How To Make Your Own Beer
Home brewing is a fun hobby that any adult can enjoy. Like many activities, it takes a day to learn and a lifetime to master. However, if you a re a novice, the techniques and terminology of brewing can be so intimidating that you might be reluctant to even start learning. Here is a beginner’s guide to brewing your own beer at home.
First a little history
As every child in school learns, the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, ratified in 1919, made it illegal to manufacture, transport, own, or consume alcohol – the beginning of Prohibition. Even though Prohibition was repealed by the ratification of the 21st Amendment in 1933, the legal status of home brewing stood on shaky ground for several decades. In 1979, however, the federal government made it legal on a federal level for adults over the age of 21 to brew and bottle their own beer, although only for private consumption. As of now, only two states, Alabama and Mississippi, still have laws against home brewing, although they are considered low level enforcement priorities and home brewing is very difficult for police to monitor. Today there are over 750,000 home brewers in the United States alone.
Home brewers can spend as little or as much on their equipment as they like. Some home brewers prefer to buy as little of their equipment as necessary, taking the do-it-yourself philosophy even further by making or salvaging most of their own equipment. Others buy all of it at once in the form of a ready-made kit. The list below gives you a general idea of what you will need to get started.
- A large cooking pot that can hold at least 3 gallons of liquid, but preferably 5-6 gallons
- A 5-6 gallon food-grade fermenter bucket that has a lid with an airlock
- A 5-6 gallon food-grade bottling bucket
- Plastic tubing or other siphoning equipment
- A strainer
- Hydrometer (used to measure alcohol content)
- Bottles (dark bottles that don’t let much light in work best)
- Bottle capper
- Sterilizing solution
A good rule in acquiring equipment is to start simple. Don’t be tempted to buy expensive equipment at first. If you don’t enjoy the activity, you will have wasted money. You can always upgrade your equipment later on.
The basic ingredients of beer are simple: grains, water, yeast, hops. That’s it. The types and amounts of these ingredients vary according to traditions, recipes, and the whims of the individual brewer. Just like with brewing equipment, some brewers prefer to source their ingredients individually, while others choose to buy pre-made ingredient kits. Here are the typical ingredients in a first-time brewing kit.
- Malt extract (this isn’t necessary but cuts down on cooking time and simplifies the process for beginners.)
- Specialty grains (usually malted barley, although sometimes wheat) contained in a grain bag
- Hops (usually sold in pellet form, although fresh hops can be used)
- Brewer’s Yeast (either dry or pitchable liquid yeast)
- Flavor Extracts (optional, depending on the beer)
- Priming Sugar
- Sterile, non-chlorinated water with minimal amounts of minerals (bottled water is best)
As with the equipment, it is advisable to not spend excessive amounts of money on ingredients until you are sure you will continue brewing and you have the necessary experience to make the investment in ingredient quality worthwhile.
A Simple Chemistry Lesson
Before you learn the actual techniques in home brewing, it is a good idea to have a basic understanding of the fermentation process. Without getting into an advanced chemistry lesson, the basic formula looks like this:
Sugar + Yeast = Alcohol + Carbon Dioxide (bubbles)
The general idea in brewing is to cook grains with water for enough time that they release sugars into the water. When the grain residue is removed, and that sugary water is cooled, yeast is added. The yeast eats the sugar and multiply until the sugar supply is exhausted. The natural byproducts that the yeast create in this process are alcohol and carbon dioxide. The alcohol is then stored, aged, and consumed. Humans have been doing this for thousands of years, although it was only in 19th century that Louis Pasteur discovered exactly how this process worked.
Basic Recipe for Beer
The most important thing to do before brewing is first to organize all the necessary equipment and ingredients beforehand. This will cut down the time and frustration involved. Secondly, sterilize everything and anything you will use in the process. If you don’t sterilize your equipment, unwanted bacteria may make their way into the beer, competing with the yeast for food sources and creating unwanted smells and flavors in the beer. Many batches of beer has been ruined by unwanted bacteria. Once the equipment is sterilized and the ingredients organized, here are the steps necessary to make a good quality beer at home.
1) Fill your cooking pot with at least 2 gallons of liquid. This is the minimum amount of water needed, but it’s recommended that you fill the pot with as much water as it can hold without the water spilling over once it begins to boil. Bring the water to a boil.
2) Add the grain bag and/or malt extract to the boiling water. The malt extract is condensed liquid sugar from precooked grains; it very sticky so be careful. Make sure to stir the pot often to ensure the extract isn’t scorching on the bottom. Stir the grain bag and extract in the water frequently and let it boil for 15-20 minutes. The grains will release their sugars into the water to create what is called wort.
3) Add the hops to the wort and boil for another 30 to 60 minutes, depending on the strength and freshness of the hops. Some brewers prefer to split their hops and add a first batch with the grains and then add another batch later towards the end of the boiling period. It’s really up to you. Either way, the hops will floral favors and bitterness to balance the sweetness of the wort.
4) Remove the wort from the heat and let it cool. Be sure to keep the pot covered with a lid to keep out bacteria. As the wort cools, it’s more susceptible to bacteria growth, so it’s important to cool the wort down as quickly as possible. Many brewers use a cool ice bath to put the pot in. However, if you boiled less than 5 gallons of liquid, you can make up the remainder of liquid with cold water to cool down the wort. Or, combine both strategies to cool the wort even faster.
5) Use a thermometer to confirm that the wort has cooled down to 75 degrees Fahrenheit or below. If the wort is too hot (80 degrees+) the yeast will die. Don’t let it cool too much (less than 65 degrees) or the yeast will basically go to “sleep” and the fermentation process won’t start correctly. Pour the wort into the fermentation bucket and then add the yeast to the wort.
6) Aerate the wort by shaking the bucket for 1-2 minutes. This will mix in oxygen, which the yeast need to reproduce. Later on, they don’t need oxygen and will ferment anaerobically (without oxygen). Never shake or disturb the bucket while it’s fermenting.
7) Use the hydrometer to take an initial gravity reading, which will be used later to determine the alcohol content.
8) Fill the airlock halfway with sterile water and secure it to the bucket lid. Once fermentation starts, the carbon dioxide that the yeast produce will build up and need a place to escape. The airlock keeps the environment closed to bacteria but allows gas to bubble into the sterile water.
9) Close the lid tightly onto the bucket and put it in a dark, cool place. An ideal temperature is between 60 and 72 degrees. Closets, basements, and garages make excellent locations.
10) After 48 hours, the airlock should be bubbling noticeably. If not, the yeast are most likely dead or the bucket has a breach somewhere, letting air and bacteria in and out.
11) After 14 days of fermentation, the air lock should be bubbling only every minute or two, which means fermentation has slowed down to a near stop.
12) Use the plastic tubes and siphoning equipment to transfer the fermented wort (now beer) to the bottling bucket. Use the strainer to separate grain and yeast residue from the beer. Leave the last few inches of beer and sediment on the bottom of the fermenting bucket; it’s unsuitable for bottling.
13) If you have any flavor extracts to add, mix it into the bottling bucket now and stir gently. Dissolve the priming sugar in 1-2 cups water and add it to the beer. The yeast will begin to feed on this sugar while in the sealed bottles, which causes further fermentation. Since the bottles will be sealed, the carbon dioxide has nowhere to go; this carbonates the beer. Use the hydrometer to take a final gravity reading. Compare the reading to the initial one taken to determine the alcohol content of the beer.
14) Use the plastic tubes and siphoning equipment to transfer the beer into the bottles, which must be sterilized. You can use a funnel, but many brewing kits have bottling wands which make this process easier. Leave some room (1/2 to 1 inch) of air at the top of the bottle. Be careful – this step can get quite messy.
15) Put a cap on each bottle and wait 10 minutes for the carbon dioxide to push any remaining oxygen out of the beer bottle. Use the bottle capper to crimp the bottle caps onto the bottle.
16) Store the bottles of beer in a cool, dark place for another 1-2 weeks. Chill the beer in a refrigerator until it’s ready to drink. Enjoy!