Brewing is like a lot of hobbies. It can be as simple or complicated as you want it to be; from all-encompassing kits to full grain brews. From the simplest syrups to the most exotic grains. From everyday stove top pots to mammoth brew pots.
Never be intimidated by the brewing process. Every brew is a learning experience. The fun is in trying!
The biggest recommendation I can give is to thoroughly clean anything that touches the cool wort (beer before it has alcohol) or the beer itself. If it’s still hot, the heat will kill bacteria.
Here the main pieces of equipment. If you have a local brew store in your area, they can help you out.
- 23L Fermenter: a large food-grade pail or, alternatively, a transparent glass or plastic container called a “carboy”
- 23L Bottling Bucket: Same as above. Basically, you need a separate container
- Bucket lid or Airlock: for your bucket or your carboy respectively, to prevent contamination from air-borne yeast
- Siphoning equipment: A “rack” tube (basically a hooked, ridged plastic tube), a vinyl tube (flexible plastic) and a rubber bung to connect them
- Sanitizing supplies: chlorine works for beer because it kills bacteria that favour the ph-level of the wort. Wine can use other cleaners (that supposedly cause less off flavours) because the wine’s ph-level is less hospitable to these bacteria so not all of them need to be killed off. Chlorine can either come in the form of dissolved bleach or powdered diversol from your brew store. You can deal with any lingering chlorine by just thoroughly rinsing it off. Don’t use chlorine on stainless steel since it’ll corrode metal. Heat up any metal pieces instead.
- Bottles, caps, and a bottle caper: I recycle bottles because they’re expensive to buy. Make sure to save non-screw off type bottles and clean them immediately after pouring.
How to Brew Beer in 5 Easy Steps
1. Brewing a sweet tea
You need a sugary liquid for yeast to make an alcoholic beverage.
If you’re using a malt extract, whether a syrupy liquid in a can or the dried variety in powder form, all you need to do is add hot water and make sure the sweet tea is well mixed. Some of the kits suggest adding a bunch of sugar, but be warned that refined sugar will give the beer a cidery taste.
Side note for the budding amateur brewer: If you’re using grains, you need to do a mash whereby the grains are soaked in warm water for grain enzymes to convert the starch into simple sugars. This is tricky. You need to maintain the temperature between 66-71C. Lower than 66 and the starches will not be efficiently converted to sugars. Higher than 71C and the enzymes that convert starches to sugars will be deactivated. Always tend towards the lower end because its between to be slightly inefficient than completely ineffective! You will have to hold this “mash” for about an hour.
2.Brewing a wort
The wort is your sweet tea plus hops.
Hops do three things:
- Act as an anti-bacterial preservative: this is the origin of the India Pale Ale. The British colonials in India wanted beer but it would tend to spoil on the long boat ride from England to India. Hops and high-alcohol content prevented spoilage.
- Add taste through aroma and flavour: The earlier the hops are added to the boiling sweet tea, the more they add to bitterness. The later the hops are added, the more they contribute to the aroma. Typically you boil the wort for an hour with the bittering hops added at the beginning of the boil and the aroma hops in the last 1-5 minutes.
- Add bitterness: Your sweat tea is, well, sweet. Bitterness contrasts with the sweetness to balance out the beer.
Some beer kits come with pre-added hops or a hops oil packet. I find these barely add any hop character at all to the beer. You’re much better off buying hop pellets according to whatever recipe you’ve found. Hops vary so wildly in taste, from tropical fruits to pine trees, from weak to strong, that you’ll really want to follow the hop suggestions of your recipe.
The hour long boil also coagulates proteins that settle to the bottom of your brew pot and prevents a cloudy beer. Whenever you boil, you should watch out for a potential boil over of the liquid over the side of the pot.
In summation, acids in the hops produce bitterness. The longer they boil, the more bitterness is extracted. Hops also have oils that are destroyed by excessive boiling. Different hops have different levels of acid and oils and also different characteristics.
3. Cooling your wort
It’s important to cool down your wort as quickly as possible so you can add your yeast before bacteria and wild yeasts get a chance to take over.
If your wort is small because you’ve been using mainly malt extracts, you can add ice cube, cold water or transfer your pot to the sink and give it an ice bath. Don’t cool the wort too much though. You’re aiming for luke warm, around 16-22C. Above 30C and you risk killing the yeast. Below 10C and you risk the yeast hibernating (unless you’re brewing with lager yeast, which likes the cold).
If you’re using a lot of grains and need a large wort, you’ll need some kind of wort chiller. The most basic wort chiller is wrapped copper tubing that cold water flows through. You can make one or buy one from a brew store.
4. Fermenting the wort into beer
You’ll probably want to prepare a yeast starter the day before brew day.
Add your wort and yeast starter to a sanitized carboy with a tube to blow off excessive hop oils. After the crazy activity of the first few days, replace the tube with an airlock and wait 7-14 days for the fermentation to subside (you’ll see the bubbling on the inside decrease over time). The amount of time depends on how active your yeast behave, which is influenced by the room temperature.
The yeast will convert the sugars into alcohol and carbon dioxide, along with other byproducts. Yeast have been selectively bred for various purposes. Most brewers yeast have been bred to be very neutral tasting and smelling in their byproducts. Other yeast have been bred to maintain the characteristics of a wild yeast though. One of my favourite styles is Belgian, where the yeast give off fruit flavour and smells like banana.
5. Bottling beer
First step, as usual, is sterilizing your equipment. I usually wash the bottles in boiling water to remove dust and bacteria. I then bake the bottles in the oven for 10 minutes at 220F to sanitize further.
Once the “primary” fermentation is done, you have beer. Congratulations! But the beer will be flat at this point because the CO2 escaped through the airlock. You have two ways of re-adding bubbles: forced carbonation or a “secondary” fermentation.
Forced carbonation requires some pricey equipment. You need a CO2 tank to inject gas into the bottles or keg. This is how most breweries and bars carbonate your beer.
Personally, I prefer the secondary fermentation method. The bubbles evolve over time. They start out large and slowly become very fine, like champagne. This method is actually called bière de Champagne or bière brut (raw beer) for that reason.
The secondary method works by adding the correct amount of malt or sugar to your bottling bucket so that each bottle has a tiny amount of new sugar for the remaining yeast to consume and turn into CO2 in the bottles. This also gives you an opportunity to leave most of the yeast and other remaining sediment behind in the carboy and distribute the small amount of yeast throughout the beer.
You can find the right amount of sugar by using an online “priming” calculator. Here’s one I use: http://www.brewersfriend.com/beer-priming-calculator/ The amount varies by style. The English like relatively flat beer whereas the Belgians enjoy a lot of bubbles.
Dissolve the sugar in hot water and pour it into the bottling bucket as the liquid is transferring from the carboy. You can mix the liquid up with a sanitized stir stick.
Make sure not to overdo the priming sugar. I have had bottles explode on me before. Once, I simply moved the bottles from my cold basement to a warmer room and it was enough for the yeast to grow, carbonate and explode the bottles.
Age the beer in a dark, cool area to extend the beer’s shelf life.
I’ll do some future articles on more advanced techniques like grain brewing and checking your beer’s gravity (to calculate the % of alcohol).
What is the gravity?
The hydrometer (the long rod that looks like a glass thermometer) measures the “specific gravity.” You take the hydrometer reading and the temperature of the liquid at different stages. You need a point of reference at the beginning before any fermentation takes place. This is called the original gravity. You can then take other gravities to calculate what amount of alcohol is present at that point in time. There is a formula to make the calculation or you can just use an easy online calculator.
What is fermentation?
Fermentation is the conversion of sugars to alcohol or vinegar (with other byproducts) by yeast and bacterial.
Yeast is a fungus. The world is full of wilds yeasts. Over the centuries, brewers refined brewing yeasts for their desired results.
Bacteria are also everywhere in our environment. Some bacteria create vinegar. Some bacteria create cheese and other diary products. Some bacteria love to eat the malt sugars in your wort.
So long as you thoroughly sanitize all your equipment, the brewers yeast will outcompete any other fungus or bacteria in the environment. Once they eat all the sugar, they’ll hibernate and settle to the bottom.
Why age beer?
Non-spirit alcoholic drinks usually have some sort of parabolic curve where they improve over time (if you’ve seen the movie Sideways, Paul Giamatti talks about his favourite bottle of wine that he’s been keeping for its peak).
With homemade beer, the flavour will often mellow and the bubbles will refine over time (they start out quite large and the head dissipates fairly quickly). Forced injection of gas removes the need for ageing. Guinness, for example, has a frothy head with sinking bubbles because it is injected with nitrous oxide instead of carbon dioxide. Bars that serve Guinness use special taps to achieve this kind of carbonation.
- Minerals only matter for the mash because it influences the conversion of starches to sugars through the pH level. If you’re using malt extract, you’ll usually be fine. Grain-extract brewing will take more attention to mineral composition. The salt ions you would use in brewing are sodium and chloride for sweetness and sulfate for bitterness. But again, this isn’t necessary in the beginning.