Saturday, February 28, 2015

Hop To It: Make Your Own Awesome Beer!

Life is too short to drink bad beer. Thanks to the surge in craft brewing, good beer is pretty easy to find these days. What you may not know is that making your own good beer is also easy, fun and allows you to experiment with your own ideas. This article will give you all the information you need to get started.

There are two basic approaches to home brewing: Extract and all-grain. The liquid you will make that becomes beer with fermentation — called “wort,” which is pronounced wert — comes from drawing the sugars out of crushed, malted grains. In all-grain brewing, you do that yourself by steeping the grains in hot water for an hour or more. In extract brewing, that step has been done for you and the resulting wort condensed into a syrup or dried into a powder, called malt extract, which you can purchase from brewing supply stores.

I am going to teach you how to brew with extract because it requires less equipment (and therefore, costs less to get started) and is a good way to get some experience learning basic brewing principles.

Part One: Shopping List

You can get most of the equipment you need by buying a homebrew kit from a homebrew supplier, which supplies the basic tools you need. Buying an equipment kit might cost a bit more than buying things piece by piece, but it also (mostly) ensures you don’t overlook anything you need. You can get a good kit at any homebrew supply store, whether local or online. When I order online, I prefer to go through Northern Brewer. If you do want to buy the individual pieces instead, watch for the boldfaced words in Part Two of this article below—I will highlight each piece of equipment as it’s used.

In addition to the equipment in the kit, you will need:

A brewing kettle. This is simply a stockpot that you will use to boil your wort. In extract brewing you don’t have to boil the entire volume of water of your batch, but you do want some added space to accommodate the expansion of the liquid as it boils. A five-gallon pot is ideal. It needs a lid as well. You can buy a good boiling kettle at any homebrew supplier, but a repurposed kitchen stockpot will do just fine. Stainless steel is a good material, but aluminum works well too and often costs a good bit less.

Bottles. You can repurpose commercial beer bottles if you want to — those with traditional caps, not screw-offs — but it does not cost much to buy bottles made for homebrewers from a supplier. A five-gallon batch of beer (the standard size for extract brewing) will fill about 54 12-ounce bottles or 30 22-ounce bottles.

Bottle caps. You can’t repurpose bottle caps, so make sure you have enough on hand on bottling day. These also come from any homebrew supply store.

Sanitizer. There are a few choices here. My favorites are StarSan and Iodophor, both of which come in concentrated form and are diluted significantly to use. Sanitization is critical to keep unwanted organisms out of your beer while it ferments.

Ingredients. I recommend you start with a recipe kit (not to be confused with the equipment kit I mentioned earlier), which includes all of the ingredients you need for that particular beer. Your kit may or may not include yeast and priming sugar (it varies with supplier.) If these are not included, the kit will tell you which yeast is recommended. Priming sugar is just a small bag of corn sugar. (More on this later.)

Choose a simple ale or a stout for your first brew. Lagers require cooler fermentation (meaning more precise temperature control) and longer fermentation time. For this article, I used the Irish Red Ale kit by Brewer's Best. This was the first beer I ever made, so I can confirm it is an excellent beginner's choice.

Part Two: Brew Day

Before you begin: Get a notebook and plan to keep a log. Write down the measurements you take (more on that later), any variations you make to the recipe or process and anything that happens that could potentially cause a problem.

Your recipe kit will come with directions that you should follow. In general, though, this is what you can expect.

Fill your kettle. For a five gallon extract brew, you will boil 2 ½ to 3 gallons of water (your recipe will specify.) The resulting wort is concentrated and, when you move it into the fermenter later, you will add more water to bring it to the full five gallons.

(Note: Even though you will boil only about half of the water a five-gallon kettle holds, don't try to use a smaller kettle. Boiling wort expands with heat, and a boilover is practically impossible to prevent if you don't allow ample capacity.)

Steep your specialty grains. Most extract brew recipes (though not all) also call for a small amount of grain to add flavor. You’ll put the grains into a small muslin bag and steep them in hot water (the recipe will specify the temperature and time, but it’s usually around 160 to 170 degrees F for 20 minutes.

Your kit should include a thermometer that is capable of measuring very hot water. You are not trying to create fermentable sugars here, just add some flavor and color, so the steeping time is much shorter than it would be for an all-grain brew.

Prepare your yeast: Yeast comes in several forms. It might be a packet of dry yeast powder. If so, you will want to reconstitute it with warm water about 20 minutes before you need it, so come back to this step later. 

It might be vial of liquid yeast, in which case you’ll want to take it out of the refrigerator now so that it can come to room temperature before time to pitch.

Or it might be a “smack pack,” which is a plastic pouch that contains yeast and yeast food. There is an inner pouch inside that you need to break by smacking the package with the heel of your hand. After that the outer pouch will expand as the yeast begins to feed and multiply. Smack it at such time that it can expand for at least three hours before you need it, and longer is better.

Start the boil. Turn up the heat and let the liquid come to a boil. Expect this to take a while; boiling multiple gallons of water requires a lot of heat.

Add the extracts. It’s a good idea to take the kettle off the heat for this step, as adding the extract can lead to a messy boilover if you’re not careful. You will have a long-handled metal or plastic spoon to stir the extract into the water. Make sure to stir well to avoid a sticky burned-on mess at the bottom of your pot.

Return to boil and add other ingredients as specified. During the boil, which is usually one hour, you will add hops on a schedule specified by your recipe. A simple ale or stout recipe should not have any special flavoring ingredients, but if you are using those, add them when the recipe says too (not all additional ingredients go into the boil, so read your instructions carefully.)

Hops come in pelletized form, and there are many varieties. The bitterness of hops come from the alpha acids, and those you add near the start of the boil contribute the most hop flavor. Many recipes also call for an addition of hops near the end of the boil. These are not in long enough for much flavor extraction, but they contribute to the all-important aroma.

Note that there are many varieties of hops and if your recipe uses more than one type, make sure you are using the right one at each hop addition.

Cool the wort. The easiest way to do this is to put the kettle, covered, into the kitchen sink and fill it with ice and cold water. Your goal here is to cool it from boiling to around 70 degrees F to prepare it for the yeast.

NOTE: You didn’t need to sanitize anything earlier because the boil takes care of sanitizing the wort and the kettle it’s in. However, the boil is now over and everything that touches the wort from this point on must be sanitized, including the thermometer you will use to track the cooling.

The easiest way to sanitize the fermenter and the other equipment you need is to add the specified amount of concentrated sanitizer to the fermenter and fill it with water, and soak the other components in it. Star San calls for an ounce of the concentrate for five gallons of water. After things have been in contact with the sanitizer for a few minutes, they are safe to use. Place the smaller items on clean paper towels and dump the sanitizer out of the fermenter, retaining a cup or two for touch-ups.

Move wort to fermenter. The fermenter is a food-grade plastic bucket with an airtight lid. The lid has a hole in the top, rimmed with an o-ring, to accommodate an airlock. The airlock is a small plastic device that you will partially fill with water or vodka, which allows the gases of fermentation to escape while preventing outside contaminants from getting in.

Pour or siphon the cooled wort into the fermenter, trying to leave as much of the sludge in the pot behind as you can. (Buy an auto-siphon, which starts with a pumping action rather than your mouth). Note that you have less wort than you started with, because some of the water has boiled off. Add enough clean water to the fermenter to bring the total volume to five gallons. (If your bucket was made to be a fermenter, it will probably have a scale on it to show you the five-gallon mark.)

Using a sanitized measuring cup or coffee mug, dip out a cup or so of the wort. Be sure not to touch the wort remaining in the bucket with your hand or anything else that hasn’t been sanitized. You’ll use this sample in a moment to check the specific gravity.

Pitch the Yeast: Pour it in and stir, or put the lid on the fermenter and rock it, to aerate. Some recipes will tell you that you can pitch dry yeast by simply sprinkling it into the wort. This usually works too, but I prefer to reconstitute it according to the packet directions.

At this point, put the airlock into its place and put the fermenter somewhere that it will be out of the way for a few days.

The gravity of the situation.  Now take that sample you pulled and use your hydrometer to measure the specific gravity. This is a measure of the density of the liquid relative to pure water.

Your recipe should give you the desired Original Gravity (O.G.) range, the density you should have achieved if everything went as planned. 

You will also have a specified target final gravity that will be lower than the O.G. This shows the action of the yeast in converting the sugars in the wort to alcohol.

Pure water has a specific gravity of 1.000. A typical ale recipe might say, for example, that the O.G. is 1.050 and the F.G. is 1.010. You might not get those numbers exactly, but they should be close.

Note: You also need to know the temperature of the sample. The hydrometer is calculated to give an accurate reading at a specified temperature, usually 68 degrees F. If your sample is warmer or cooler than that, you can use an online calculator like this one to convert the reading. 

The hydrometer might look like something out of a laboratory (because it is), but it is easy to use. You simply pour some wort into the sample jar and float the hydrometer in it, weighted end down. The instrument will float higher in denser liquid. Take your reading on a level surface.

You can also taste the sample to see how the flavor is, but it will not tell you much about the finished product, as you will be tasting the unfermented sugars. In any case, discard the sample, do not return it to the wort.

Part Three: Bottling and Conditioning.

Your recipe should say how long to set the fermenter aside, as this will vary depending on the type of beer, but generally it will be within 2 to 4 weeks.

The next step will be to add priming sugar, bottle your brew, and condition it, which means letting it age another 1-2 weeks to mature the flavors and develop carbonation.

Your first step is to sanitize your bottles, bottle caps and dissolve your priming sugar into boiling water. For the bottles, you can soak them in Star San or Iodophor (diluted per the instructions).

I usually use the dishwasher to wash them in hot water, adding the heated dry and steam sanitize functions to get them ready.

To sanitize the bottle caps, boil them on the stovetop in enough water to cover and let them cool enough so that you can fish them out one at a time without burning your fingers.

Once the bottles are ready, boil the priming sugar that came with the kit using the ratio of sugar to water your instructions specify. Let it cool just a bit and pour it into the bottling bucket, which is similar to the primary fermenter, but with a spigot to let it pour into bottles. The equipment kit comes with both a fermenter and bottling bucket.

Siphon the wort from the fermenter into the bottling bucket. As you did when it first went into the fermenter, get a sample and test the gravity again. This measurement is called the final gravity, and hitting the target range confirms that your fermentation was effective and complete.

After you have transferred the wort into the bottling bucket, rock it gently for a minute or two, or stir with your long-handled spoon (sanitized!)  to mix the sugar water through. 

The last piece of equipment you need is a bottle capper, which is basically just a lever that crimps the cap around the bottle.

You can get a two-handled hand-held model or one that rests on a counter or floor.

Fill the bottles and cap them as fast you reasonably can, using whichever method you prefer.  You probably will have a few bottles left over, which is better than not having enough available.

Store the bottles somewhere safe for a couple of weeks. During this time, the priming sugar reawakens your yeast and a tiny bit more fermentation happens; because the bottles are now sealed, the carbon dioxide cannot escape and instead dissolves into the liquid to carbonate it. That lovely head of foam you get when you pour a beer is the result of this step.

After the conditioning period has passed comes the moment of truth. Chill a few bottles of your brew, and then pour one.

If everything went well, your should see a smooth pour with a nice head, but not too much. (If the beer geysers out of the bottle when you open it, your carbonation has overachieved.)

Look at the color. It should match the style you were aiming for, whether a golden pilsner, a ruby red ale or an opaque chocolate-brown stout.

Finally, lift the glass and inhale, and then taste. Pay close attention to the sweetness of the malt, the bitterness of the hops and the balance between them.

If you have followed these steps and also paid attention to your specific recipe, it will probably be wonderful.If it is not, though, look back through your log and think back through the steps you followed to see what might have gone wrong. Take it is a learning experience and try again.

Soon you will be ready to ,build on these basics, making more complex beers and even designing your own. As a hobby, homebrewing allows tremendous creativity and pays off big -- both in fresh, wonderful homemade beer and the pride of having created something truly your own.


  1. I love the detailed description :)

  2. This is a great tutorial. Totally sending this to my husband! Thanks for linking up at Found & Foraged.

  3. Awesome step by step of the process and what to expect. I'm a big fan of making your own because of what you mentioned--the satisfaction that comes from it.

    I know this is such a tiny fraction of the article, but the "smack pack" keeps coming back to me. I love that idea for starting yeast. Please excuse my need for violence!
    Thanks for linking up with See Ya in the Gumbo this week.