Introduction – Why Brew Beer?
Brewing your own beer is by no means a new hobby, but more of a lost art. To put this in perspective, consider that George Washington is often credited for inventing Porter, and it is quite well documented that he enjoyed his share of what we’d now consider microbrews. In the 1920’s, though, the United States went through prohibition and took a giant leap backwards in respect to small breweries. The few large breweries that survived dominated the market with a mass produced product that was to previous beers what plain white bread was to traditional bakeries. In 1979 President Carter signed the law that once again allowed home brewing, though there are still restrictions, especially at the state level. (Perhaps he was making up for his brother’s “Billy Beer?”) In any case, home brewing has been a thriving and growing hobby for over thirty years.
But why would you want to brew your own beer? Thirty years ago, if you wanted anything other than an American lager, you’d pretty much have to go with an import, often stale and overpriced. But with the advent of micro breweries, you can find some amazing quality beers that are often made locally. As far as cost, once you’ve collected the basic equipment, the cost of brewing any given beer is about the same as buying an equivalent microbrew.
So why would you put hours of work into making your own beer if you’re not saving money or getting better beer then you can buy? It’s a matter of personal pride, being able to say “I brew the beer I drink.” Or perhaps it’s the ability to experiment--“what does x taste like?” And frankly, it’s just plain fun. Another advantage is that most home brew is “live ale”, i.e., it contains active yeast. Live ales are still very hard to find, even in microbrews, and many people consider them significantly better than other beers.
How it Works
The basic process of home brewing isn’t much different from commercial brewing. Wort is produced by combining malt and hops. Then yeast is added and the wort ferments into beer. Advanced home brewers use techniques almost identical to commercial breweries, while basic home brewers use short cuts to simplify the process.
Malts and Mashing
Most home brewers get started using malt extract and partial mashes. Full mash (or all grain) brewing requires additional time and equipment, though the results are worth it.
To explain extracts and mashes, we need to understand what malt really is. If you take a grain like barley, grind it up, put it in water, and then add yeast, you’ll eventually get rotten water. The yeast cannot live off the starch in the grain seeds. When grain is soaked for a short time in water, however, it begins to grow, releasing enzymes that convert the starches in the grain into sugars that the plant can use to grow. Once the grain starts to sprout, it’s dried out again, but its enzymes remain intact. This is malted grain.
The next step is to extract the enzymes and sugars from the malted grain. The grain is ground and added to water and then held at a certain temperature for about an hour so. This allows the enzymes to do their work, and the sugars can be extracted. This process is called mashing.
Once the mash is done, the grain is rinsed and the fermentable sugars and water form the basis of the wort. This is the stage where the water is extracted and malt extract is produced for basic home brewers. It’s also the stuff you add to chocolate and milk for malts! In partial mash brewing, most of the fermentables come from malt extract, but some specialty grains (i.e., malted grains) are mashed and added to the wort, primarily for flavoring.
In any case, the malt and water mixture is then boiled, typically for an hour. Hops are added both early in the boil and near the end of the boil. The hops that are added early on are known as bittering hops.
Bittering hops help preserve the beer and add the bitter taste. Near the end of the boil, aromatic hops are added to affect the taste and smell of the beer.
The wort produced in the boil is then cooled and yeast is added. The actual fermentation takes typically one to two weeks. The beer is then transferred to bottles or other containers. Most home brews are kept live; that is, they contain active yeast that naturally carbonates the beer, while most commercial breweries filter out the yeast and are artificially carbonate.
Basic Home Brewing
The first thing you should do is make a trip to your local home brewing store. Just check the yellow pages under home brewing or wine making supplies. If there isn’t a local shop, there are a number of internet brewing supply stores that will be happy to help – many of them have helpful information on their web sites and most will be happy to work with you over the phone. Midwest Brewing Supply even sends you a DVD with your order! Most brewing supply stores will have pre-configured equipment kits with everything you need to get started as well as recipe kits that contain all the instructions and ingredients you’ll need to make one batch of beer. Some stores even allow you to brew on premises, using their equipment. This can be an informative, no-mess way to begin your hobby.
Various stores include differing equipment in their kits, and you may need to borrow certain items. This is a list of the most essential items you will need for your first batch of beer:
• Brew pot – A 4-gallon or larger pot of some kind, stainless is preferred.
• Something to stir with – Keep in mind the size of your brew pot.
• Fermenter – Usually a 6.5 gallon plastic bucket with a tight sealing lid that is cut to make room for an air lock. Get this from the home brew store – it needs to be food grade and cannot be scratched. Some of them have built-in spigots – they’re fine. Having a couple of these, or one of these plus a carboy, will help out greatly.
• An airlock and stop – Again, get these from the home brew store and make sure they fit your fermenter.
• Thermometer – the home brew store will carry adhesive thermometers that attach to the side of your fermenter. They are inexpensive and very handy.
• Siphon, siphon tubing, and a shutoff clamp – There are multiple styles of siphons. If you’re using a fermenter with a spigot, you may just need the tube.
• Bottles – You can clean and reuse any empty “pop off” beer bottles, or you can buy them at the store. Often you can get larger bottles at the store, or get flip top bottles (like Grolsch). Keep in mind you cannot use twist off bottles.
• Bottle caps – these often come with the ingredient kit.
• Capper – unless you’re using alternate bottles, or kegging (not recommended for your first batch) you’ll need a capper.
• Strainer or grain/hop bags – You’ll need these if you’re doing more than the most basic brewing.
• No-rinse sanitizer – Some books and web sites mention diluted bleach solutions; do yourself a favor and get some Star San or Easy Clean No-Rinse.
• PBW or P-Bright for cleaning.
• Bottle brush/Carboy brush.
• Glass carboy with stopper and air lock – Most people prefer using these over the plastic buckets, especially for advanced brewing.
• Hydrometer – You’ll need this if you want to determine the alcohol content or do any advanced brewing.
• Funnel – 8” or so.
Step by Step Instructions
Most ingredient kits come with their own instructions specific to the type of beer and the actual ingredients in that kit.
Step 1 – Check the Ingredients
Make sure you have everything you need. Once you start brewing you can’t just stop and pick it up the next day.
Step 2 – Clean and Sanitize
The goal if cleaning is pretty simple; it gets all your equipment as clean as possible. There are two very important differences on how to clean, though. First, don’t use soap. Soap tends to leave a film that can ruin the head on your beer. Your home brew store should stock special cleaners, probably PBW or P-Brite. Second, don’t use abrasive pads. Abrasive pads, or any abrasive, can leave scratches that can hold bacteria. This is especially true when using plastic bucket fermenters. Everything that the wort (the unfermented beer) is going to touch needs to be sanitized. The best and simplest method is to use no-rinse sanitizers, such as Start San or One-Step. To use these, you simply mix them with water (the amount will be indicated), then soak all your small parts/equipment and liberally apply the mixture to everything else. If you are using a plastic brew bucket for a fermenter, you can have a spare bucket on hand and fill the one you’ll be using with the sanitizer mixture and soak all your small equipment it. When you are ready to move the wort to the fermenter, just move the equipment to the second bucket and pour the sanitizer in afterwards. Keep in mind, “no-rinse” means exactly that, the ingredients in these sanitizers will not affect your beer. The equipment should still be wet with sanitizer when you use it.
Step 3 – Steeping the Grain
Many ingredient kits include crushed grains that need to be steeped in water to extract the malt. The most basic kits tend to have the specialty grains already processed into the malt extract, so just ignore this step if it doesn’t apply. Hopefully the grain was crushed at the store. If not, you can use a rolling pin to crush the grain before steeping. Add the crushed grains into the grain bag, then put the grain bag, along with about 2 gallons of water into your brew pot. Bring the temperature to about 160°F for about 30 minutes. Use a candy thermometer if you have one; otherwise watch for steam without a boil. Remove from heat and let the grain steep for another 10 minutes or so while it cools. Then remove the grain bag. Dump out the grains; depending on the type of bag you may be able to rinse and reuse it.
Step 4 - The Boil
At this point, you are ready to add the malt extract. This can be either a powder or a thick liquid. Simply add it to the water and stir. Try to get it to mix fully with the water before you put it back on the burner. At this point, turn the heat up and bring the mixture to a boil. At some point during the boil, the brew pot is likely to boil over. This is a pain to clean up and it effectively dilutes your beer, so keep a close eye on the brew pot and be ready to turn down the heat and stir. As soon as the mixture starts to boil, you should add your bittering hops, preferably in a hops bag (or hops sock). These hops, as the name indicates, are what gives the beer its bitterness and helps to preserve it. Mark the time or start a timer, then keep stirring and watching the pot. You will boil the mixture for one hour, and near the end you’ll need to add the aromatic hops. The timing of adding the aromatic hops depends on the type of beer and the type of hop. Some types of beer require that different aromatic hops be added at different times during the boil. Generally, aromatic hops are added about 50 minutes into the boil, or about 10 minutes before the end. Your kit should have specific instructions. Note – the pot will almost always boil high shortly after adding the aromatics. Watch for this, too!
Step 5 – Cooling and Aerating the Wort
First of all, congratulations – you now have wort! Wort (pronounced “wert”) is the product that is physically fermented into beer. All equipment used from this point forward should be sanitized.
First though, you need to get it your pot cooled off as fast as feasible. The longer the brew stays warm the more likely it is to get contaminated. The best choice is to use a wort cooler, but it’s not generally something you’ll have for your first batch. The simplest method is to set your brew pot in a sink full of cold water or ice. If your brew pot has a top, keep it on except while stirring. Stir with a sanitized spoon every 15 minutes. You can also use ice as part of your top off water (in the next step). The goal here is to get the temperature of the wort under 80°F.
Once the wort is cool enough, transfer it into the primary fermenter and top it off with enough water (or ice) to bring up to 5 gallons. If you’re not using bags for your grains or hops, you’ll want to use the strainer at this point. After the wort from the brew pot has been strained, run your top of water through the strainer containing the grains and/or hops. This process is called sparging and will help collect and keep fermentables from sticking to the solids. Finally, you need to aerate the wort. You can do this by stirring, pouring back and forth between sanitized containers. The yeast needs oxygen to grow and ferment. If you have a hydrometer, this is the time to get your “original” reading.
Step 6 – Pitch the Yeast
Your kit may have come with dry or liquid yeast, but in any case there should be directions on the yeast packet (or tube, or pouch). Follow the directions that come with the yeast and add it to the cooled wort as soon as possible (recheck your temperature first). Seal your fermenter with the sanitized airlock (you’ll need to add a bit of water to your airlock, by the way). Talk to your home brew store about how to use the type you have. Then store your fermenter in a cool, dark area, preferably 60-70°F.
Within two or three days, your airlock should be bubbling, and the wort should be covered with foam. Depending on the instructions and the type of beer, you may want to transfer to a secondary fermenter after the first few days. For a basic first batch, just leaving it in for two weeks is a safe rule of thumb.
Step 7 – Bottling
You should preferably have a second brew bucket or other container available to transfer the beer to before bottling. Start by sanitizing the bottling bucket, tubing, siphon, and all your bottles and caps. If you’re using standard 12-oz. bottles you’ll need about 2-½ cases (54 bottles) for one batch of beer. If your dishwasher has a sanitize cycle or a heated dry cycle you can use that--just don’t use soap or sanitizer in the dishwasher. Everything else should be sanitized with no-rinse sanitizer.
Next you’ll need the primer – boil one cup of water and ¾ cup of corn sugar (which should be part of your ingredients) for about 5 minutes, then add this to you sanitized bottling bucket. This sugar will cause the beer to ferment just a little bit more, which will provide the carbonation and the head of the beer. Siphon the beer from your fermenter to the bottling bucket, letting it mix with the primer.
Now siphon the beer from the bottling bucket and fill each bottle, don’t overfill. Leave at least an inch of air at the top of each bottle. There are various methods to transfer the beer--siphoning, a spigot at the bottom of the bottling bucket, or specialized bottle fillers, but in most cases you’ll have plastic tubing going into the bottle. Try to get the tubing near the bottom of the bottle, fill from the bottom not the neck. Also, use a tubing clamp near the bottle end of the tube to minimize lost beer and cleanup. This is also a good time to grab another hydrometer reading. Comparing this to the original (and following a formula based on the type of hydrometer you have) will give you the alcohol content.
Finally – cap the bottles and store your beer – once again in a cool dark place, 60–70°F is optimal. Then wait patiently for about two weeks for most basic beers.
And that’s it! Enjoy your beer!
Ingredients and terms
Malt is made from grains such as barley, wheat, rye, oats, and sorghum that have been soaked in water, germinated, and kilned (dried). The process releases enzymes that will release the sugars to be extracted during the mash. Common malts include 2-row, 6-row, caramel, crystal, Munich, chocolate, and black patent. Malts can be named after their grain, their origin, or their appearance and taste. The type of malt in a beer affects both its flavor and its color. Not surprisingly, the color of the malt is reflected in the color of the beer. Darker beers are made with a darker roast of malt, which affects the flavor but not the alcohol content of the beer. Beers made with large amount of light malts will be light in color but high in alcohol content.
Malt extract is made by drawing the sugar solution off of malted barley, pasteurized and dehydrated in vacuum chambers to minimize carmelization. Hop extract is often added to this, as well. Malt extract is commonly sold by color (light, amber, or dark) and as Dry Malt Extract (DME) or Liquid Malt Extract (LME). Many basic brewing kits consist of pre-hopped LME.
Nothing to do with rabbits, hops are a perennial climbing vine that can be grown pretty much anywhere. The ripe female flower is the only part used. If the flower is fertilized, it will produce seeds which reduce the bittering effect of the hops. There are over one hundred varieties of hops being cultivated, including Cascade, Centennial, Cluster, Fuggles, Galena, Goldings, Hallertauer, Kent, Nugget, Northern Brewer, Saaz, and Willamette. Each type of hop has its own characteristics and can produce markedly different tasting beers. Hops have been used in beer since ancient Egypt (7000-1000 BC) and were cultivated in Germany as early as 300 AD. It was only since the Middle Ages, though, that hops became the dominant bittering agent in beer. Prior to that, horehound, dandelion, and numerous other herbs and flowers were used to offset the sweetness of the malt in beer. It is likely that the switch to hops was a due to a combination of the flavors and aromas when added later in the brewing process, the preservative effect, and the resistance to bacterial infections that cause souring.
Bittering hops are added early in the boil of the beer, and the amount and type of hops determines the bitterness. The alpha acids contained in hops are responsible for both the bitterness and the preservative properties of the hops.
Aromatic hops are added to near the end of the boil and contribute to both the smell and the ‘hoppy’ flavor. Dry hopped beer uses hops that are added after the beer has been fermented.
Most American lagers have little, if any, hop flavor, while India Pale Ales (IPAs) are known for their high bitterness and hoppy flavor. IPAs were originally brewed for shipment from England to India, and the higher levels of bitterness aided in the preservation of the beer during the trip. The home brewer can generally find hops in loose or pellet form. Loose hops are the unprocessed hop petals, while pellets are compacted for easier shipping.
Yes, it’s a variety of the same stuff you make bread and wine with, though those varieties probably wouldn’t make very good beer. Most brewer supply stores will stock a variety of liquid and dry yeast matched to the type of beer you are brewing.
Ales, Lagers, and Lambics
While there are many different styles and varieties of beer, they all fall under one of two main categories, Ales and Lagers, the difference being the yeast and the temperature of fermentation.
Ale yeast ferments between 59- 68°F and normally form a foam on the surface of the yeast. They are sometimes called “top-fermenting” because of this, but there are varieties of ale yeast that settle to the bottom.
Lagers were originally fermented in caves in Bavaria at temperatures of about 50°F. Lagers are then stored at near freezing temperatures for about thirty days to let the beer mellow. Most American and German beers, including dark German beers, are lagers. American lagers are based on a light lager called Pilsner, after its origin in Pilsen, Czech Republic.
Lambics have become more popular in the U.S. lately. Lambics are primarily brewed in Belgium (and often called Belgian beer). They are created using open fermentation; the unfermented wort is left open to the air, allowing airborne yeast and bacteria to enter and ferment the wort. The bacteria typically add a sour taste to the beer. Many home brew stores now stock the yeast and bacterial cultures needed to make Lambics. Unless you live in Brussels, open fermentation is not recommended.
Often overlooked in beer making is the primary ingredient, water. The characteristics of the water used can have a significant effect on the flavor and quality of the beer. The common examples are Dublin’s hard water used in Guinness and Burton, England’s gypsum laced water . Most US brewers add gypsum to their pale ales, and the soft water of Pilsen is used in their light lagers. Since water tends to vary by region, your local home brew store or club is probably the best resource.
Germany has a beer purity law, the Reinheitsgebot, that dates from 1516 and states that the only ingredients in beer could be water, barely, hops, and (added later) yeast. Of course that hasn’t stopped people in other countries from using other ingredients, and even in Germany wheat beers aren’t uncommon. Other grains are often used, including oats (oatmeal stout), rye, and rice.
Priming was mentioned in passing earlier, but a better explanation is probably warranted. When the beer is fermenting, the CO2 is being let off through the airlock, keeping the pressuring from building up inside the fermenter. When you bottle (or keg) live beer, you want a certain amount of pressure and CO2 build up to carbonate the beer and give it a head. Unfortunately, all the fementable sugar has already been used, if you just bottle the beer it’ll be flat. Priming adds just enough fermentable sugar for the yeast to carbonate the beer and pressurize the bottle, but not so much (hopefully) as to blow the lid off the bottles. One of the “purity” issues some home brewers have is the use of corn sugar for priming. After all, beer is supposed to be just barely, hops, water, and yeast. In practice, the amount of corn sugar is small and it’s added so late in the process, it really isn’t a significant difference in taste. Since corn sugar ferments much faster than the alternatives, you’ll be able to enjoy your beer two weeks or more sooner than with the other techniques. With that in mind, the first alternative is to simply use malt extract, typically DME, in place of corn sugar, the difference being the amount. Typically ¾ of a cup of corn sugar is used per 5 gallons of beer, with DME use 1 ¼ cups. Keep in mind this will add about two more weeks before the beer is ready, but if you’re making a stout, that won’t be so important since you’ll probably be aging it 6 to 10 weeks anyway. If you’re making an Irish red, you’ve probably just doubled the time before you can drink your beer.
The second method is kraeusening, or using unfermented wort to prime. There are two problems with this. First, where do you get unfermented wort? And second, how do you determine how much to use? The traditional method of getting unfermented wort was to steal some from the batch of beer you brewed and bottling the last time. That’s not terribly practical for most of us, but we so have something that will help--a refrigerator. Simply take about a quart of wort (before you add the yeast) and store it in a sanitized, sealed container in your fridge until you’re ready to bottle. Determining the amount to use is a bit more difficult. You’re going to need a hydrometer and some math, and probably a book, namely Charlie Papazian’s “Complete Joy of Home Brewing”, which explains the calculations in detail.
Alternatives to Bottling
To be frank, bottling is a pain. Most beer brewers wind up using some alternate to bottling beer, ranging from flip top growlers and other large bottles to Cornelius kegs. Cornelius kegs are the ultimate in quality, consistency, and conveniences, presuming you have a place to store and cool them, like a kegorator or a spare fridge in the garage. They can often be rented from a brew store as well, so even if you don’t have the space they may be viable for parties. Tap-a-draft, Party Pigs, and mini-keg systems like Party Star are popular alternatives that provide keg-like freshness, keep beer fresh for extended periods, and will fit in your fridge. Most require two containers per 5 gallons of beer, reducing your bottling time quite a bit. Check with your local store. It probably carries one or more types. And just having the parts on hand can be a real convenience.