The Absolute Basics
Beer is made from water, malted barley, hops and yeast. Some beers also include “adjuncts” – corn, rice, wheat and so on – but that’s not important for now.
Malted barley is barley that has been allowed to germinate (sprout) and is then cooked. The germination process does lots of mysterious things inside the grain, but all the brewer needs to know is that malted barley has more potentially fermentable stuff in it than unmalted barley.
In order to make beer, the malted barley (“malt”) is “mashed,” which is a process that converts starches to fermentable sugars by soaking the malt in warm water. More on mashing later. The resulting sweet liquid (called “wort,” but pronounced “wert”) is boiled with hops before it can be fermented.
The hops used in beer is the flower from the hop vine. Dried hop flowers are added to the wort to give bitterness, flavor and aroma to the beer. Some people wonder why you want bitterness in beer, but it’s necessary to offset the sweetness of the malt, and if you think about it, most popular drinks are something bitter (tea, coffee, cocoa, cola) mixed with something sweet.
Hops also help to preserve beer.
Hops are added to the wort at different times depending on what you want to get out of them. Very simply, you get bitterness from a long boil (e.g., 60 minutes), flavor from a shorter boil (20 to 30 minutes) and aroma from a very short boil (1 to 10 minutes) or even just by steeping the hops in the cool wort.
Yeast is what turns the sweet wort to beer by converting the sugars to carbon dioxide and alcohol. This is called fermentation. There are lots of different yeasts, and brewers need to use ale or lager yeasts, not baking yeast.
After the beer is finished fermenting it has to be kegged or bottled, and sometimes aged.
How Is This Done At Home?
The homebrewer usually doesn’t grow his own barley or hops, or cultivate his own strain of yeast. He also doesn’t malt the grain. Advanced homebrewers “mash” the malted grain, but that’s for later. Beginners don’t need to worry about mashing.
As mentioned above, mashing creates a sweet liquid called wort. Commercially available malt syrups (or dried malt powder) are condensed versions of wort that homebrewers can use to make beer. And so, the basic ingredients for the beginning homebrewer become …
- malt syrup (or dried malt extract)
- ale or lager yeast.
Homebrewing is the simple process of boiling the malt syrup along with the hops, diluting the resulting mix with an appropriate amount of water, cooling it to about room temperature and adding yeast. Fermentation takes about a week, but beginners should plan on two.
What Equipment Is Required?
To get a sense of what sort of equipment is required to brew a batch of beer we need to add a few numbers to the basic outline given above. A typical batch of beer might involve combining 6 pounds of malt extract and 2 ounces of hops in 6 quarts or so of water (making about 2 gallons). Once this concoction gets boiling it will have a tendency to rise, the way boiling milk does, so a large pot is necessary.
Brewers should use either a steel pot or an enameled pot. A 3-gallon pot will due, but it’s better to get a 5-gallon stew pot because of the tendency of the boil to foam up and because some recipes call for more ingredients that may increase the volume in your boil.
After boiling, this concentrated mix from the pot is diluted to about five gallons in a fermentation vessel, which is called a “primary fermenter.”
By the way, there’s nothing sacred about a five-gallon batch, it’s just typical, and most recipes assume that volume. You can always make different sized batches.
So, with that background, here’s what you’ll need.
- A brew kettle. For beginning brewers, a five-gallon stew pot works very well, although a smaller pot can do. Brewers who hope to move on to more advanced brewing might want to invest in a 10-gallon (or even larger) pot, but that’s getting ahead of things. More on that below under “mashing.”
- A primary fermenter. You’ll need a food-grade plastic bucket of about 7 gallon capacity. Homebrewers can also ferment their beer in 5-gallon glass carboys (the kind that you used to find upside down at the office water cooler), but there are a few disadvantages to using glass as the primary fermentation vessel. More about that below under “improving your process.” In either event, the bucket or carboy has to be fitted with an air-tight lid and a “fermentation lock,” which is usually a twisty piece of plastic filled with water that allows carbon dioxide to leave the fermenter without allowing outside air in.
- A bottling bucket. After your beer has finished fermenting you’re going to need to add a little extra sugar to it and transfer it into bottles. This is much easier if you have a second food-grade plastic bucket with a spigot attached to the bottom.
- A siphoning tube. Once the beer is finished fermenting you’ll need to be able to transfer it from the primary fermenter into the bottling bucket. Air is both a friend and an enemy of beer, depending on where you are in the process. At certain times you keep the beer away from air, and a siphoning tube is handy for this.
Note: if you’re on a tight budget you can forget the bottling bucket and the siphoning tube and buy a primary fermenter that has a spigot installed near the bottom. I say “near” the bottom because the process of fermentation will leave a pile of crud (spelled “trub” but pronounced “troob”) at the bottom of your fermenter. Positioning the spigot “near” the bottom allows the beer to run off while leaving most of the trub behind.
- Bottles and caps, or a keg. Bottles are the cheapest way to store your beer, but they also involve the most work. You need to clean and sanitize them, and then fill and cap each one individually. It’s a bit of a pain, but not so bad, especially if you do it with a friend and enjoy a beer while you’re at it. Always use brown bottles because sunlight is an enemy of beer.Kegging is much simpler, but it’s expensive and has its own drawbacks. More about that below under “kegging.”
That was a really quick introduction to the absolute basics. Obviously there’s more to say, but at this point you know enough to read a step-by-step explanation of how to brew your first batch.
Brewing Your First Batch
Let’s move on to actually making a batch of beer.
First, you’ll need to pick your style, and this is a good opportunity to discuss the difference between ales and lagers. A lot can be said, but the key distinction you need to know about as a beginner is the fermentation temperature. A lager is most comfortable at about 45-55 degrees, while an ale does well at between 60 and 70 degrees. So if you don’t have a place that is reliably in the lager temperature range, you might want to start with an ale, which will be just fine in your basement, behind the couch, or just about anywhere. (If the temperature is above 70, there are ways to deal with that, but it’s not a crisis. More later.)
There are lots and lots of different styles of beer. For the beginning brewer it’s wise to start with something simple, like a Pale Ale. The easiest way to do this is to buy a kit. It will have the malt extract, hops, yeast, bottle caps and an extra packet of sugar for “priming,” which will be explained below when we get to bottling.
Your kit will have its own set of instructions, but these can vary from decent to horrible, so read this first.
- Make sure your brewing pot is clean. It doesn’t have to be ultra-super clean, because you’re going to boil your malt extract and hops in it and that will kill any bacteria or wild yeast, but it does have to be free of soap. Soap will do bad things to your beer’s head.
- If you’re using malt syrup, put about a gallon of the hottest water you can get from your sink into the pot and let the can of syrup rest in the pot for a half hour or so. That will make the syrup come out of the can a little easier. Pour out the warm water when you’re done.
- Put about 6 quarts of hot water in your brew pot and crank up the heat. If your pot has a lid, use it now, but not after you’ve added your ingredients! Boiling water doesn’t foam up and spill all over your stove and kitchen floor, but boiling wort does if you’re not careful.
- Add the can(s) of malt syrup (or dry malt extract) to the boiling water and stir it up well. If you’re using dry malt extract it’s important to mix it in well, but don’t worry too much.
- When the water and malt mixture comes to a boil, set a timer for one hour and add your boiling hops.
- Keep an eye on your boiling wort and have a long-handled spoon handy. You may need to turn down the heat to prevent a boil-over. You want a nice rolling boil, but you don’t want it to foam up and spill all over the place.
- If the recipe calls for flavor or aroma hops, add them to the boil at the time indicated by the recipe. For example, the recipe may say “Fuggles Hops (20 minutes),” which means that you add the Fuggles hops for the last 20 minutes of the boil.
- After an hour of boiling, move the pot off the heat, cover it if you have a lid, and let it cool. If you can rest the pot in a bath of cool water, so much the better. You don’t want your warm beer to get contaminated with bacteria or wild yeast, so if don’t have a lid for your pot, skip the bath and go to step 10.
- While your wort is cooling, add five gallons of water to your fermenter and mark the outside with a permanent marker. Add another half gallon of water and mark that level as well. Discard the water. (If you want to take the time and be particularly well prepared, you could mark the outside of your fermenter at half-gallon increments.)
- Add your wort to your fermenter. Add enough cold water to bring the total volume up to 5.5. gallons. You’re aiming for a final volume of 5 gallons of beer, but you’ll lose about a half gallon to sediment. Keep the wort covered until it has cooled to 70 degrees.
- When the wort has cooled to 70 degrees, sprinkle your yeast on the top of the wort, let it sit for ten minutes, and then vigorously stir it in. At some points in the process, air is the enemy of beer. At this point you want to dissolve extra oxygen into the beer because the yeast needs the oxygen to function.
- Close your fermentation vessel and add the air lock. Add water to the air lock so that CO2 can escape but outside air can’t get in. Put the fermentation vessel somewhere out of the way and try to forget about it for two weeks.
So much for brewing. Now you have to wait while the yeast works its wonders on your wort, transforming it into beer. Your beer will probably be finished fermenting after one week, but it’s a good idea to let it go for two, just to be safe. There are ways to determine if your fermentation is complete after a week, and these methods will be discussed below, but for now just let it go two weeks and don’t worry.
Once the fermentation is complete, you’ll need to bottle your batch, but before you can bottle you need to clean and sanitize your bottles and everything that will come in contact with your beer. The simplest way to ruin a decent batch of beer is to let it get infected with bacteria. Be careful, but you don’t have to be an absolute nut. People have been making beer for thousands of years before anybody invented bleach, so it’s not the end of the world if your environment isn’t perfectly sterile.
There are little U-shaped bottle washers that you can attach to your kitchen sink that make bottle washing a lot easier. The basic process goes like this. (1) Wash out any crud in the bottle, like cigarette butts. (2) Soak the bottles in a solution of bleach for a few hours (one or two ounces of bleach per gallon of water). (3) Rinse the bleach out of the bottles.
Here are your step-by-step instructions for bottling.
- When it’s time to bottle, first, put all your bottle caps in a pan of boiling water and leave them for 20 minutes or so to sanitize them. Then pour them into a strainer and let them cool. Try not to touch the inside of the cap – the part that your beer might touch. You can also sanitize them with bleach, but boiling them is easier, and you don’t have to rinse.
- Add ¾ cup corn sugar to your cleaned and sanitized bottling bucket and siphon your beer from the fermenter into your bottling bucket. Try not to let it splash or get too exposed to oxygen. Gently stir the beer to mix the sugar in well.
Your yeast has already fermented all the sugars in your beer by now, converting it to alcohol and carbon dioxide. The extra sugar you add at bottling time allows the yeast do one last mini-fermentation and thereby carbonate your beer.
- Take a look at a commercial beer and see how much air space there is in the top. (About an inch.) Fill your bottles to that same level and cap them, being careful not to touch the part of the cap that your beer might touch.
Now you have to wait again. It will take about a week for your beer to carbonate (also called “conditioning”), but, again, it’s best to give it two.
After two weeks, put a couple bottles in the fridge and you’re almost ready to enjoy the fruits of your labor.
But there are two last things you need to know. First, you’re going to be surrounded by pots and buckets and things that need to be cleaned. Clean them thoroughly with soap and rinse them well. You’ll sanitize them again before you brew your next batch.
The last thing is how to pour your beer. When your beer conditions in the bottle, some of the yeast will die and settle to the bottom, creating a small layer of sediment. You need to learn to pour the beer carefully and slowly, but all at once, leaving the last half ounce (and the sediment) in the bottom of the bottle. Get in the habit of rinsing the sediment out of the bottle right away and cleaning will be a lot easier.
Now comes the best part. Enjoying a glass of homemade beer. After a time you’ll be able to recognize the influence of different ingredients, and, unfortunately, you’ll also learn about “off” flavors if you weren’t careful with your sanitation, or allowed oxygen to get into the beer at the wrong time.
But don’t worry, there’s nothing in a homemade beer that can hurt you. Even if it gets infected with bacteria, the worst that can happen is a funny flavor. It’s perfectly safe to drink.