate, siphon the fermented beer into a clean and sanitized bottling bucket. At the same time, heat up a couple cups of water and add about 5oz of corn sugar in a small pot. Boil for 10-15 minutes to make sure everything is sanitized. When the solution is done, let it cool down for a couple minutes before adding this sugar solution into the bottling bucket. Once the solution is added, use a sanitized spoon to slowly and evenly mix the new sugars in.
Depending on the setup of your system, bottling may be a little different. In general, you create a siphon and use a bottling wand. Fill each sanitized bottle until there is about a 2 finger space from the top. Then, place a cap on top and use the capper in the kit. Do this about another 47 times and you will have around two cases of delicious, but flat, beer. Place the two cases in a room that is about 65F-75F degrees. The beers usually take about 2 weeks to fully carbonate. At this time, place them in a refrigerator to age. After allowing the beers to carbonate, the beer is done and ready to drink. Throw a handful of the finished beers in the refrigerator and enjoy. You just made your first home brew! Piece of cake.