“How hard is it to brew?” That’s a question I’ve been asked I don’t know how many times. My canned answer is “Its like making soup. You follow a recipe.” Of course, there is more to it than that. Much of it is what you do after the brewing is done. Sanitation and fermentation are the other areas to really focus on and don’t need a whole lot of instruction, but I will touch upon them.
Brewing and the art of beer making can be very intensive and ever-evolving. You can go nuts if you want to. Below is a jumping off point to give you an idea on what it takes to start. Nobody starts out with a “Pliny The Elder” quality beer on their first batch. Like anything, you have to learn to crawl before you can walk.
To start out, you will need equipment. The easiest way to get this is through an “equipment kit” that has all the gadgets and fermenters and a few supplies to get you off the ground. Most kits come with (but vary):
- 7.8 Gallon Primary Fermenting Bucket
- Bottling Spigot
- 6 Gallon Glass Carboy with Rubber Stopper
- 3-Piece Airlock (for Fermenting Bucket)
- Adhesive Thermometer (for Fermenting Bucket)
- Siphon Kit
- Twin Lever Capper
- Beer Bottle Brush
- Bottling Bucket
You will also need a stainless steel kettle that is at least 7-7.5 gallons. Some people start out with smaller kettles. Its good to start out with this size from the beginning if you can. You will probably eventually upgrade anyway. You want a bigger pot so you don’t have to make a condensed wort. Homebrewed beer recipes are usually made to 5 gallons. Most equipment, especially starter equipment is scaled for 5 gallon batches. So why not start with a 5 gallon kettle? Well, you can, but its better to do a full volume boil rather than a partial boil and topping it off with water in the fermenter. Often times, you will see beginner instructions teach this method. You need a bigger kettle so you can boil a full 6-6.5 gallons of wort. After evaporation and trub loss, you should land around 5 gallons. Doing it the other way, you often end up with 3-3.5 gallons of wort and you are “topping off” with clean water in your fermenter. In doing this, you will have a caramelized flavor (extract twang) and your hop utilization will be off.
Beer has four basic ingredients: malt, hops, water and yeast. “Malt” for beginners is going to come in the form of malt extract, either liquid or dry. When you graduate to intermediate and advanced brewing, this malt will be in the form of grain. The extract has taken the step of mashing out of the equation. Most extract recipes also include “steeping grains”, which are usually crystal or roasted grains. This gives the extract brew some extra dimension in the form of body, color and flavor. Now lets look at each ingredient separately:
- Malt: This will be providing all the fermentable sugars that the yeast is going to feed upon. All alcohol gets its fermentable sugar from some source or another. Beer just happens to come from malted barley.
- Hops: These are actually flowers from a vine and provide the bitterness and some aroma in the beer. Adding hops to the boiling wort (and sometimes before and after the wort is boiled) at different times imparts bitterness, flavor and aroma.
- Water: Beer is mostly water and can often be a signature to a beer. It is often the reason why styles emerge out of certain geographic areas. For example, the soft water of the Pilzen region in the Czech Republic is ideal for pale lagers and that is what the region is known for. But it wouldn’t do well for English bitters, who’s water tends to be harder and the beer styles that have emerged from there are tailored to that type of water.
- Yeast: These are the critters that eat the sugar. The by-product of this is C02 and alcohol. When the yeast gets to work, they warm things up a bit and multiply.
Now that we have everything in place, we can brew. Keep in mind, lots of step by step instructions very just a little bit and this will be no different. Most follow a basic process so don’t let the different nuances bother you.
Collect your 6.5 gallons of water and heat it to about 160 degrees. Then add your steeping grains in the steeping bag and hold that temperature for about 10-15 minutes. At the end of that time, remove the steeping bag and let it drain. Resist the urge to squeeze it. This will just extract some unwanted tannins.
Turn up your heat and bring the water close to a boil. Turn off the flame then add your malt extract. If you add the extract with the flame on, it could scorch on the bottom of the kettle. Turn your flame back on and bring to a boil. Once you are at a boil, that begins your 60 minute countdown timer. Your recipe most likely has hop additions with times noted beside it. If your recipe has a 60 minute addition, add them now. These hops will be providing the bitterness. Hops added later will be geared more towards aroma. Some beers like stouts and wheats have a bitterness addition only. These beers aren’t known for hop aroma.
An hour has passed, and you have added all the hops according to your recipe. Time to chill the beer down as fast as you can. The moment you turn off the flame, everything that touches the wort needs to be sanitized. Most beginners start out with an ice bath to chill the beer down. That method can take a few hours. Its ok, but you want to get the wort down to 65 degrees as soon as you can so you can add the yeast. Its important to get the fermenting process happening as soon as possible. The quicker alcohol is present, the less chance of infection. Don’t let that scare you. Basically, get the good bugs going before the bad bugs take hold. Chilling can be done by using a copper immersion chiller that you run cold water through. And sanitizing the chiller is as easy as dropping it in the wort with about 15 minutes left in the boil. Pause the timer until it comes back to a boil.
Now that the wort is chilled to about 65 degrees, you can transfer the wort to a sanitized fermenter. Making this process as vigorous as possible is good. Aerating the wort is important for shorter lag times (time between pitching the yeast and fermentation starting). If you put the wort in a glass fermenter, this may actually knock off a couple of more degrees.
Add your yeast, affix a stopper and airlock and you have just made beer.
Most ales will need to ferment for about 10 days. In the correct environment, most of the fermentation is going to be done in the first few days but you really want it to sit undisturbed for about 10-14 days. But disclaimer here: Fermentation doesn’t have a timer. Let your hydrometer tell you when its done. Lagers have a much more intensive fermentation schedule and I won’t even get into that in a beginner focused blog post.
Of course, there are a tons of variations in processes, methods, ingredients etc., and it does get much more advanced if you want it to be. This is a basic rundown of what you can expect on your first brew day. Everyone evolves their own style and that’s the great thing about homebrew. If you want a good example of the wonderful variety of the world of homebrew, you should consider attending the 2013 Humboldt Homebrewers Festival, April 6th at the Arcata Community Center.