There's no doubt about it: Homebrewing is on the rise, thanks in part to the DIY movement in the food and drink world, as well as a growing interest in independent beer brewing worldwide.
In 2011, The New York Times reported that the 26,000-member American Homebrewers Association had more than doubled its ranks since 2006, when it had just 11,724 members.
With so many people making their own beer, there are naturally more books, Web sites, clubs, competitions, and events devoted to the art of homebrewing. And even in a sluggish economy, brewing suppliers are experiencing dramatic increases in sales. According to that same New York Times article, homebrew supply shops recorded double-digit growth in the late 2000s.
If you've ever considered making your own beer, the good news is that it's a very doable proposition. With just a handful of ingredients, a couple pieces of specialty equipment, and a few basic skills, you can start homebrewing.
To help you learn the basic technique, we enlisted Kyler Serfass, who teaches beginners' and advanced brewing at Brooklyn Homebrew, an ingredient and equipment shop in Brooklyn's Gowanus neighborhood.
In this primer and accompanying how-to video series, Serfass offers a step-by-step guide to the homebrewing process, and introduces the essential ingredients and tools. He also shares a recipe for one of his recent creations, Kyler's Cascadian Dark Ale, a dark hoppy style that's trending in the homebrew community. Read on, and you just may say good-bye to commercial beer.
Lagers vs. Ales
Before you dive into homebrewing, it's important to understand that there are two main beer styles: ales and lagers. Ales tend to be fruity and robust, and include stouts, porters, amber ales, and India pale ales (or IPAs). Lagers, by contrast, are characteristically clean, crisp, and neutral in flavor; this category includes Pilsners, bocks, and Märzenbiers (or Oktoberfest beers). (If you're interested in what to eat with different brews, see our guide to beer and food pairings.)
The critical difference between ales and lagers is the type of yeast used in fermentation. Ale yeasts ferment around room temperature (65°F to 70°F) and are top-fermenting, meaning they ferment near the top of the fermentor. Lager yeasts ferment around 45°F to 55°F and are bottom-fermenting, sticking closer to the bottom of the fermentor.
The brewing process for ales and lagers is very similar, except that lagers must be cooled to a lower temperature prior to fermentation, and lagers also undergo a longer, cooler fermentation. That long, cool fermentation requires dedicated refrigerator space, so it's common for homebrewers to start with ales, which can be fermented in a cool, dark place such as a closet.
There are two basic ways to make beer, partial-mash brewing and full-mash (or all-grain) brewing. Partial-mash is an easier, more approachable method and Brooklyn Homebrew's Kyler Serfass recommends it for first-time brewers. Here, and in our how-to video, we'll walk through the steps of a partial-mash brew. Plus, we've included Serfass' recipe for Cascadian Dark Ale, which is a great beer for first-time brewers. Once you master the basic method and make a few batches of beer, you may want to move on to full-mash.
What You'll Need
Many brew shops and online resources offer beer kits that contain everything you need to brew a batch of beer; alternatively, you can purchase each ingredient separately. Here's a list of what you'll need to get started.
Grain: While grain (typically barley but sometimes wheat or rye) is the foundation of beer, it's not the grain itself that brewers want but rather the sugars it contains. Yeast converts those sugars into alcohol, which means that the more grain a beer contains, the higher the beer's final alcohol level. Most recipes include a mix of different grains to give a beer its characteristic body, flavor, and color. Grains are often called malts, because the grain is usually malted in a process that involves soaking, draining, and drying the grain in order to activate the enzymes and make the sugars more accessible. Grain also needs to be milled before it's used. Some dedicated homebrewers have their own mills, but most brew shops will mill grains for you. As with grinding beans for coffee, it's best to wait to mill your grains until you're ready to start brewing, as the fresher the grains the better the beer.
Water: Since beer is mostly water, the taste and quality of the water used is important. If you're concerned about your water, consult your local homebrew shop—they've likely heard of or experienced the problem and can offer guidance.
Malt Extract: If you're using the partial-mash approach detailed in this primer and in our how-to video, you'll require malt extract, which is malted barley that has had its starches converted into sugars and then concentrated. There are two forms of malt extract, liquid and dry, and your recipe will indicate which one to use; oftentimes, a recipe will call for a combination of the two. Dry extracts have a longer shelf life than the liquid variety but be sure to check the expiration dates for both. Stirring is particularly important when using dry extract because it clumps easily.
Hops: Hops are the dried, conelike flowers of a particular climbing vine (humulus lupulus) native to parts of North America, Europe, and Asia. They're used to lend bitterness, flavor, and aroma to beer, and are usually added in stages, or hop additions. Hops are available in three forms, whole-leaf, pellet, and plugs. Your recipe and the style of beer you're making will dictate which hops to use and when to use them. As with most ingredients, freshness is key.
Yeast: While there are many different strains of yeast that create a variety of different beers, yeast can be broken down into two main types, which correspond to the two main beer styles, ale and lager. Ale yeast is considered top-fermenting, because most of the fermentation takes place near the top of the fermentor. Lager yeasts stick closer to the bottom of the fermentor and are called bottom-fermenting. Ale yeasts ferment around room temperature for about two weeks, while lager yeasts require a longer, cooler fermentation.
In the beer world, there are two basic forms of yeast, dry and liquid. The dry form can survive for several months at room temperature but both are commonly kept in the refrigerator. Be sure to check the use-by date. Rehydrating dry yeast can yield better results, so read the packaging and follow the directions for rehydration.
Priming Sugar: Priming sugar is highly fermentable simple sugar such as dextrose, dry malt extract, cane sugar, or honey, which is added to the bottling bucket prior to bottling. The yeast still in suspension in the beer will eat this simple sugar, and create carbonation.
Most basic homebrewing kits include all the equipment you'll need, but you can also pick up the necessary tools individually. Whichever approach you prefer, here is an overview of the items you'll need to brew a batch of beer.
Large Pot: To brew a 5-gallon batch of partial-mash beer, you'll need at least one large heavy pot (at least 5 gallons). It's very helpful to have a second large pot, but you can make do with a large bucket or a very large bowl. If you're using the all grain, or full-mash technique, you'll also need a larger heavy pot (at least 7.5 gallons). Mashing can be done on the stove or a sturdy electric burner.
Thermometer: To monitor the temperature throughout the brewing process, you'll need a reliable instant-read thermometer. Look for one with a clip, for attaching to the side of the pot, and a long probe that can reach into the water.
Sparge Bag, or Hop Bag: This large nylon bag is akin to a giant tea sock and takes a lot of the fuss out of sparging. If you use a sparge bag, after you rinse the grains, you can simply lift up the bag and discard the grains while keeping the mash and sparge liquid. If you prefer, you can use a large, sturdy, fine-mesh strainer to hold the grains and then pour the hot sparge water through the strainer.
Wort Chiller: This copper coil offers a quick and effective way to cool down the wort. It's submerged in the hot wort while cold water is run through the coils and transfers the heat from the wort to the cold water. If you don't have a wort chiller, use an ice bath to cool down your wort.
Siphon and Auto-Siphon: A siphon is soft plastic food-grade tubing used to transfer liquid from one vessel to another. An auto-siphon allows you to start the siphon in a more sanitary way—without an auto-siphon you need to use your mouth to start the siphon.
Fermentor: A fermentor is a large vessel used to hold the beer while it ferments. A glass carboy is ideal because it allows you to see the beer throughout fermentation. A large plastic bucket with a good lid can also be used, but it should be food-safe, with no visible scratches, and designated for beer making only.
Hydrometer: This tool measures the specific gravity or sugar density of your beer, which allows you to calculate the APV, or alcohol per volume.
Air Lock: This small, plastic water valve is affixed to the fermentor to allow carbon dioxide to escape without letting oxygen in during fermentation. If you're using a carboy, you'll also need a stopper.
Funnel: If you're using a carboy to ferment, you'll need a funnel to pour the yeast through the glass jug's small opening.
Bottling Bucket: A second large plastic bucket (not your fermentor) with a hole near the bottom and a spigot attached is used in the bottling process. Look for a bottling bucket that comes with a bottle filter, which is a tube that helps in the bottling process.
Bottles, Bottle Caps, and Bottle Capper: To bottle beer, you'll need clean, sanitized bottles, preferably ones made of brown glass to prevent light damage. You can reuse bottles from commercial beer but not the twist-off variety. Each gallon of beer fills 10 bottles so you'll need 50 bottles for a 5-gallon batch. Don't forget a bottle capper and plenty of caps (they're usually sold in a gross or packs of 140).
Cleaner/Sanitizer: Cleaning and sanitizing are essential to homebrewing, especially during the later part of the process when you're working with cold liquid. Keep in mind that this is a two-step process: Something must be cleaned before it can be sanitized. Most equipment can be soaked in a sanitizing solution but you may find it helpful to also have a spray bottle of sanitizer on hand. Food-grade, no-rinse sanitizers eliminate much of the fuss, as you don't have to worry if a little residue is left inside your beer bottles. Star-San and BTF Lodophor are two common brands of sanitizer.
1. 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.
2. 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.
3. 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.
4. 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.
5. 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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