So, why brew beer at home? The answer is simple. Brewers make beer for themselves, not the individual! They brew in ways that they think will taste good. In fairness, that’s absolutely logical, but it’s not as if brewing beer is a highly complex concept like astrophysics, far from it. In fact, brewing beer is almost as old as humanity itself. It’s been going on for millennia and the process hasn’t really changed all that much. Now, there are those that say they don’t like beer, but that’s not exactly a fair statement if they’ve never even tried to make their own! After all, why should the brewers have all the fun? It’s such a simple process and the necessary equipment for getting started is literally just a few clicks away.
Before diving into the brewing process, it’s important to clarify a couple of the basic things. First, brewing beer at home falls into one of two categories, grain or extract. With grain brewing, the brewer is responsible for extracting the necessary sugars from the grains to be used. Lots of local homebrew shops will do this but with extract brewing, the brewer uses ready-made malt extract and doesn’t bear any responsibility for grain preparation. Grains are still involved obviously but overall, it’s less work for the beginner brewer. Extract brewing is typically thought of as the best technique for first-timers and is the process that will be outlined here.
Now, this next caveat is critically important. Beginner brewers must learn to sanitize, sanitize, and then sanitize again! It’s the most important part of brewing beer at home. Regardless of technique or experience level, everything used in the brewing process must first be sanitized thoroughly, otherwise major health hazards can arise! Good brew kits should come with the best type of cleaning agent to be used on their equipment, make sure to use it! Now that that’s out of the way, it’s time to get brewing.
Getting started brewing beer at home doesn’t require an enormous garage or perfectly chilled, spacious basement. Beer can be brewed pretty much anywhere with a stove, even the cozy confines of a studio apartment kitchen! All that’s needed is a basic homebrewing kit. Typical home brewing kits include a 6.5-gallon primary fermenter with a lid, a 6.5-gallon bottling bucket (not always mandatory but nice to have), a spigot, some type of cleaning agent, a syphon and bottling set-up, one hydrometer, one bottle cleaning brush, one twin lever bottle capper, one liquid crystal thermometer, a bucket clip, a home beer making booklet and some equipment instructions. Every homebrewer also needs a cooking thermometer and a three to five-gallon stock pot but those aren’t brewing specific items. Check out our Home Brew kit to help you get started in homebrewing.
Hops, grains, malt extract, yeast, and water are all that’s needed to make a fantastic beer in the comfort of one’s own home. Of course, there are many different types of grains and hops that experienced homebrewers can add to their recipes, but for the purposes of beginner homebrewing, things don’t need to get complicated! There are just a few, ingredient specific things worth addressing though.
Even when brewing with malt extract, a small amount of specialty grains will always be necessary. Specialty grains are important because they contribute to a beer’s flavour, aroma, colour, and body. Again, it is very much worth it to search out a local homebrew shop for these, that will ensure freshness as it is important to use grains soon after they’ve been cracked. Finding a good homebrew shop isn’t mandatory though. Most beer recipe kits will include any and all necessary grains as well as malt extract, hops, and yeast. Malt extract comes in both dry and liquid form, as does yeast. It’s less important what form the malt extract comes in than it is with the yeast. Dry yeast has a long shelf life and doesn’t really need much preparation. Liquid yeast on the other hand comes in many more varieties, has a shorter shelf life, and requires careful handling!
With regard to the water that gets used, obviously cleaner is better, but many good homebrewers make very good beer with ‘as is’ tap water. Naturally, that varies from county to county and country to country, so do some basic research first. Moderate, but not overly excessive mineral and alkalinity levels are the most important qualities. If it comes down to it, five or six, gallon jugs from the market aren’t much of an expense, just a nuisance to carry. Again, all of the necessary ingredients will come in a standard beer recipe kit. It’s also important to get some priming sugar tablets which don’t always come in a recipe kit. Tablets will make it easier to add the proper amount of priming sugar to the bottles later. In the interest of full disclosure, beer recipe kits do not include water.
Time to Brew
Clean and sanitize all of the equipment extensively! Yes, this cleaning advice is redundant, but, it’s necessary, so do it. Also, follow the instructions (recipe). Ok, enough patronizing, it’s time to get started. One last thing to note is that many of the subsequent measurements will be given in a range because no specific recipe is being outlined here. This is meant to be a template, a helpful blueprint, a beginner’s guide to brewing beer at home. Recipe kits always provide the specific amounts, temperatures, and time frames for their given recipe.
Steep the Grains
Grains should be steeped, for example, in something like two and a half to three gallons of water, pending the recipe. Use the stock pot for this. Be sure to tie a knot at the end of the straining bag so there’s some room for them to float around inside when submerged. Put the bag in the water and slowly heat it to between 150 to 160 degrees Fahrenheit. Duration of grain steeping ranges anywhere from twenty minutes to one hour, pending the recipe. When removing the bag don’t squeeze it, just hold it above the pot and let it drain sufficiently. The water in the pot has become wort. It’s safe to discard the grains now.
Add the Malt Extract and Hops
First, bring the wort to a boil, then pour in the malt extract and don’t forget to stir it! Some recipes call for removing the pot from the heat source to avoid any of the malt extract collecting on the bottom and burning. It’s not an essential step but when getting started brewing beer at home, it might be a rule worth abiding by, at least at first.
Hop it up!
In addition to the malt extract, hops are also added to the wort at the beginning of the boiling stage. During this time, more advanced recipes may call for adding spices wrapped in cheese cloth to achieve specific flavour profiles, but that certainly isn’t mandatory. At this point in the process, beer recipes are pretty much uniform on boiling the wort, malt-extract, and hops together for a duration of one hour. Don’t forget to set a timer for five to ten minutes before the end of that hour though. That’s the window in which aromatic hops are typically added.
The Cool Down
Now the wort needs to cool, and quickly too! Most recipes call for getting it below 80 degrees Fahrenheit, while others say that 100 degrees is the key number. Regardless of what’s done with it immediately after boiling, the wort will eventually need to get below 80 degrees Fahrenheit. Wort chillers are the best thing to use for this, duh, but if there aren’t any wort chillers laying around, a nice trick to quickly cool the wort is with an ice bath in the sink. Throw some generous dashes of salt over the floating ice to slow down the melting process, then plunge the bottom half of the stock pot in to cool down. This is the stage at which the wort is most fragile, every recipe mentions this! It is crucial that nothing besides sanitized equipment come into contact with it.
When the wort is cooled sufficiently, use the sterilized brewing thermometer to confirm this, it must be transferred to a thoroughly cleaned fermenter which is basically just a sealable container of some kind. Anything from an official fermenter included in a homebrewing kit to an old, five-gallon carboy will do. For those that don’t know, a carboy is a big glass or plastic jug, similar in shape to a Poland Spring water dispenser. This is where the racking cane and siphon comes in handy. A nice trick to get the wort flowing out of the stock pot is to fill the racking cane and siphon set up with water, put the racking can in the wort, the open end of the siphon in the fermenter, and let it flow! The little bit of extra water won’t hurt anything since after the wort is fully transferred, it will likely be necessary to top up the fermenter with clean, cold water. Once the fermenter is full and properly sealed, it’s not a bad idea to slosh it around a little bit, gently of course, in order to aerate everything inside.
At this point in the process, it’s never a bad idea to measure the wort’s original gravity with a hydrometer. Original gravity refers to the amount of fermentable sugar in the wort. Once the yeast is added, the wort’s original gravity will be lost because yeast eats sugar! The downside to not measuring the original gravity is it will be impossible to calculate the alcohol content of the beer. It’s not essential to the brewing process because the recipe will undoubtedly list its desired alcohol by volume, but it’s a good habit to get into, especially if the brewer is interested in more improvisational, innovative brewing in the future. Then again, some brewers like to live dangerously.
Pitch the Yeast-
It’s time to add the yeast, a process referred to as, ‘pitching.’ Remember, the wort needs to be below 80 degrees Fahrenheit before this can happen. Follow the instructions on the yeast package that came in the recipe kit! Make sure to sanitize the outside of the packaging and the implement used to cut it too. Pour the yeast into the fermentation vessel, seal the whole thing off with the sanitized air lock and stopper, then fill the airlock with water and let the fermentation begin! Put the fermentation vessel out of the way, in a dark place at room temperature (be sure to monitor Room Temperature with a Room Thermometer). After all, not everyone has a walk-in refrigerator to cold store fermenting lager for two months! After a few days, CO2 should start to bubble into the air lock. The fermentation process takes from one to two weeks to complete. Do not disturb it, even with sun light!
Eventually, it will be time to bottle. Make sure to sanitize the bottles, caps, capper, and literally everything you will need to use in the bottling process! Prime each bottle with priming sugar, four to five tabs per bottle will do. A typical, five-gallon batch of beer requires about 48,12-ounce bottles. Attach the bottle filler to the open end of the racking cane/siphon set up and begin filling! Be careful not to suck up any of the yeast that will have collected on the bottom of the fermenter, nobody wants that. Some recipes call for transferring the beer to a ‘bottling bucket’ if there are pre bottling add ins, or if it recommends adding bottling sugar to the entire batch before bottling, rather than priming each bottle individually. Fill each, 12-ounce bottle, all the way to the top because the beer will sink a little bit once the bottle filler is removed. Cap them using the bottle capper and put them back in a dark place at room temperature again (remembering your Room Thermometer) for two to three more weeks. After that it’s time to chill the beer and enjoy!
Where to Start
When it comes to brewing beer at home, ales are undoubtedly the easiest to brew and therefore the best recipes to start with. This is because they’re easy to salvage if mistakes are made and typically ferment at room temperature. American brown, pale, amber, and wheat ales are all great choices with straightforward recipes for getting started brewing beer at home. Porters are also pretty safe in terms of their salvageability. In the beginning, mistakes will happen, so it’s nice to have some wiggle room. As far as obtaining equipment goes, price and materials included in beer kits can vary so it’s important to do some research. Our home brew kit is a great place to start!
So, to recap, brewing beer at home is a relatively straightforward process that’s easy to learn. It can be helpful to keep a recipe journal, especially as recipes get more complicated and maybe even, original? At first though, the best way of getting started brewing beer is by focusing on the basics. After all, people have been doing it for millennia and at times when many of the advantages and accessories available today did not exist. Good luck, and happy brewing!