Sunday, February 22, 2009

A Crash Course in Home Brewing

I’ve had a couple of friends over on Facebook mention that they were interested in trying my beers or brewing their own beer. The main factor for them (or as it is considered in beginning any new hobby) is “How much is this going to cost me?”

Brewing beer, like any hobby, can cost as much or as less as you want it to. You can buy a used set of golf clubs at a garage sale, and depending on your local public course greens fee, can probably golf relatively cheap. On the other hand, you can spend tons of money on new clubs, goofy looking balls, a golf cart, accessories, join a country club, etc. Personally, I think I’ve golfed 4 times in my life. I like the part of being outdoors and hanging out with people, but I don’t really feel the need to go chasing after a little, white ball.

The best thing for you to do is look for local brewers in your area and ask them when they are brewing so you can see how it is done. I had a buddy who had all the equipment, so I started out buying a piece here and there until I finally splurged last fall and bought the equipment I really wanted.


When it comes down to it, you probably have what you need to do the actual brewing part of beer in your house: A good-sized kettle and a big spoon for stirring. I had a 3-gallon aluminum kettle that always burned my jambalaya when I cooked it. Some people say you should use stainless steel, but recently, I’ve read on various forums that some people have used aluminum pots for the boil for years.

I would suggest getting at least a 9-gallon kettle. Ingredient kits are made for brewing 5 gallons of beer, which should yield you about 2 cases of beer, and you have to boil the beer (wort) for 60 minutes (sometimes longer), so you want to be able to put about 6 or 6.5 gallons in your kettle.

You’re also going to need (at a minimum) a hydrometer and a tube or vessel to put the wort in so you can measure the gravity, so you know when it’s done fermenting, some kind of fermenting vessel so it can ferment, a ferment lock, a bottling bucket, caps, a bottle capper, and some sanitizer. It might not hurt to buy some muslin bags for the grain and some hop bags for the hops.

You should shop around, but both Northern Brewer and Midwest Supplies have some decent basic starter kits. If you live in a bigger city, there may even be a local homebrew store (noted in most beer forums as LHBS)


If you’re going to go at this alone, I would suggest buying a kit or two and brew those. Both the Northern Brewer and Midwest Supplies have their own kits. I would recommend trying NBs Kolsch, or the Wit Bier. You can try the other recipes, but these two extract kits don’t come with any specialty grains. You just heat your water up to about 150, stir in the syrup or extract, then bring the whole thing to a boil. Then you follow the hop schedule.

Extract kits with specialty grains aren’t difficult to master. They just require one extra step, and you just need a thermometer. See “Brewing” below.

If you really want to make a certain style or clone a recipe, you can usually find one out there by googling the name of the beer and using the words “clone recipe” or just “recipe” after it. Some breweries will even list the ingredients. You can use beer brewing software to help you figure out quantities, and get close, or even nail it. This is an medium-beginner technique, though, and you shouldn’t worry about it yet.

Once you get your kit, take the yeast out and put it in the fridge. Don’t freeze it. I always put the hops in the freezer, but if you’re brewing in a week’s time, I wouldn’t sweat it.


Here’s what you need to brew:

The biggest pot you have
A big spoon
A stove or one of them turkey fryer burners (I have a turkey fryer burner because I can do the boil outside and not stink up the house, plus, they have a higher BTU rate than the big BTU burner on my stove, and they kick ass).

If you’re using a Wyeast product, follow the instructions on smacking the pack. Do this up to 8 hours before you use it, or no less than 3 before you start brewing. If the package doesn’t look like it’s puffing up, then you might have a bad yeast, and you may as well call of brewing unless you can get another one right away. The White Labs are little test tubes that you shake up. Take it out of the fridge and set it on the counter before starting to brew, to warm it up. I’ve never used dry yeast, but it’s probably the easiest. I recommend the Wyeast products.

Like I said above, you’re going to follow the instructions included in the kit, and basically do the following:

If you have specialty grains, put them in the included muslin bag. Set this bag of grains aside in a bowl or outside on the porch, because dust will fall out of the bag.

Depending on how you are going to chill the wort will depend on how much water you use. If you plan on immersing the pot into a tub or sink of ice to cool it to 70 degrees after the boil, then I would use about 3 gallons max for the boil. If you have some kind of immersion chiller or a huge bank of snow, then I would pour 6 gallons into the pot, if your pot is that big.

Get your water heated up to 154 degrees and then turn off the heat. Put the bag of grains in there and let it sit or steep, for like 45 minutes (check the instructions, sometimes it’s longer). Keep an eye on the temperature. You don’t want it to go above 160, but you should try to keep it about 154-156.

If you got the Wit or the Kolsch kit, you won’t have to worry about this step. Instead, as the temperature gets up to about 140-150, start pouring in the extract syrup and stir it vigorously for about 5-10 minutes. You don’t want the syrup burning on the bottom of the pot.

Bring it to a boil. Watch the kettle here. It will help if you have a thermometer on a string that goes into the kettle that you can pull out and read, or one they sell that looks like a big meat thermometer. When it gets close to boiling, you may need to lower the heat so you don’t have a boil over. This is another reason I do this outside, and not in the kitchen. I also had a buddy tell me that he screwed up his girlfriend’s white kitchen cabinets brewing inside. I’m just sayin’.

Once it starts boiling, note the time. You will note the hop schedule will look something like:

2 oz Strisselspalt (60 min)
1 oz Coriander Seed (10 min)

You’re doing a 60 minute boil. So, you’re going to boil the 2 oz of Strisselspalt hops for the whole 60 minutes. 50 minutes later (at 10 minutes left in the boil), you’re going to throw in the Coriander seed. I know this seems backwards, but that’s just how that bird sings.

Depending on how you are going to transfer the wort to the fermenting vessel, you may want to use nylon hop bags that they used to include in kits (but no loner appear to do so). Whole leaf hops actually serve as a nice filter, but you can’t exactly pull them out of the steaming wort at the end of the boil if you’re pouring it into a bucket. Pellet hops (most common style used in kits and for availability) need to be put into bags, as they turn to mush.

Once you’ve reached 60 minutes, cover your kettle and turn off the heat. This is where stuff gets interesting.

Chilling and Pitching Yeast

You’re going to have to get the wort down to 65-70 degrees. Some people say cool the Kolsch wort as cold as you can get it and let the temperature come up. I’ve never tried this, and I wouldn’t recommend it for your first brew, unless you’re crazy like me, in which case go ahead.

The trick here is to cool the stuff as quickly as possible. I have a counterflow wort chiller, which is this kickass tool that allows the beer to flow through a copper coil that is inside a larger plastic hose where cold water from my faucet flows over the copper pipe cooling the wort to the desired temperature. That, coupled with a thru-mometer, which gives a colored readout of the temperature, is just great. You also have some other options:

Using a thermometer put the kettle into a sink full of ice and water. Obviously, don’t fill this to high, as you will overflow the sink if you do. Move the kettle around in the water. You may have to add additional ice and water to cool the wort (which you should check by keeping the thermometer in it). Keep the kettle covered. Banks of snow work surprisingly well for this application as well. I was able to chill some wort for a yeast starter in about 5 minutes, but then, that was only 2 quarts of water.

You can also buy an immersion chiller, which works kind of the opposite of a counterflow chiller, in that one end of a copper coil is attached to a water source, while the other comes off the other end and either goes into your sink or onto the ground (my buddy has an area in his yard where the kids can dig. When we started brewing, this is what we used. It usually resulted in something like 20-30 gallons of water onto the ground, creating an excellent mudpit for the kids).

Probably even simpler is to reduce the size of your boil to maybe 3 or 3.5 gallons so that you end up with 2.5 gallons of hot water. Then, in your fermenting vessel, have the coldest possible amount of water to make up 5 or 5.5 gallons. Pour the hot liquid on top of the cool liquid. You may have to wait a couple of hours or so to pitch your yeast to get it down to 65-70 degrees, but this is easiest.

The most important thing is to try and keep a lid on the kettle to prevent outside organisms from getting into the wort. You’re no longer boiling, so you don’t have a sanitized environment. That’s why the counterflow chillers are so great. We sanitize ours with boiling water before each use, and so the wort flows from the hot, boiled kettle into a clean copper tube, into the fermenting vessel.


When you buy a kit, if you’re going with the cheapest version, you will get a fermenting bucket. These are nice in that the top is a wide open bucket so you don’t need a funnel to pour your hot wort into. If you get a big plastic bottle (I have 2 six-gallon Better Bottles), you will probably need a funnel with a screen on the inside (to prevent excess hops and other particulates).

Once the temperature is 65-70 degrees, pitch the yeast. Have yourself a bucket (fill the bottling bucket or fermentation bucket with up to 5 gallons of water and add an ounce of sanitizer or whatever they provide in the kit) of sanitizer set up, either while you’re brewing, or while you’re waiting for the temp to fall in the fermenter. In this bucket, put in your ferment lock. It’s important to make sure the wort is going to touch sanitized surfaces. If you haven’t sanitized your fermenting vessel, you will also want to do that before you pour the wort in there (not an issue if you did what I said at the top of the paragraph). Let that sanitizer set for a good 15 minutes or more.

Siphon some of the wort out of the vessel into the big hydrometer test tube in your kit, and drop the hydrometer in there to check your Original Gravity. Compare it to the O.G. on the kit to see how well you did.

When using liquid yeast, shake the hell out of it before putting it into the fermenting vessel on top of the wort. If you’re using Wyeast, dip the end of the bag you’re going to cut into the bucket of sanitizer and then pour it on top. Follow instructions if you’re using dry yeast (usually bring a small amount of water to about 70 degrees, shake yeast on top, stir it up and then pour mixture into wort).

Fill the ferment lock with some water about halfway and secure it onto the top of the vessel.

Next, you will need to get oxygen into your mixture. If you have a bucket or a plastic bottle, pick it up, making sure the ferment lock is held onto and shake it for about 30-60 seconds. Glass ferment bottles are available as well, but I have read horror stories about these breaking for no damn good reason. I mean, really, do you want to be dancing in your basement with about 50 pounds of glass and liquid? Me? Not so much.

You can also buy an oxygen stone (around $40) from a beer supply place and a small red tank of oxygen (about $10) at your local hardware store. Sanitize the oxygen stone (not the tubing, stand over a small pan with boiling water) by immersing it into boiling water for 5 minutes. Cover the stone with foil and put the tubing into the sanitizer without dipping the stone into it for about 5 minutes. Also avoid immersing the filter. I usually dip the stone (without the foil, of course) into the fermenting vessel for about 2 minutes. By that time, foam is usually pouring out of the top.

Set the vessel in a corner where it’s going to be at least 65 degrees until the fermentation stops. We’ve done this using space heaters, heating pads, blankets and such in the winter. In the summer in NW Indiana, my basement temperature goes between 68-72 degrees, which is perfect.

In about 24 hours, you should see bubbling in your ferment lock. If so, congratulations, you are making beer! If not, shake it up some more and wait a day. Hopefully it will work out for you.

As the days go by, check your vessel and the lock. Once the bubbling has gone to less than one bubble per minute, it’s likely done. Use a siphon to once again check the gravity. If it’s around 1.009 – 1.016 for those kind of beers you have, it’s probably done fermenting. Make sure by seeing if you get the same result 3 days in a row.

I recommend having a second vessel for secondary fermentation. This step gets the beer off the dead yeast and other crap that has floated to the bottom of the primary fermentation vessel. Using a siphon, set the primary vessel on something higher than the secondary vessel, which should be placed on the floor. Allow the beer to flow from one vessel to the other. Then set this vessel aside without worrying about the temperature. Ideally, you’d like the temperature to be between 35-55 degrees. This will help with the clarity of the beer, unless it’s supposed to be cloudy, then you don’t have to worry about it being so cool. Just don’t allow the temperature to get around 80 or above, because this will impart some off-flavors to your beer.


After a week or two in the secondary, you can bottle the beer. Prep by cleaning around 50 bottles. I would recommend making about 10 gallons of sanitized water and placing the water in a clean cooler that you use for picnics and outdoor festivals, something that can hold 50 bottles lying on their sides. Immerse the bottles in the sanitized water. I have a bottle washer that I use that goes on a sink in my basement. You can buy and adapter for your kitchen sink as well. This is a handy tool that I use after the bottles have been immersed for at least an hour. I usually do this the day before, though.

Next, you will need two pans. In one, put about 55-60 bottle caps and cover them with water. Boil the caps for 5 minutes, and then take the pan to the place where you will be bottling.

In the second pan, boil 2 cups (16 ounces) of water and put three-quarters of a cup of PRIMING sugar (don’t use normal table sugar, as this will fuck up your beer) that came with your ingredient kit and also boil for five minutes. Do not put more sugar than this into the mixture, as it is likely to cause exploding bottles.

Siphon or pour your beer into your bottling bucket. Make sure you have sanitized your beer filling wand (that came with your kit) and the hose that connects the wand to the bucket. You can put these in the cooler with the bottles.

Pour the sugar water into the bottling bucket on top of the beer. Don’t worry about stirring it in.

Fill your bottles and cap them, then set them aside.

The Waiting is the Hardest Part

Usually, in 10 days, I pop a bottle and check the beer. Most of the time, it’s decent. What I mean by this is that it has some what of a head and tastes like beer. The beer usually becomes perfect after 3 weeks in the bottle. By then, you’re getting a decent head, good carbonation, and the flavor has developed.


I totally recommend reading a book or two on the subject in conjunction with brewing a batch or two with someone who knows what they’re doing. Some homebrewers are choosey about who they let drink their beer. My friend, John, told me after I had bought my first batch that we brewed and I was going to take 12 to a party that I shouldn’t. I ended up finding bottles of my beer that still had a good third of the beer in the bottom of the bottle. This was a lighter, hoppier ale, and it was bitter, so there’s no doubt that it was an acquired taste.

Understand that this is the shortest I could make this article. There are tricks and tools out there that I didn’t mention. Mostly, I just wanted to give you an idea of what was required to brew beer. It’s definitely more work than going to the grocery and picking up a sixer of a microbrew. I enjoy it, though, and want to spread the joy as much as I can.

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