Published September 23, 2013
In our homebrewing primer, Kyler Serfass, of Brooklyn Homebrew, offers a step-by-step guide to making your own beer.
Step 1: Mashing & Sparging
The first step to making your own beer is mashing, which is beer terminology for steeping or soaking your grains in hot water for about one hour. The goal is to convert the starches in the grain (barley is the most common grain, but wheat and rye are also used) into fermentable sugars. Different recipes call for a thicker or thinner mash in order to achieve different beer styles, but for the most part you'll follow a basic formula of 1.5 quarts of water for every 1 pound of grain.
Mashing is done in a large pot on the stove, with water that's 150°F to 155°F. This temperature can vary depending on the beer you're making: A slightly higher mash temperature makes beer with more body and sweetness but a lower alcohol content, whereas a slightly lower mash temperature produces a drier, light-bodied beer with a higher alcohol level.
Hitting and maintaining that ideal mash temperature is key, but when you pour grains into the pot, they'll inevitably lower the water temperature. To compensate, Serfass suggests heating the water 10°F to 15°F above your target temperature. When the grain is added, the temperature should balance out to about where you want it. Use your thermometer to monitor the mash temperature, raising or lowering the flame or stirring out the heat as necessary to maintain a 150°F to 155°F temperature throughout the process.
Once the grains are in the pot and the temperature is stabilized at 150°F to 155°F, put the lid on, set a timer, and let the grains mash for 60 minutes. While you're waiting, arrange a sparge bag, or hop bag, inside a second large pot, so that the edge of the bag is wrapped around the rim of the pot. Add a gallon of water and bring it to about 180°F.
When the 60-minute mash is complete, it's time to sparge, or rinse, your grains in the 180°F water. This step stops the conversion of starch into sugar, and also rinses the remaining sugar from the grains. Pour the grains, along with all the mash liquid, into the pot of 180°F water, then lift the sparge bag containing the grains out of the water, letting any excess water drip back into the pot. The combined mash and sparge liquid will form the basis of your beer (you can discard the grains): This sugary liquid is called wort, which just means unfermented beer.
Depending on the size of your pot, how much sparge liquid you collected, and how much beer you're making, you may want to add cold water to the wort. Add enough cold water to have at least 3 gallons, and up to 6.5 gallons, of wort.
Step 2: Boiling & Hopping
The next step in the process is to bring the wort to a boil and set a timer for 60 minutes. Add malted-barley extract (this is an essential part of the beer's flavor) according to your recipe, stirring thoroughly to dissolve and prevent scorching, then immediately begin the hopping process.
Which hops you use and when they are added depends on the beer you're making and the recipe you're following. Generally, the first hop addition takes place as soon as you set the timer; these are called the bittering hops. Flavor hops are typically added around 30 minutes, followed by aroma hops, which are added between 15 and 0 minutes. Again, your recipe will dictate which hops to use as well as the specific hop schedule.
Step 3: Chilling, Aerating & Pitching Yeast
Following the hop additions, the wort must be cooled to room temperature, or below 70°F. (If you're making a lager-style beer, you'll need to chill the wort to about 50°F.) From this point forward, the brewing process becomes a cold one and it's essential that all tools and equipment be properly cleaned and sanitized. Sanitation is so important, in fact, that Serfass estimates that cleaning makes up about 90 percent of homebrewing. See our equipment checklist for more on using sanitizer.
Beginners typically use an ice bath to chill the wort, submerging the pot in a large bucket or sink filled with ice. Use as much ice as possible and stir the wort to speed up the process. Quickly chilling the wort lowers the risk for contamination and helps keep the wort clear rather than cloudy.
A faster, more efficient option is to use a wort chiller, which is a copper coil that you hook up to a sink and run cold water through. It works as a heat exchanger, transferring the heat from the wort into the cold water. The best, most effective way to chill the wort, says Serfass, is to use a wort chiller in conjunction with an ice bath. But one or the other will definitely get the job done.
Once the wort is chilled, use a sanitized siphon or auto-siphon to transfer it to your sanitized fermentor. Note that depending on how much wort you have, you may need to fill up your fermentor with additional water—in other words, if you're using a 5-gallon carboy, it should contain 5 gallons of wort. Once the carboy is filled, close it with a sanitized stopper and an air lock. (If you're using a bucket as a fermentor, you'll need an air lock but won't require a stopper.)
With the wort in the fermentor, it's time to aerate, or add oxygen, which is essential to healthy fermentation. Aeration allows the yeast to ferment the sugar, turning it into alcohol and carbon dioxide, and thereby transforming the wort into beer. To aerate, Serfass recommends simply rocking the fermentor back and forth for about 5 to 10 minutes.
Following aeration, it's time to pitch the yeast, which is just homebrew-speak for adding yeast to the fermentor. If you're fermenting in a carboy with a narrow opening, use a funnel to neatly add the yeast, then attach a stopper and an air lock. Again, it's essential that everything be sanitized, including the yeast package, the scissors you use to cut the package open, the funnel, the stopper, and the air lock.
Step 4: Fermenting
Fermenting doesn't require any active work. Most beginner brewers start with ale-style beers, which ferment around room temperature or 65°F to 75°F. Lagers, on the other hand, ferment around 45°F to 55°F, so they require space in a refrigerator. Lagers also need to be "lagered" or kept near freezing for several weeks, which is another reason newbies usually start with ales.
Place the carboy or fermenting bucket in a cool (65°F to 75°F), dark place and let your beer ferment for about two weeks. The length of fermentation is very yeast-dependent, but Serfass says that two weeks should be plenty of time for most ale yeasts. (Lagers ferment for four to eight weeks.)
All you need to worry about is keeping the temperature constant and the fermentor closed; the beer takes care of the rest. Throughout fermentation you'll see the air lock bubble as the yeast does its work and carbon dioxide escapes. When the air lock stops bubbling, the beer is ready.
Step 5: Bottling
With the two-week fermentation complete, you've officially made beer. In preparation for bottling, sanitize your bottles, caps, and bottle capper, as well as your siphon or auto-siphon, and bottling bucket. You'll also need to sanitize the priming sugar that goes in the bottling bucket. (Priming sugar is a simple sugar that helps create carbonation.) To do so, boil the priming sugar in a small amount of water (about 1 cup of water per 5 ounces of priming sugar) for 5 to 10 minutes then pour it into the bottling bucket.
Most beer kits come with a bottle filler, which is a tube that attaches to the spigot on the bottling bucket. The bottle filler holds the beer until its trigger hits the bottom of the bottle, and then it releases the beer. Transfer your beer to the bottling bucket, leaving behind as much yeast sediment as possible.
Once the bottles are filled and capped, store them in a cool, dark place for about a week to allow them to carbonate. This step is necessary unless you like your beer flat. When the week is up, chill one beer then pop it open to check the carbonation. If it's ready, chill the remaining bottles and get ready to enjoy your homebrew. Otherwise, leave the bottles in a cool, dark place for a few more days before testing another one.
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