You read as many books, magazines, blogs and feeds about beer as you can. You rail at the philistines in beer forums. You’re filled with righteous indignation that Budweiser renamed its beer “America” — and you damn well let them know on Twitter. You maintain a carefully curated collection of craft brew that would make Ken Grossman weep with pride. You know who Ken Grossman is. You… are obsessed with beer. And you’ve decided to put your money where your mouth is. Welcome to the world of homebrewing.
Brewers and manufacturers have vastly simplified the brewing process for newcomers, so if you can follow a recipe and boil water, you should be able to craft a respectable pint. With the proper preparation, the right tools and a lot of patience, you’ll be capping off your own self-labeled brew in no time.
Your homebrewing equipment checklist
Excited to get brewing? The basic equipment you’ll need to begin your first brew varies in quality and price, but most of them will do an admirable job. You can buy piecemeal or pick up a kit like the one from Home Brew Supply Company. Start simple. You can upgrade later as you learn what you like and need. And maybe one day, the Grainfather will make you an offer you can’t refuse.
- 6.5-gallon bucket for fermenting, with a drilled and grommeted lid
- 6.5-gallon bottling bucket with a bottling spigot
- 5-gallon stainless steel brew kettle with lid
- 3-piece airlock (one-way carbon dioxide release) and, if called for, a bung
- 24-inch stainless steel spoon
- Fine mesh straining bag
- Auto-siphon/racking cane with tubing and clamp
- Bottle filler
- Hydrometer and test jar
- Floating and adhesive thermometer
- Bottle brush
- Bottle capper (with bottles and caps)
- Unscented cleanser
Ready to brew some beer?
First, go crack open a beer. I know you’re craving one by now. It’s OK. I’ll wait…
Ready? The exact steps you follow will vary based on your recipe. I recommend an extract beer kit to start with. You won’t be playing mad brewmaster with your own crazy ingredients yet, but when you start out, it’s about getting the process down. You can learn to make your own mash after you get the rest of the process down.
Remember: This is just a basic guide so you understand the underlying process. They’ve been making beer for seven millennia, so you can imagine the potential variations.
- Read the recipe.
- Now read it again.
- Now again. Got it?
- Assemble all your equipment, and clean it with an unscented cleanser. You’ll take this step each time, even if you cleaned and sanitized it after using it the last time. The fermenting process is very susceptible to outside influences.
- If they aren’t premeasured, measure out your ingredients. If called for, you’ll also need to activate the yeast according to the package directions at this time.
- Heat the water according to the recipe (usually a boil), add the malt extract, dissolving it completely to prevent it from collecting on the bottom and scorching, and proceed according to the directions.
- If you’re using the unhopped extract, you’ll add the hops during the long boil. Note that there may be more than one time that you add hops, and the recipe will tell you at what point in the boil you add each addition. After the boil is complete, you’ve made a hopped wort, which will eventually become beer. Remove it from the heat, and chill it until it’s the right temperature according to your recipe. An ice bath is a great method. It will probably ask you to get it down to around 70 degrees F. No matter what, if you’re using a glass fermenter, it should never be over 100 degrees F when you pour it in, or it will shatter.
- Meanwhile, sanitize all the equipment you’re about to use. Yes, you just cleaned it, but it’s vital it be sanitized just before it’s used, as anything that comes into contact with the wort can alter your beer (and not necessarily for the better). I recommend a no-rinse sanitizer because it’s easiest.
- Pour the chilled wort into the fermenter, and add the yeast. This is called “pitching” the yeast. Seal the fermenter with a sanitized airlock.
- Shake, shake, shake. Keep shaking. It needs a good, vigorous shake for 90 seconds or so to build up that oxygen for the yeast. Make sure you do it well. This is your only chance to get that vital oxygen built up. Once you move on, you actually want to prevent it from splashing around. It’s kinda like how bread can be deflated if you don’t handle it carefully during the rise.
- Put your fermenter in a safe, out-of-the-way place that’s dark and a suitable temperature for the type of yeast you’re using (the recipe or packet of yeast will tell you), and forget about it for a few weeks (whatever the recipes says) to ferment. Scientifically, the yeast is eating the fermentable sugar in the wort and converting it into CO2 and ethyl alcohol. Nonscientifically, this is when all the magic is happening. Pretend it has a sock on its doorknob, and leave it alone. You’ll know if it’s working, because within a day or two (sometimes three), you’ll see bubbling in the airlock (until fermentation is over). You also might see some foam, called “kraeusen.” Use a hydrometer (see the package and recipe directions) to be sure fermentation is complete.
- When you’re ready to bottle — you guessed it — clean and sanitize all the equipment that’s about to come into contact with your beer.
- Prepare the priming sugar as instructed. Add the priming sugar syrup to your beer. Using the auto-siphon or racking cane, transfer the beer into the bottling bucket, avoiding the transfer of any solids (grub) from the bottom of the bucket. Use a large, sanitized, stainless steel spoon to create a whirlpool to combine the beer with the sugar without splashing.
- Attach the bottle filler to the bottling bucket (there’s a spigot on the front of the bottling bucket), and fill the bottles. It’s a good idea to do this on the counter over your open dishwasher (with the spigot and bottle hanging over the dishwasher door). Bottling is sticky business. When you’re done, you just close the dishwasher and run it to get rid of the stickiness. Fill bottles all the way to the top. The bottle filler will make them look fuller than they really are, so when you remove it, the liquid will really be about an inch below that, which is exactly what you want, and it should be mostly consistent between bottles.
- Use the bottle capper to carefully cap the bottles, and store them at room temperature (around 70 degrees F) for 2 to 3 weeks.
There are many methods of brewing, but these should get you through the dizzying array of options and alternatives and start you on a practical path to brew-vana.
Prehopped extract* — As simple as it gets while still having beer come out at the other end, but you give up all control. The extract replaces real grains or mash.
Unhopped extract* — More options than prehopped because you get to select your hops, but still very simple.
* Extracts take the place of making your own mash. They’re essentially a concentrated version of what you’d get with extra steps in the following methods.
Partial mash — You don’t have total control, but you’re ready to learn new words like “vorlauf” and “sparge,” so the manufacturers are no longer dictating your final product.
Brew-in-a-bag — A simplified version of all-grain brewing that allows much more control with only a fraction of the required equipment and steps.
All-grain — You’re now in total control of all aspects of your beer, but it’s a more complicated and exacting process.