Making great beer at home takes very little cash, some time, and not much space. You will use your kitchen for several hours; you will also have some cleanup to do. There will be a fascinating week or so of fermentation, as the yeast goes through its life cycle; then another week or so of bottle-conditioning time. You will then have the opportunity to serve the Finest Beer in the World to your friends and family.
By following the steps in this article, you'll make a batch of all-malt ale and bottle it.
I Already Know What Beer Is!
Start by defining beer as a fermented, alcohol-containing beverage made from just four ingredients:
Water. Tap water contains different components in different parts of the world, but what comes out of your tap will be fine unless you have extreme mineral or chemical content. Some famous brewing water has very high mineral content.
Malt. Cereal grain (usually barley, but wheat and rye are other cereal grains) that is moistened will germinate and begin to sprout. The starch in the grain - food for the baby plant - becomes "activated" at this time. But if you dry the grain to stop the sprouting, you have made malt. Malt, germinated then dried, is the heart of beer. It provides food for the yeast (maltose, a sugar); it lends body and color to the beer; and it provides the satisfying, nutty, grain flavor in beer. For this first batch of beer, you will avoid using non-malt fermentables such as corn, rice, or sugar and stick with the basics.
Hops. These flowers are the spice of the beer. Pleasant bitter flavors and herbal aromas come from hops. Think of them in beer as the oregano in spaghetti sauce; while the tomato might be the heart of the sauce, it just wouldn't be the same without seasoning. Malt flavors alone in beer would be far less interesting and sometimes even cloying without snappy hops to balance the rich sweetness of malt.
Yeast. The magic ingredient in beer is a single-celled organism (actually many millions of them per batch) that eats sugar, multiplies, and produces alcohol and carbon dioxide as waste products. The most elusive flavors in beer seem to be the ones produced by the yeast during the process of fermentation. Belgian ales and German hefeweizens are notably flavored by their specific varieties of yeast.
Items You Will Need
You will need a few items that you might not already have in your kitchen. You can find these items at your local homebrew shop or in a catalog:
- Stainless steel brewkettle. Anything less than four gallons will be frustrating due to boilovers or scorching. You will want a top for it if possible. This is a good thrift-store item.
- Five-gallon glass carboy and five-gallon (or larger) food-grade plastic bucket, or two plastic buckets. You will use these as a fermenter and bottling vessel. If you choose a carboy, you'll need a #7 drilled rubber stopper; if you go for two buckets, you'll need a lid for one of them with a hole drilled for the airlock.
- An airlock. This allows carbon dioxide produced during fermentation to escape from your fermenter.
- A racking cane (rigid plastic) and 6 feet of vinyl siphon hose that fits over the end of the cane.
- Two cases of clean, non-twist-top beer bottles.
- A bottle capper and a package of crown caps.
- Two cans of unhopped, liquid malt extract (total weight 5.5 to seven pounds); or a five- to seven-pound bulk purchase of malt extract. Choose light, amber, or dark according to your taste.
- Two ounces of hops with alpha-acid levels between 4 percent and 8 percent. Choose pellets or "leaf" (whole flower) hops, but pick one that has a cool-sounding name and is as green as possible. Yellowed hops might be old or losing some flavor.
- A package of ale yeast. Dry yeast, rather than a liquid culture, is fine for this first batch.
- 2/3 cup of dextrose, also known as corn sugar, to use at bottling time.
- Chlorine bleach, for use as a sanitizer.
Around your kitchen you might find a few other items that will make your mission more fun or easier: a measuring cup, a large spoon for stirring, a large funnel (if fermenting in a carboy), and a large strainer (if using leaf hops).
Step 1 - Prepare
Your first mission is to choose a day when you have plenty of time. The brew will take more than two hours and probably less than three, but if you have a time commitment right after your brew session, you might have a bit less fun because of time pressure. Also, if you experience a setback or slowdown, you might feel an urge to hurry, which is a bad idea around boiling liquids and for sanitary procedures. Take plenty of time; you're doing this for fun!
Start with a clean kitchen (and be ready to clean it again when you're done) and check over your equipment and instructions one more time.
Step 2 - Begin the Boil
Fill your kettle about two-thirds full of tap water and put it on your biggest burner on high. As the water gets hot, you can add the malt extract syrup, stirring constantly until the extract is completely dissolved into the water. Some hot water in the can or container will help get all the extract dissolved and into your kettle. After the liquid - now known as "wort" - begins to boil, the rolling action of the boil will keep things mixed up.
So what is malt extract? It is a processed product, yes, and some brewers eventually work their way up to starting with malted grain. But extract is simply barley malt that has been "mashed"; it has had its starch converted to sugar (a variety called, unsurprisingly, maltose) through a natural, temperature-triggered process. Then unusable husks were separated out, and the sweet liquid was concentrated into a syrup. Unhopped malt extract is made of barley and water - that's all. Put your finger in there and try some - yummy, huh?
Some extracts contain a portion of dark-roasted grain to lead to roasty or coffee-ish flavor; some use malts that have caramel flavor. If you chose dark malt, your ale will be along stout or porter lines. Amber malts lead to amber ales. Light or pale malt makes paler or light beers, but even these will have a nice amber color, like a classic British pale ale.
You will boil this wort for a full hour. One of the main reasons you do this is to ensure that your wort is free of any living organisms that could spoil the finished product. You want brewer's yeast consuming all that lovely malt sugar, not some funky bacteria that could be floating around your home; if bacteria gets into your wort, it could multiply and create funky flavors. By boiling wort, you've created a microbe-free environment. But it is at this point that you want to start thinking about sanitization. You want to be ready when the heat goes off and the wort cools down.
Step 3 - Add Hops
Hops are added early in the boil because the "bitter" component in them takes time to dissolve into boiling wort. Add about an ounce of hops - maybe a bit more if your alpha acid is below 6 percent or if you prefer a high level of bitterness, maybe a bit less if you have a higher alpha hop or want a milder beer. Add the hops when your wort reaches that steady rolling boil after the extract has dissolved fully. You don't need a food scale to add an ounce of hops. Just estimate as you do when cooking; about half a two-ounce pack is just fine. As you become expert, you also might want to become precise, but don't worry about a scale until then.
The wonderful hop smell that you get now is actually leaving the wort and being sucked outside by your kitchen fan. Remember that this dosage of hops, usually called the bittering hop, is there to provide the basic "bitter" flavor component. To put that delightful herbaceous aroma back into the wort, you add another dose of hops right at the end of the boil. That way they aren't in the boil long enough to have their aroma boiled away.
Add your "finishing hops" right as you turn the heat off at the end of the hour - a quarter ounce or more, depending on how psyched you are about hop aroma. Remember, these hops are not in the boil long enough to contribute much bitterness.
Step 4 - Cool the Wort
It is now time to begin thinking about sanitization, because your wort will start to cool as soon as you remove it from the heat. Begin by putting the lid on your kettle.
The volume of liquid you have heated up means that it will retain heat for quite a while. Pop the entire lidded kettle into an ice bath in your sink or bathtub as you sanitize your fermenter. Don't add ice to the wort, because ice is very likely to have microbes lingering on it. On cold days setting the covered kettle outside in a cold wind or snowbank can help, too. Make sure the lid is securely on and wort stays sanitary.
Step 5 - Sanitize
From this point on, you must provide an environment as free of microbes as you can for your wort. Anything that touches wort - funnel, strainer, fermenter, airlock - must be sanitized via heat or via a solution. Fortunately, a very effective sanitizer can be made from a dirt-cheap product that you are likely to already have: non-lemon-scented liquid chlorine bleach (sodium hypochlorite).
Pour a half cup into your fermenter (whether it's a glass carboy or food-grade plastic bucket) and fill it to the top with cold tap water. Exposing the solution to your beermaking apparatus for at least 15 minutes will kill any unwanted microbe that could spoil your beer. After the sanitizing soak, give the items a thorough rinse to get rid of the chlorine remnants. Residue can leave very unpleasant flavors.
Use this solution to sanitize your airlock, funnel, drilled stopper, and strainer as well as your fermenter. At bottling time, next week after fermentation, fill your plastic bottling bucket with a new batch of sanitizer and use it for bottles, caps, and your siphon hose.
Homebrew supply stores often carry no-rinse sanitizers, which eliminate the risk of contaminants in the rinse water and the extra step of rinsing.
Step 6 - Transfer to Fermenter and Pitch Yeast
Empty and thoroughly rinse your fermenter. Then add the wort and top up with cold tap water. You can use preboiled water from the day before if you are concerned about chances of contamination from your water. You also can use pre-chilled water if you want. Water right out of the tap will probably be just fine, however.
Pour your cooled wort from the kettle right into the fermenter. If you are fermenting in a carboy, you'll need the sanitized funnel. If you used leaf hops, you'll need to use the strainer to get them out; pelletized hops tend to go right through the strainer, but that's okay, too. A brewing helper is very useful at this stage to hold the funnel and steady the fermenter as you pour. Shake the carboy or stir the bucket with a sanitized long spoon.
Glass carboys are almost never tempered. The more you can cool the wort in the kettle before pouring the better. The wort needs to be cooled prior to transferring. Ale yeast is most comfortable in the low 70s, so you'll have to wait until your wort is near that temperature before you add yeast anyway. A quick way to check: Put one hand on your forehead and one on your fermenter. When the wort is cooler than you, you can pitch. The temperature will gradually decline to ambient over the next few hours.
Before pitching the yeast, stir and shake your carboy to get as much air into the cooled wort as possible. Now you can simply add the package of yeast to the wort right out of the envelope, or after rehydrating it for 15 minutes in a cup of boiled, cooled water. Put on the lid and airlock and relax. You have about a week before bottling time.
Step 7 - Fermentation
The moment you add yeast, the wort is one step away from becoming beer. The yeast cells you added first turn to dissolved oxygen in the wort (which came from your pouring, shaking, and stirring) and over a period of the next several hours begin to multiply. After their numbers have increased, they begin to consume the sugars from the malt extract and produce alcohol and CO2. This activity, fermentation, can be very dramatic. Bubbles rise, the beer moves around in sinuous convection currents (which glass carboys allow you to see well - you might find yourself hypnotized for hours) and a scary-looking dirty foam called kraeusen (kroy' zen) rises on the surface.
On day two or three, the activity will be so furious that kraeusen is often pushed right through the airlock. For this reason many brewers make a "blowoff tube" out of their racking cane. They put the short end into the hole of their drilled stopper and run the long end down to a jar of water. This "oversized airlock" means that any kraeusen that rises out the top will end up in the water jar, but fruit flies or microbes can't get upstream and back to the beer. Because of blowoff, don't store your fermenter on carpet!
Fermentation can be as quick as a couple of days or can go on for two weeks. A warmer spot tends to speed things up, some strains of yeast are faster or slower than others, and stronger worts (more extract per five-gallon batch) might take longer. When the bubbles in your airlock have slowed to fewer than one per minute, you are probably ready to bottle. Take a look at the wort. If it seems hazy, the yeast has not quite finished settling. If it seems deep colored and more clear than it was during the active (primary) phase, then the following has happened: The yeast consumed the available sugar, became dormant, and settled to the bottom of the vessel. It's finished beer! Time to bottle and condition.
Step 8 - Bottling and Conditioning
You're getting closer to quaffing time! Next you're going to transfer the finished but unconditioned beer (flat - no carbonation) to an intermediate vessel, the bottling bucket, that contains priming sugar, in this case two-thirds cup of corn sugar (dextrose). Leave the thick layer of dormant yeast and hop residue behind in the fermenter.
From the bottling bucket fill each bottle, again with a siphon, then cap each one. The remaining yeast in the beer will begin a small refermentation in each bottle, consuming the primings, and the CO2 produced will remain dissolved in the beer because the crown cap seals the vessel, preventing the CO2 from escaping to the atmosphere. This "bottle conditioning" that you are performing produces fine, natural bubbles. Just ask any French Champagne maker, because they use a similar technique.
A day or two before bottling, move your fermenter up to a table. To siphon, the vessel you are emptying must be above the top of the vessel to which you are siphoning. If you move the fermenter a day or so before you siphon, you will allow any sediment you stirred up to resettle.
If you have never run a siphon before, you should practice this a few times with plain water. First, slide your sanitized 6-foot vinyl siphon hose on to the short (or "handle") end of your racking cane. Sanitize and rinse the assembly, then fill it with clean water, keeping your nice, clean thumb over the hose end. Then, invert the cane and plunge it smoothly into your fermenter or practice water vessel. When you lower the hose end to below the tabletop where your "siphoning from" vessel is, liquid will flow downhill and out the end of the hose.
Once you can do this smoothly, boil one to two cups of water and add your two-thirds cup of corn sugar. Boil for 10 minutes, until the sugar is fully dissolved and you know you have a sterile solution. Pour this into your sanitized bottling vessel, and siphon the beer on top, stirring it gently to mix in the priming solution. (The first liquid, water in the hose and cane, can be caught in a small jar and thrown away - you will see the color change as the beer flows down the line.) Leave most of the thick layer of sediment behind in the fermenter - you'll clean it out after your crown caps are crimped on.
Now, lift the priming vessel to the table and restart your siphon to fill sanitized bottles. You can use a bottle filler with a spring-loaded valve on the end, but crimping the flow as one bottle fills before moving to the next bottle and uncrimping can work well. Fill each bottle to about one inch of headspace below the top, and crimp on a sanitized crown cap. Then, just keep the bottles at room temperature for another 10 days or so, while the yeast consumes the priming sugar, and chill a couple down! When you pour, leave the yeast sediment behind in the bottle.
Your beer will be natural and could not possibly be fresher. It will have hops that you chose because you liked the aroma or the name. It will help you determine what you like, so you can move toward your ideal on your next batch. It will most likely be among the best beers you ever tried.
A Word About Troubleshooting
If your first batch is not the best beer you have ever had, there are generally only two possible reasons:
Contamination. If a microorganism other than your brewer's yeast got in your batch you will likely know it. Vinegar flavor, mud puddle, locker room/dirty socks, or compost pile odors are classic signs of contamination. (These contaminators won't kill you, but they might make you sad or discouraged if you have to dump out all that hard work.) Analyze your routine. If you can figure out the source of contamination, fix it and try again. Sanitization does get easier as you brew more.
Not what you expected. There are many nuances you can add as you gain brewing experience, among them: specialty grains, boiling of a larger wort volume (and add less water to the fermenter), more complex hopping, efficient wort cooling, liquid yeast cultures, dry hopping, and all-grain brewing, wherein you start from grain instead of extract. A simple improvement is to add a "secondary fermentation" step: When fermentation has finished, transfer the beer to another carboy for two weeks or so. This can give you clearer, cleaner beer.
These additional procedures offer more options, more ways to tweak your product. Good brewing notes and more attention to details will allow you to customize your flavors, too.
Very faint sherry-like or cardboardy flavors should not discourage you, because they are fixable; as you get more comfortable brewing, handle hot wort and finished beer very gently. Aeration (splashing, spraying, bubbling) of hot wort or of finished beer can lead to oxidation and produce those flavors. The only time you should aerate actively is when your freshly brewed wort has cooled, so siphon gently, stir primings carefully, and so forth. If you have not reached perfection in your routine, you'll still have the ability to make great beer. Don't worry if your siphon hose bubbles when you're filling a bottle, but think about ways to reduce the bubbles next time.
These additional procedures offer more options, more ways to tweak your product. Good brewing notes and more attention to details will allow you to customize your flavors, too.
So remember to keep it fun. Brewing resembles other hobbies in at least one way. As you get off the float plane in Alaska, laden with fishing rods, outboard motor, 1,000 lures, and a giant MasterCard bill, remember: That first fish, caught across the street from your grandparents' house on a plain, old worm made you as happy - at that time - as any you might expect on this Alaska trip. At this time, the beer will likely amaze you not only with its tasty flavor but with its glimpse of the magic: It's as easy as dunkin' a worm in a pond. As you sip a tasty store- or pub-bought beer after becoming a brewer, you will think, "Hmmm...finished with Cascade hops, I think I could brew that, only mine would be a bit better."