If the thought of enjoying an ice-cold beer made with your own hands appeals to you, you’re not alone. Interest in home brewing has grown over the last several years, in part due to the popularity of craft beers.
You might think that making beer is very hard to do; that you need a PhD and a lot of specialized equipment. Or you’ve heard that it takes forever. The fact is, making beer can be easy—or very complicated. That’s one of the reasons why it’s so much fun! You can start off brewing beer with a simple kit, and as you get more comfortable with the process, you can “up” the complexity. Bottom line: if you can make oatmeal, you can make beer.
There are many different types of ingredients and kits available for making beer at home. Novice brewers might want to consider a malt extract kit, which will have all the ingredients you need to brew beer: malt extract, hops, and yeast. You may also want to get a home brewing kit that has all of the equipment. Your home brewing shop—local or online—can set you up with everything you need.
Most home brew kits yield about five gallons of beer, or, about forty 12-ounce bottles—which is why you might want to start off with a one- or two-gallon kit. Forty bottles of beer is a lot to consume by yourself! However, it has been my experience that if you make beer, your friends will be happy to drink it for you.
To start out, I recommend making an ale-style beer. They can be very light in body, such as a Kölsch-style beer, or very heavy, like an imperial stout. Ale-style beers are also easier to deal with than lager-style beers, which require a specific temperature range (around 35 degrees F) for fermentation. Most home refrigerators do not have the room for a six-gallon bucket.
Line Up Your Equipment
To make your beer, you are going to need some special equipment. Brewing beer is like any hobby—the more involved you get, the more gadgets you will pick up. You can purchase each piece individually or buy a kit that contains all of the basics.
Whatever approach you choose, you’ll need a 6.5-gallon fermentation bucket with a fermentation lid. This lid has a small hole in it for an airlock, which will allow CO2 gas out but not allow air in. If you are making five gallons of beer, a standard five-gallon bucket is not big enough; the beer needs extra room for proper fermentation. Do not use the orange buckets from your local hardware store.
You will also need:
- A wort chiller, which is a long spiral copper tube that is hooked up to your sink and is designed to help cool the hot liquid very quickly
- A wort filter
- An auto siphon
- A bottling bucket with a spigot
- A bottle capper
A non-rinse sanitizer made especially for brewing. This is essential for making good beer. Please do not use home sanitizers, including bleach—beer making requires a special sanitizer.
Next, you will need a stock pot that will hold about three gallons of liquid. I recommend a pot with a thick bottom to ensure even heating. Three gallons of liquid is more than you think! Something to consider: how long will it take your stove to bring three gallons of liquid to a boil? Will you be watching it for three hours? If your stove is not powerful enough, consider using a burner from a turkey fryer, which you can set up outdoors. One day you can use it to make beer, and the next day you can fry a turkey. All the more reason to get one!
Finally, buy a hydrometer. This piece of equipment will help you calculate the alcohol content and know when fermentation is complete.
Calling All Clean Freaks
When making beer, you must be a clean freak. I mean a super clean freak. In a brewery, a brewer spends a lot of time cleaning and ensuring that all of the equipment is fully sanitized. Beer is a living entity, and you need to have a very clean environment for it to turn out properly. Not to get too technical, but there are good microbes and bad microbes, and they both want to enjoy the sugar water called wort. The goal is to have the good microbes—yeast—grow and develop flavor before the bad guys move in. If the bad guys win, then your beer will be sour and unappealing. Beer is at its weakest the first couple of days of the process; as it develops, the beer becomes more resilient, and better at keeping the bad microbes out.
It’s Time to Make the Beer
Preparation is Everything
On brewing day, make sure all of your equipment is clean and sanitized. (Remember, super clean freak!) And when it comes to the directions: read, read, and read again. You want to make sure you have a full understanding of the directions before you start. They’re not complicated, but you want to make sure you follow them correctly.
Watch the Pot Boil
For an all-malt kit, first heat about 2.5 gallons of water to 170 degrees F. Remove the pot from the heat and add your liquid or powdered malt. Place the pot back on the stove and bring it to a boil. Depending on what type of beer you are making, you will add hops during the 60 to 90 minutes of boiling time. As long as your mixture, called a wort, is boiling, the heat prevents the bad microbes from coming in. At this point, you have been watching a pot boil and not a whole lot has been going on. But now is when all the action starts to happen.
Chill, Stir, and Lock It Up
Remove the wort from the stove, filter it, and chill it down as fast as you can. (This is why a wort chiller comes in handy.) Now is the time to measure a sample with the hydrometer and get the original gravity (OG). When it comes to beer, gravity is the density of sugar to water—a higher-density beer can potentially become a beer with higher alcohol content.
When the beer is under 70 degrees F, add your yeast. You want to vigorously stir the mixture for about three minutes, and then place the sanitized lid on top with the airlock. There should be a little of the sanitizing solution in the airlock. After about 24 to 36 hours, you will see the airlock bubble away. This is a good thing; it means the yeast is working and you are making beer.
Let the Yeast Do Its Job
Now the waiting period starts again. Depending on the type of beer you’re making, after about four weeks, the yeast has done its job and it is time to bottle. There is a wide range of different size glass bottles you can use. You can even use recycled old beer bottles. Regardless of which bottles you choose, you want to wash and sanitize them (clean super freak).
Measure, Bottle, Wait, and Enjoy
Now that your bottles are prepped, it’s time to remove the lid from your beer bucket. Take your sanitized siphon and transfer the beer into your sanitized bucket. Take another sample and use your hydrometer to get your final gravity (FG). Add a priming sugar (which should come with your kit) to your mixture. This sugar is what will create the CO2 for your beer.
Using your hydrometer, continue to measure samples for several days in a row to make sure the FG stays the same. If there is any difference, then your beer is not done yet. If you bottle before fermentation is complete, you might end up with exploding bottles. I had a couple of bottles explode in my basement two years ago and I am still finding shards of glass.
Once you have determined that your beer has a stable FG, you can fill your bottles. Place a sanitized cap on the bottles, crimp, and let them sit for two more weeks. During this two weeks, the beer is creating more flavor and carbonation. While you wait, you can take your OG and your FG and calculate your beer’s alcohol content with the magic of an online brewing calculator.
Finally, after all of your hard work, you have beer! Remember, the more you brew beer, the better you will get at it—and the more friends you will have.
Beverage expert, home brewer, and CIA graduate Doug Miller is a former associate professor of hospitality and service management at the college.